What Are You Talking About?

How to start conversations that connect.

It’s a classic case of communication frustration.

You’re trying to talk with mom about why she needs to use Instacart to do her grocery shopping. But she only gets more annoyed every time she gives you another reason why that’s not an option. 

What’s going on here?

Maybe you and mom are trying to have two different types of conversations at the same time.

It’s a common problem, says journalist Charles Duhigg, author of Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. “Conflict often happens because we’re not aware that we’re having different conversations.”

Researchers, he says, group conversations into three big buckets:

  • Practical conversations about planning and making decisions.
  • Emotional conversations about how we feel; and
  • Social conversations about our identity and how we fit into the world.

We can shift between all three types of conversations in the same discussion. But “if I’m having an emotional conversation and [you’re] trying to talk about practicalities,” says Duhigg, “we’re going to feel like we don’t connect… We’re going to both walk away frustrated.”

What You Can Do

Want to avoid getting shut down when you need to talk to mom or dad about an uncomfortable topic? Here are a few tips to help you start a conversation that connects:

Don’t launch into a logical list of reasons why your solution makes sense. Telling mom what to do is a surefire way to trigger resistance and resentment by threatening her independence and identity.

Instead, ask her a question that invites her to share her feelings and perspective. 

For example: If your stressed-out self wants to scream: “Mom, I can’t keep doing your grocery shopping! You need to sign up for Instacart!”…

What your caring, connecting self needs to ask is: “Mom, how would you feel if we tried using a grocery shopping and delivery service?” 

Prove that you are listening. Everyone wants to know their thoughts and feelings are heard and understood. Validation is essential, especially if dad thinks you’re more interested in making your point than listening to his. 

Duhigg recommends a communication tactic called looping for understanding:

“It’s really, really straightforward. Listen to what someone says. Ask them questions to clarify. Tell them in your own words what you just heard them say. And ask if you got it right.”

Looping for understanding is powerful because it does more than show you are listening carefully. The deeper message is you want to connect, a signal that also helps create empathy for your concerns.

Connect with an emotional conversation before shifting to a practical one. Make the transition easier by asking a question that invites collaboration.

For example: “What do you think we should do about it?” or “What would you tell a friend who asked you for advice about this?”

Then lean in. Listen. And loop for understanding.

Learning how to communicate with an older parent takes practice and patience. And the sooner you start strengthening that connection, the better. You’re both going to need it for the road ahead.

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Thanks for caring,

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