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SMART Conversations

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How to be Heard and How to Listen

Maureen Osis and Lara Osis were interviewed by David Wright. They shared the work they did together to develop a framework for adult children and parents (or grandparents) to have sensitive and difficult conversations.  Their model is called SMART Conversations.

Maureen and Lara, you have developed a model for open communication in families to bridge the generation gap. Tell us more about having a “SMART Conversation.”

The aim of a SMART Conversation is to talk about a difficult subject with honesty and respect to achieve the outcome of serving everyone’s best interests. There may never be a perfect time to have one of these difficult conversations; finding both the right time and the right approach can make a difference to “being heard.” 

Maureen, what is the first principle of a SMART conversation?

Set a goal before you start the conversation

What do you want to talk about? What is the problem? For whom is it a problem? What is the best outcome you hope for following the conversation? Is the goal realistic?

And one important thing to remember, if your goal is to get your parent to do what you want (e.g., quit driving) then you are not very likely to reach that goal. Set a more realistic aim, such as exploring your parent’s ideas and trying to get your ideas across as a first step. 

After one of my presentations, an audience member came up and said, “So I guess I can’t makemy parents do anything.” And that pretty much sums it up. But here are some things that you can do. You can:

  • Be clear about your intentions at the outset.
  • Know something about the topic—for example, the facts about the risks of older drivers.
  • Be specific. Talk about one topic at a time.
  • Share the goal: you want to talk with your parents, not at them.

Lara, after you have set a goal, what should you do next?

The next principle is as follows:

Manage your emotions

Sometimes in talking to our parents we can feel like a kid again. Old issues may resurface. When you feel your parents’ health or safety is at stake you may find it impossible to stay calm. You may also want immediate action and think the conversation should be a short one and not give it enough time. If you have tried to have these talks in the past and they degenerated into fights, you may find yourself reluctant to try again. And when you do talk about health or housing or finances and you don’t get the response you wanted you may feel disappointed, frustrated, or annoyed.

So here are a few tips:

  • Try to find mutual interests within the topic.
  • Break down the conversation into several parts. Perhaps talk about less contentious issues first or start with something that is meaningful to both of you. This will keep the tension level lower from the beginning.
  • Talk to another family member or close friend beforehand to explore your emotional reactions prior to the “real” conversation. Notice how the comments affected you and the other person.

Lara, you say that the third principle is to accept differences. This sound like it might be hard to do.

Accept differences

There’s a popular expression, “Do you want to be right or do you want to happy?” It’s the same with any difficult situation where people have very different opinions. But the bottom line is, what are you committed to? Do you want to keep your arms folded across your chest and say “I know I’m right”? Or are you willing to find common ground and possibly a new solution—one that maybe you hadn’t even thought of, once you can accept that your parent may never see things the way you do.

If you want to achieve the goal that you set,you must be prepared to respect different opinions and different styles of managing change. For example, sons and daughters often want parents to move closer—long distances can increase the worry when parents are older or left alone. But seniors might not want to uproot and move to a new community. Friends might be more important for their social wellbeing. 

To accept differences requires that you really listen—it requires that you hear someone saying something you don’t agree with. This takes energy. Suspend your own judgments when listening. Try to understand your family member’s needs, hopes, and fears. 

 Usually, when we talk about something that is important to us, we want the other person to agree. You might have to agree to disagree—at least for now. 

It’s common to notice that people do not hear each other, particularly when they are expressing different points of view.

Ways to listen actively

Here are some ways to listen actively:

  • Show that you are paying attention and make eye contact while listening. 
  • Pay attention to what is said and what is not said. 
  • Watch non-verbal signs; watch body language and facial expressions.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Yes or no answers won’t give you enough information.

So, you have set a realistic goal, calmed your own emotions and are prepared to accept differences between your opinion and that of the other person. What is next?

Next is the R in SMART and it is as follows:

Recognize Responsibility

Older adults have been making their own decisions for many, many years. When adult children take on more responsibility when parents develop health problems or become frail, it can be tempting to take over—to think that you are “parenting your parents!” And by the way, although I understand the seduction of this way of thinking, I don’t think it is helpful to talk  about “role reversal.” 

Parenting is about helping a developing child to learn to understand the world and to acquire the skills to thrive in that world. It is about helping them learn new things and become functioning members of society. This is not the role for a grown adult with aging parents! Even when a parent has dementia or cognitive problems, you do not become their “parent.” You do accept greater responsibility for them (e.g., their safety, financial management, etc.) and you might feel like you are taking care of a child, but it is not your role to discipline them as you would a child. Even those with cognitive impairment should be free to make decisions—and encouraged to do so to the best of their ability.

Many fear that making any mistakes with their parents’ care might have serious consequences. This is not a helpful image to have in your brain and heart when trying to navigate the new waters of helping an aging parent. Remember that all you can do is try your best. 

This brings us to the last principle: 

Take time and take turns

Don’t wait for an ideal time, but be ready to talk when an opportunity presents itself. You might also be able to promote an opportunity to talk about a specific topic. Try: 

  • bringing a newspaper article to read together
  • watching a movie together—and talking about the way the characters managed to handle the situation,
  • sending a note ahead of your visit and asking to talk about a specific subject.

Be ready for a casual chat rather than an intense debate. A more casual conversation can allow you to hear more about what your parent is thinking and feeling.

Limit the time—not everything will be resolved all at once or immediately.

Mirroring can also be helpful. Listen to your parent then repeat back what you have heard to be sure you understand. This does not mean you are agreeing with what was said. 

Take turns. Be sure to listen as much as you speak.

Maureen, tell us about situations in which a SMART conversation doesn’t work?

If your mom or dad has acute or chronic mental illness or incapacity, this will complicate the process. If you are too exhausted yourself, you are less likely to be able to listen or willing to accept differences of opinions. Also, there is a continuum of willingness and ability among people. Some people are not willing, while others may not be capable of having a meaningful and respectful conversation. If this happens, my advice to you is,  do not face it alone—seek professional help. 

In summary, a SMART conversation is a process not an event. The goal of a SMART conversation is to talk about a difficult subject with honesty and respect. The outcome is to serve everyone’s best interests. 

A SMART conversation is based on five principles:






How have you used your own advice as a mother-daughter team working together?


Lara has taught me to appreciate differences—different ideas, values, and opinions. I have also learned that wisdom is not exclusive to those with a certain number of birthdays. Wisdom, in various ways, can occur at all ages and stages of life. Therefore, I have learned humility and curiosity about what I will learn from others, even those who are younger than me.

Through observing my daughter communicating with others (e.g., with her grandmothers) I have learned more about SMART conversations for myself, especially to “manage my emotions.” And if you met Lara, you would know that she models this with a remarkable sense of humour!

Victor Borge once said the shortest distance between two people is laughter. My mother and I laugh a lot. I think we are also conscientious about listening to each other. As I said earlier, really listening does not mean agreeing, but being heard is a step toward moving forward in any situation. Whether I’m right about making a change to an idea or she’s wrong about the direction of a project, we really listen to each other! (Just kidding.) Genuinely, the word that comes to mind is respect. I highly respect my mom and her intelligence and integrity. And I always feel respected by her. 

This excerpt is from the chapter How to be Heard and How to Listen in Stepping Stones to Success. Experts share strategies for mastering business, life & relationships.

Print the pdf. Smart Conversations

The model SMART Conversations was developed with seniors and adult children in mind. However, it would also work in other situations. For example, if you are facing an important conversation with a health care professional and want a good outcome, try having a SMART conversation. Read the article: Tips for Interacting with the Health Care Team

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