How do I approach a difficult family conversation?

I know a family who is trying to build a collective effort in caring for one of their family members, an elderly person suffering from dementia. As the elderly person is unmarried and childless, it is one of her nephews who is trying to organise an extended family meeting to discuss caregiving plans for her, which involves issues such as her place of accommodation, legal and financial implications etc. And so, his question was, how can he pull off a difficult family conversation like this?

Here are my suggestions.

  1. Set a meeting agenda. Regardless of whether your relationship is close or conflictual, calling a meeting and setting an agenda conveys a more ‘business-like’ tone that can help to focus the discussion. Depending on how many items are on the agenda, make sure to give it sufficient time. State the estimated length of time needed for the meeting, perhaps ending it with a group lunch/dinner, to make sure that people do not start to leave the meeting before it concludes.
  2. A group meeting needs a facilitator/moderator (makes sense that it is usually the person who calls for the meeting). Besides the duty mentioned in point 1 above, he/she should also lay clear some ground rules before the meeting starts. Some common ground rules are: not interrupting when someone is speaking, no hurtful/disrespectful language, encourage sharing of one’s feelings and views without assigning blame to others (using statements starting with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’). When emotions start to run high, the moderator may also call for a well-timed toilet break for all or refill coffee/tea/water to defuse the tension.
  3. On the other hand, if you have members who tend to beat around the bush, sugar coating everything they say, the moderator can paraphrase on their behalf, to convey their message in a direct (but non-hurtful) manner. For e.g., if someone says, “I am almost 77, my wife is getting on 75. I am also wondering, either of us can be gone anytime now, my strength is not even a quarter of what it used to be… remember I used to be able to run a marathon in my younger days? The younger ones now, you have youth and energy on your side, your aunt would love to spend more time with you all…” In response, the moderator might say something like this, “So what you are saying is, you have doubts over your ability to care for Aunt ___ because you are getting older and weaker, and that younger family members should be able to do more, am I correct?”
  4. Be well-prepared in terms of information sharing. If for example, the meeting involves making a decision on how to split the cost of hiring a FDW (a domestic helper), then it makes sense to find out beforehand how much is the going salary for a FDW, the extra in household expenses to provide for her living needs, the government levy, insurance and medical expenses, any financial subsidies that are applicable etc.
  5. At the end of any meeting, it is always useful to wrap up/summarise the main points and coming up with a ‘to-do’ checklist together. This would help to avoid a ‘he says, she says’ scenario later on, where members genuinely (or not) forget their consent/commitments that had been made in the meeting.

In general, the above tips are good to observe in most meetings, whether in the workplace or in the family. I have used the word ‘meeting’ as a substitute for ‘conversation’ so far, as I do favour setting a more ‘business-like’ tone to steer difficult conversations. However, do be aware that a meeting is in essence, more formal than a conversation. If there is no real urgency in decision-making and you only want to get a conversation going, you can afford to relax on points 4 and 5. Instead, you can focus on appreciating the diversity of everyone’s views, and if anyone has something different to say, seek to understand the rationale for that. Remember, a conversation can also be ongoing over a period of time. So you may wish to wrap up the session with something like this, “Hopefully, we have all learnt something new and interesting from one another today. We may or may not agree with everything we have heard and that is OK. Our views may change with time as well. Perhaps by the next time we meet, we would all have a better idea of this matter ________.”

In some cases, maybe none of the above works or even make sense. For e.g., your family situation is unusually complex and conflictual, there is no one who can facilitate/moderate, then you may wish to consider the service of a family therapist who can support you in this.

Difficulty level: Moderate to high

Suitable for: Adults

Published by eygohcounselling

Eiling offers affordable and professional counselling service for children, adolescents and adults on issues related to loss and grief, trauma, caregiving stress, complex family situations and conflicts etc. Both home-based and centre-based service are available. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from National University of Singapore, as well as a Masters of Social Sciences (MSocSc) in Counselling in Hong Kong, where she graduated with Distinction. Her training at the Hospice and Bereavement Division of the S.K.H. Holy Carpenter Church District Elderly Community Centre had given her the chance to work with clients ranging from 9 yrs old to 87 yrs old. Eiling is a member of EMDR Singapore and a member of Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC).

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