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[IP] Excerpt of "Difficult Conversations" by Stone, Patton, Heen
Listening Transforms the Conversation
A year ago, Greta's mother learned she had diabetes and was ordered to follow
a strict regimen of medication, diet, and exercise. Greta is concerned that
her mother is not following the regimen, but Greta has had little success
encouraging her mother to do so. A typical conversation between them goes
GRETA: Mom, you need to stay on the exercise plan. I worry that you don't
understand how important it is.
Mom: Greta, please stop hounding me about this. You don't understand. I'm
doing the best I can.
GRETA: Mom, I do understand. I know that exercising can be
difficult, but I w ant you to stay well. I want you to be around
for your grandchildren.
Mom: Greta, I really don't like these conversations. It's all very hard for
me, the diet, the exercise.
GRETA: I know it's hard. Exercising is no fun, but the thing is, after a week
or two, it gets easier, and you start to look forward to it. We can find you
some sort of activity that you'll really enjoy.
Mom: [choked up] You don't realize .... It's very stressful. I'm just not
going to talk about it anymore. That's all there is to it!
Not surprisingly, these conversations leave Greta feeling frustrated,
powerless, and deeply sad. Greta wonders how she might be more assertive, how
she can persuade her mother to change.
But assertiveness isn't Greta's problem. What's missing from her stance is
curiosity. In a follow-up conversation, Greta shifts her goal from persuasion
to learning. To do this she limits herself to listening, asking questions,
and acknowledging her mother's feelings:
GRETA: I know you don't like talking about your diabetes and exercising.
Mom: I really don't. It's very upsetting to me.
GRETA: When you say it's upsetting, what do you mean? In what ways?
Mom: Greta, the whole thing! Do you think it's fun for me?
GRETA: No, Mom, I know it's really hard. I just don't know much about what
you think about It, what it means to you, what you feel about it.
Mom: I'll tell you, if your father were alive, it would be different. He was
so sweet when I would get sick. Having to follow all these complicated rules,
that's what he would have been good at. He would have taken care of the whole
thing. Being sick, it just makes me miss him so much.
GRETA: It sounds like you've been feeling really lonely without Dad.
Mom: I have friends, and you've been wonderful, but it's not the same as
having your father here to help. I suppose I really do feel lonely, but I
hate to talk about that. I don't want to be a burden on you kids.
GRETA: You feel like if you tell us you're lonely, it will be a burden?
Mom: I just don't want you to have to go through what my mother went through.
You know her mother died of diabetes.
GRETA: I didn't know. Wow.
Mom: It's scary to be told you have what your grandmother died of It's hard
for me to accept. I know the medications are better now, which is why I
should be following all those rules, but if I follow all those rules, it just
makes me feel like some sick old lady.
GRETA: So keeping to the regimen would feel like accepting something that you
don't really totally accept yet?
Mom: It's irrational. I'm not saying it's not. [choked up] It's just very
frightening and overwhelming.
GRETA: I know it is, Mom.
Mom: I'll tell you something else. I don't even understand what I'm supposed
to be doing. The eating, the exercise. If you do one, it affects the other,
and you have to keep track. It's
complicated, and the doctor isn't terribly helpful in explaining it. I don't
know where to begin. Your father would know.
GRETA: Maybe that's something I could help you with.
Mom: Greta, I don't want to be a burden.
GRETA: I want to help. It would actually make me feel better. Not so
Mom: If you could, that would take a big load off my mind....
Greta was astonished and delighted at how much better her conversations
became after she began truly listening to her mother. She came to see the
issues from her mother's point of view, how much deeper they ran than she
suspected, and how she might be able to help her mother in ways that her
mother wanted to be helped. This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of
listening: learning about the other person.
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