We all have our honored elders ; people in our lives that we love, who have guided us and cherished watching us grow, that are now old enough that their capacities are starting to diminish. All too often, however, our knowledge of (or worse, our assumptions about) that diminishment make it easy for us to ‘tune out’ the voices of wisdom in our lives.
After all, what could they understand about the modern struggle when they didn’t even have TV in their homes until they were almost thirty?
As it turns out, quite a bit; the elderly possess not only faculties younger people tend to grossly underestimate, but in fact they have faculties younger people just don’t have at all. Primary among these is the ability (through experience) to more accurately assess long-term risks and rewards.
So how do you turn off your assumptions, get past the frenetic pace of your own thoughts, and really listen to your honored elders? It is a skill, but one you can learn. Start with these seven steps:
This is perhaps the single hardest step. Almost everything about adult life tells us we need to constantly be moving toward the next thing; thinking about what is happening next and what we can do about it. But before you can listen at an elder’s pace, you need to stop; stop moving, stop worrying, and stop planning what you’re going to say and do next.
Listen and Rephrase
Listen to what your honored elder is saying, consider it for a moment, and tell them in your own words what you think they just said. You do not have to be formal, just saying “Oh, so (paraphrased idea)?” works just fine. Then, if they indicate they understood you correctly, it is time to…
Open Up and Share
Tell them how their words made you think and feel, even if you did not agree with them. For example, because of your differences in life experience, they may have a far different take on politics or past events. That is okay, you can disagree with them gracefully and without being confrontational.
Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues
Research shows between 60% and 90% of all communication is nonverbal. Watch your honored elder’s body language; look for loss of eye contact, shuffling of legs, folded arms, and other signs that you have either lost their interest or possibly offended them. These things happen, and it is not the end of the world (or even the conversation), just do your best to…
Focus on the Topic at Hand
The older people in our lives tend to be the most socially isolated for a variety of reasons, and no matter how upset they are in the moment, they really do want to communicate and be a part of our lives. By simply asking them to go back to what they were saying before, the vast majority of the time, you will get the conversation rolling again. In order to do that, you are going to have to…
Stop worrying about who is ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’
If you have managed to offend an honored elder (or they have managed to offend you) the answer is never to argue about it. Let’s be honest; one of the disadvantages of old age is an onset of mental rigidity, and the chances of persuading them from their viewpoint are slim. But far more importantly, it is not that important if they’re wrong.
What is important about communication with an honored elder is that they feel connected to you, and you have the opportunity to learn from their wisdom. Stay focused on the goal of connectedness rather than on who is wrong(er), and you literally cannot lose an argument. At the end of the day, when the discussions have come to a close and you are ready to head home, it is time for the last step…
Stay in Contact
Your honored elders have literally decades more experience, more stories, and more life than you do. They have a lot to share with you; even if you cannot stop regularly and spend considerable time with them, get in touch (however briefly) and show them you are still thinking about them. It will make the conversation that much easier the next time you have a chance to sit, stop, and listen.