I was recently nominated by my brothers to tell my 90-year-old father that it was time to stop driving. The night before the discussion day I lay in bed thinking about what I was going to say. Should I lead with his safety, or should I tell him we love him first? At what point should I tell him all of us kids are willing to take him anywhere he needs to go, and when to tell him about all the delivery options available now? Would he even be able to use smart phone delivery options? All these questions were swimming in my head as I lay there. But then what came to me is that the best thing I could do for my father was to listen. What I told him, was much less important than what he felt and what he would be going through.
I wanted to be totally present with him while we discussed this difficult topic and to show up with kindness, love, and empathy. To that end, I rested well, knowing that I did not have to prepare a perfect speech. That morning I prepared myself with cardio and 15 minutes of yoga poses with a focus on my breathing so that I was centered and in tune with my body. Being aligned with my own body prepares me to be present and able to pay attention to the other person. This preparation allowed me to maintain my focus through the day of arranging lunch for us all before the discussion, and corralling family. Being hungry can make you more irritable and less able to handle conflict. By ensuring his tummy was full, I was also ensuring I had the best version of my dad possible.
After lunch, I suggested we sit in the more comfortable family room. From this room, he can see the spot where his truck was normally parked, and the subject of driving would come up easily. We discussed the recent driving event that led us siblings to this decision, and I gently told my father that we are not bringing his truck back to the house. He made threats, he raised his voice, and he told me he was not happy about it. I was able to stay calm and ask questions so he could tell me what driving meant to him. He continued to bring up certain items that he had to go buy, and I was able to hear that he wanted his autonomy. He told me about places he wanted to be able to go, and I could hear that his freedom was important. We talked about how he values his independence. To show him love and kindness I empathized with him on the loss of his freedom, autonomy, and independence. I told him the situation stinks, and I understand why he is angry. He eventually calmed down. We were able to talk about other things and I left on a good note. I knew better than to think that this issue was completely settled, but I was pleased the seed had been planted successfully that day and I showed up as I intended.
To prepare yourself for a difficult conversation take these steps:
1. Think about the physical space available and where would be best to have this conversation. Think about if it would be best to be standing, sitting, in the car, at their house, your house, a neutral place, or on the phone instead of in person.
2. List the talking points that need to be covered and define how you want to come across during the discussion. My talking points were simple, so I did not have to spend much time crafting the message. However, if you have a more involved discussion, a conflict coach can help you craft your message and provide feedback on the delivery so that you are showing up as you intend.
3. Ensure you both have eaten recently. Try to plan the difficult conversation after a meal when you both are not distracted by hunger.
4. Do whatever is necessary to be fully present and non-reactionary. For me that means to get a good night sleep, to hydrate, and to practice some form of meditation/yoga/centering to get me out of my head and aware of my body.
I live far away from my father. My brothers are local and handle the day-to-day aspects of my father’s care. I was pleased that I was able to contribute and do this difficult thing for my brothers; and to be there, with, and for, my father and tell him this life-changing news. If you must participate in a difficult conversation, have your talking points ready, put thought into the setting, schedule it for after a meal, and remember the most important thing is to listen and be present.
This is by no means the first time I’ve encouraged readers to plumb the depths of their hidden biases with the help of Project Implicit and its Implicit Association Test...By Diane J. Levin