A couple of weeks ago, we had a podcast that outlined the elements of an engaging conversation and the importance of being in it with a creative mindset. “That’s great”, you ask, “but how do I start?”
As an End of Life Doula, following are some surefire things I lean on to get difficult conversations started.
First, I love a well-crafted question. A well-crafted question is one that invites someone into exploration of their own experience around a topic or theme, rather than leaving them to answer breezily from the surface. These questions are open-ended, meaning they can’t be answered using “yes” or “no”. For example, in wanting to ask a parent about how they want their body tended after they die, you might start by asking specific questions about their experience with death growing up. Instead of asking, “Do you want to be buried or cremated?” you could ask, “When you were growing up, how were bodies handled after a person died?” A well-crafted question often elicits a story, the sharing of experience. And often these experiences are the things that shape our beliefs and wishes now.
Next, consider the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking. One of the key components of having hard conversations is not rushing to fill the silence. Often, when we’re reflecting on what feels emotional, scary, and hard to put words around, we need space to find the right way to say it out loud. We are often balancing our fear of judgment, emotion around giving voice to things we normally keep to ourselves, and worry about how what we share will be received – if the person we’re talking with will disagree, or even be hurt by what we say. So, when embarking on conversations about mortality, about wishes at end of life, or anything that feels particularly charged or strained, consider wisdom from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Ask your well-crafted question, and then listen.
Then, let intuition be your guide. Wherever the person we’re talking to might go with the question we’ve asked, we need to be willing to ask the next question that will invite them deeper. This can feel risky sometimes, especially when there is a lot of emotion involved, which is why we want to get out of our head and into our heart as we receive what is being shared. So, rather than listening with the next question you want to ask in mind either because you have an agenda, or because you think you already know what the person is going to say (by the way, we do this ALL the time!), listen within yourself for the next question and give it time to form from a place of curiosity, compassion, and wisdom before asking. This pacing, this space (refer to WAIT, above), is what let’s you know you’re listening with your heart.
In the example of asking a parent about how they want their body tended after they die, say they share that they once saw their grandparent laid out on the dining room table after they died and it was terrifying. Instead of trying to direct the conversation past that into matters of cremation and burial, see what comes up for you to ask. Maybe, “That does sound terrifying! What did you do?” Or, “How did that experience affect your ideas about death as you got older?” Or simply, “Then what happened?” These questions invite a person to go deeper into their experience. This is where the gold is. Not only will you learn more about what they may want in the moment, it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation for how they got there. This level of connection is where easier access to difficult conversations is born.
As a matter of practice, think of a hard conversation you’ve been meaning to have with someone close to you. What well-crafted, open-ended question might get your conversation started? We’d love to hear!
On the main page of our website www.endinmindproject.org we have a new feature where you can share your thoughts on this and other content, and let us know how it’s going. We would love to compile a list of good conversation starters from you, our community, and share it on the website to support all of us in engaging more deeply about the things that matter most.