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Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: How do we get to agreement?

Most adult children want to be supportive of their older parents as they decide what they want as they age. Should they stay in their own home? Should they live with a family member? Should they move to a retirement residence? There is much to consider about this next chapter of life, and the significance of these decisions can contribute to family members having strong opinions about what is best—so much so, adult children may find themselves at odds with each other, or with their parents. Worse, our aging loved one may not feel they are being listened to or respected.

It is possible to have more effective and harmonious conversations, even when the stakes are high. One approach that can reduce tension, and lead to decisions that everyone can live with, was developed by Ury and Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project. It considers everyone’s “interests” that are behind their stated “positions.”

When we share our opinions about what we believe is right or best in a situation, we are expressing our “position.”  Unfortunately, our position may conflict with the positions of other family members. For example, when an aging parent talks with his adult children about the next stage of his life, he may state very strongly that he absolutely doesn’t want to leave the home he has been living in. His adult children may have a very different position, believing he needs to move from his home. At the position level, there is little room for a harmonious solution; instead one person’s position usually wins out and leaves a trail of hurt and frustrated feelings.

“Interests” are the reasons that people hold their position. It is the “why” of the position. Without prompting, people rarely step back and think about why they feel so strongly about a position. Instead they dig in their heels and defend their position. Yet if our goal is to get to harmonious solutions, it is important that we shift conversations from positions to interests, because that is where creative solutions emerge.

In the case of one of my clients and his adult children, when they listened to his interests they learned that he wasn’t resistant to moving because he didn’t want to let go of his house, but because he wanted to pass money onto them and was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do so if he moved into a retirement residence. That reveals that his main interest was to take care of his children. However, another interest that was uncovered was that he wanted to maintain his privacy, and he wasn’t sure he could do that in a retirement community.

Meanwhile, his adult children held the position he should move because they knew he was having trouble keeping up the house and cooking for himself. They saw he was lonely and wanted him to have more of a social life. Their interests included helping their dad have an easier time with meals and cleaning, as well as having more people around for company. In addition, they were also feeling a bit burned out from trying to support their dad at home. So another one of their interests was to have a bit more freedom back in their lives.

When they all stopped focusing on defending their positions and instead talked about their interests, the discussion completely shifted. The kids were able to tell their dad that retirement living wouldn’t just make his life better, but help them too. They explained they were spending a lot of time worrying about him and trying to provide support in the midst of taking care of their own families. If their father was living in a retirement residence, they felt they would have much more peace of mind. Instead of their visits being focused on helping him with chores, their visits could be more social. They appreciated hearing that he wanted to leave them money, but they wanted him to use his money for his care. And they assured him that his happiness and safety was more important to them than a large inheritance.

After hearing this, the father realized it had never occurred to him that his moving into a retirement residence could be so positive for his children as well as him. He agreed to his daughter setting up a short term stay for him so he could experience what it’s like to live in a residence, and was surprised to find the lifestyle suited him well, including a balance of private time and social opportunities.

The next time you find yourself holding tightly to a position, try stepping back and focusing on interests rather than positions, and finding mutual interests. The goal is not just to get to a decision, but to more harmoniously reach decisions that everyone can live with.

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.