Dear Crucial Skills,
I am in a real dilemma. My father has just turned 59 and he is showing signs of dementia. I do not know how to approach him. I am worried I will make things worse for him by bringing his attention to his health, even though I know he must be aware of his memory loss because it is so obvious. Because I have found it difficult to control my feelings and deal with the emotional pain when thinking about my father, I am worried about becoming emotional and upset when we do eventually discuss it. I want him to know more than anything that I love him dearly and will always be there for him.
Dear Desperate Daughter,
Your father is lucky to have a daughter like you. He’s lucky that you love him enough to feel pain about his declining health, but also to intervene when it’s in his best interest. I hope my children will do the same.
I have a couple of thoughts for you about this situation. The first is a reality check about crucial conversations. The second is some important advice about how to succeed in this absolutely crucial conversation.
The reality check is this: being skilled at crucial conversations does not mean that a) they are easy, or b) they always lead to the outcomes you want. This conversation may well be difficult. It involves both you and your father coming to accept a reality that you may not like. He may want to deny or minimize the issue, and you may be so worried about rupturing your relationship that you’ll be tempted to let him.
The good news is that being skilled at crucial conversations helps you minimize the pain. It helps ensure that the tone and spirit of the conversation is as healthy as it can be, and that your chance of influencing the other person is as great as possible. In my own view, your current crucial conversation is all the more important because as much as anything it is a test of your love for your father. It is a measure of whether your motive in your relationship with him is more about serving his best interests or maintaining his positive feelings for you. I have an abiding belief that if it’s the former, you can find a way to have the latter, too. But if it’s the latter, you surrender the former in the bargain.
Now for the advice.
There are two things I’d advise you to keep in mind in this conversation. Both of these are predictors of your influence and success in the conversation.
1. You are more likely to succeed if you give up the need to succeed. Unless your father is in immediate physical danger, your goal in this conversation is not to convince him that you are right, but to open the topic for discussion. In fact, I’d suggest your goal not be to come to agreement about his current status as much as to come to agreement that something is happening and that you should agree to criteria for taking steps in the future. In other words, after opening the discussion, you might say, “Dad, given that your health is being affected, and that others are more likely to be aware of how bad it is than you are, can we talk about what signs we’ll watch for that indicate you need to change your living situation?” If this discussion is held before things are too acute, you may be able to keep an open dialogue going about where you are in the process. Unless things are dangerous now, focus less on how things are than on when things will need to change. Don’t worry about convincing him of your current view–just involve him in discussing scenarios.
2. Lead with facts, not stories. Your father may not agree with your story (“your memory is declining”). Your success in being persuasive depends upon your ability to share specific observations you’ve made–particularly those he may recognize. Share a series of these to help him see that it is a pattern, or he’s likely to write off the one or two you can recollect.
3. Generously express your love and discomfort while candidly expressing your concerns. As you know from reading “Crucial Conversations,” the predictor of success here is how safe your father feels with you. He’ll need to feel particularly safe when you’re talking about him adapting to a whole different lifestyle and reality. When he seems upset or worried or even defensive, step out of the content and hug and kiss him–or whatever is the way you two express affection for each other. Then collect yourself and return to the content when he’s ready. If needed, you may even want to break this up over time with agreed upon breaks in the conversation.
My thoughts and prayers are with you. It’s at times like this that we have a chance to return the love our parents gave us when we were less able. It’s the most honorable thing we can do. And your crucial conversation will be one of your first expressions of love and honor in this new phase of your relationship.