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This is part two of a three part blog about the art of conversation.

If you haven’t read my first post, you might want to–click here.

The art of conversation starts with what you bring to the table.

The best conversationalists have a great sense of emotional intelligence, are easy, approachable, mix humor and poignancy, and can slide from subject to subject at a blink. It’s got a lot to do with a deep sense of confidence. There’s nothing sexier, more alluring, more satisfying than to be with someone who “sits deep in their own saddle.”

What the heck does that mean, you ask?

My middle daughter used to ride horses–and studied the art of dressage.

They call it horse ballet. It’s formal, in many ways, and when people compete at dressage, it’s very fancy–they dress in coat and tails–and a top hat. My daughter’s instructor used to tell my daughter to sit deep in the saddle (this is typically true for all types of horseback riding)–which meant literally to tilt her hips back and down, sink her heels as far down as possible, and plant herself in the saddle. I adopted this metaphor for my own life.

For me, it means to recenter myself, be present, own my own worth and where I am in life so I won’t get “bounced off” at every little bump in the road. 

Side note: Personal confidence has nothing to do with cockiness. Cockiness is a cheap knock-off. Confidence is elegant, generous, patient, and aware. A confident person can’t be easily threatened so they’re not coming from a fear based position. So giving a compliment is genuine, and letting someone else shine is a pleasure and doesn’t take away from their own worth. If you are privileged to be in a conversation with someone like that, then you leave feeling better about yourself–and you don’t even know why.

What’s this got to do with caregiving?

Everything.

When any of us feel our own worth, we attract goodness, and people treat us better because we exude grace and respect–for ourselves and others. My mother had this–she felt her own sense of worth that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s couldn’t take from her.

How do you become a good conversationalist?

  • Take some slow, deep breaths before you enter a room or situation
  • Envision who you will be talking to
  • See the two of you at ease–engaged in a natural conversation
  • If it’s an important conversation, plan out 2-3 points–no more
  • Really listen. Pay attention to what they repeat, to their body language, to the way their face changes at certain thoughts
  • Don’t play psychologist–no one likes to be analyzed
  • If it’s a casual conversation–a dinner, get together with friends, then relax and be yourself. Don’t worry about every little word. Let others talk, but a little over-talking-interrupting is normal when things really get rolling. Forget how you look or trying to sound deep or witty and just trust your natural instincts.
  • Don’t play the “one up” game–that’s when they tell  story about being st or hurt–and then you “one up” them by telling a story about something worse that happened to you
  • Ask open ended questions–ones that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”

But what about those difficult conversations–the one you need to have with your loved one?

Caregivers and family members have to eventually ask their loved ones some tough questions:

  • I think it’s time for us to plan for the time when you’ll no longer drive. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t still live at home or enjoy your same activities, but can we talk about some alternative transportation?
  • How do you feel about a living will? Do you know what that is? If not, I can explain it to you.
  • Have you thought about what you’ll do if you can’t continue to live in your own home? Have you made plans?
  • You remember we went to the doctor’s last week, and the doctor said you have Alzheimer’s. Have you thought about that? Do you have questions? I’d like to talk about how best to help care for you…
  • How do you feel about hospice? When the time comes, would you rather stay at home and have hospice here–or at a hospital?
  • Have you thought about your memorial service? I know it’s uncomfortable, but I’d like your thoughts–how you’d like to be remembered.

These are difficult conversations, and perhaps the most difficult part is just getting started. Think about what scares you the most. Are you afraid they’ll get mad? Shut down? Refuse to ever talk about it again? That you’ll hurt their feelings?

All that might be true, but some conversations need to take place regardless of how someone will take it.

You have to risk the fight, the pouting, the temper tantrum, the silent treatment that may come. If they get mad, let them. A few days later, ask again. Keep asking. Just act oblivious to the fact that they get upset. Contrary to popular belief, you will not die from being uncomfortable.

In the end, it’s better to deal with the few minutes, hours, days of hurt than to have to make decisions for someone else–and then feel guilt and resentment and forever wonder if you did the right thing.

This might help kick-start a difficult conversation:

I’ve actually done this–if you know you have an uncomfortable/difficult conversation coming up–do a dry run. The next time you get in your car, talk out loud and practice your conversation.

Say it all verbatim–exactly as you would if they were in the car with you. You can even add in their part–play out different scenarios–one where they argue with you, whine, cry, pitch a fit…and one where they listen to you, hesitate, but don’t completely discount what you’re trying to say.

Do this dry run several times until you get used to your own words. You need to hear yourself say it. You need the practice–and it really helps!

Get used to talking–about everything. It’s okay to have differing views. It doesn’t mean you can’t love each other–even democrats and republicans have been known to get along–under the same roof.

The art of conversation can benefit your life in so many ways.

Nothing feels better than to leave someone’s house or restaurant after having a good talk–laughter, tears, banter, stories, memories…this is what binds us to those we love.

My next blog post will focus on the hardest of all conversations–communicating with our loved ones when they have Alzheimer’s or dementia or Lewy Body, or a brain injury, or having that last conversation with those we love in their final hours.

I’m Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, available on Amazon. I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

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I’m not much for regrets. I don’t think we as individuals, family members, or caregivers should even strive to perfect. Our faults and foibles define us and teach us. Besides, have you ever been around someone who was trying too hard? It’s exhausting and annoying. I love the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi–the beauty found in imperfection.

I found this definition at Nobel Harbor, written by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect. This essay on Wabi Sabi so touched me that I thought I’d share it–it’s how I strive to live my life.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

But I do wish I had known back then what I know now.

In regard to caring for my mother, I tell myself I was busy. There was never enough of “me” to go around. I had to eek out my time and love in tiny drops just to give everybody a piece. That was true, and asking a caregiver to stop spinning in a maddening circle is asking them to do the impossible.

The  busy-ness (observation–busy-nessand business is not necessarily the same), franticness, never stop breakneck speed is a protective stance.

I had a the privilege of being a real part of my mother’s life the last 15 years she was on earth. Daddy had died, and I was her closest relative. Although I’m adopted, that doesn’t change anything in terms of family dynamics–they were my parents, and I was their daughter. If anything, adoption added a little extra cement to our bond. 

I spent hours and hours with my mother–driving her to doctor appointments, to the grocery store, and to the million errands she could concoct just to get out of the house. And in the end, my mother lived with my family and me–she became a part of the O’Dell household complete with two dogs, two cats, three teenagers, my husband and myself. Most of the time she didn’t think about being a part of anything–by then, life, she believed, evolved around her. It was my job to incorporate her, create balance to my home, and not let anyone yell “fire” and hog all the time and attention away from the delicate harmony of our home.

So there I was, always on the go. Always avoiding. Always, even when sitting perfectly still on the outside, whizzing around in my soul like a gyro-top. It was fueled by panic, fear, sorrow, loss, and the underlying thought, “I can’t do this–be responsible for my mother’s life, for my children–I can’t do all this.”

But now I know.

What’s more important than making every doctor’s appointment, than reading about Alzheimer’s, then cutting pill after pill, then the calls to Medicare and home health aides was this:

What my mother (and my husband, children, and friends) needed from me more than anything–was a good conversation.

There isn’t anything in the world as loving and respectful as someone who will sit with you, look you in the eye, listen to what you have to say–and contribute to the conversation. The easy banter of thoughts, hopes, fears, and chit-chat of life is deeply satisfying.

My mother didn’t move into my home just to have a list of needs met every day. Anyone could do that. On some level she was hoping we’d have a few minutes–to simply be. Not to agree with one another, not to be little clones spouting off the same agendas, but to sit as bookends, side-by-side observing life.

That’s what my mother needed. What I needed. I couldn’t do much to speed up or postpone death. We can’t change much about life in the big scheme of things–but what is within our capabilities is how we interact with one another. We can choose to create a time and space for real connection to happen. It can’t be forced or cajoled.

Having one genuine moment of understanding–a said or unsaid conversation is rare and most precious.

I remember a conversation my mother and I had when I was about eleven years old. We were in the car outside of church waiting for Daddy to get out of an elder meeting. Something big was going down–there were rumors that our pastor had had an affair. Even the kids knew about it. I was just old enough to know what that meant–and young enough to think that life was black–or white–nothing in between.

I was in the back seat, mother was in the front, filing her nails, as usual. We both stopped what we were doing and looked at the church.

“Why doesn’t his wife just leave him and the church just fire him.” I said, angry that this pastor I had looked up to had betrayed me as well.

“It’s not that easy, honey.”

That’s all Mother said. I laid my head on the ledge of the front seat, and she continued to look at the building in front of us, at the steeple that strained into a blue sky.

I learned a lot that day–by all that she didn’t say.

We’d have many conversations over the next almost 40 years. Many times we’d talk at each other, alienate each other, blast each other–but every once in a while, there would be that cord that stretched from her to me and back to her again.

I’ll spend the next few posts exploring what makes a good conversation, how to talk to someone we love–someone who is ill or aged, or someone we have issues with–thorns that make us wince at the thought of a meaningful conversation. I’ll write about how to talk–or be with someone you love who no longer can speak, or comprehend who you are.

There are lots of great sites on the Internet about families, caregiving, Alzheimer’s, elder-careparentsand children–but nothing is more important than quieting your thoughts, unwinding the pent-up soul, and taking a few moments to sit quietly–and talk.

~Carol O’Dell

I hope you’ll check out my book, Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir–on sale at Amazon, other online e-tailers, and in most bookstores.

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