Caregiver Corner: Journaling for Improved Communication


-Brian Fox, SourcePoint Caregiver Program Coordinator

Oh no! I can already hear all of your groans at yet another caregiver article endorsing the self-care benefits of jour*aling — but here me out!

First off, I just want to say that journaling isn’t supposed to be Shakespeare. Do whatever you can to dispel the idea that journaling needs to be “high art” or even remotely intelligible for that matter. On the contrary, journaling should read like a grocery list! It should be petty and vapid and contain all the unwanted debris that would otherwise clog up our minds — giving you the mental bandwidth to accept new ideas or re-strategize around whatever obstacle is prescient at this moment.

Journaling can take the form of an abstract, stream-of-consciousness, barely-related collection of thoughts or it could be grounded, pragmatic, and focused on one particular issue. Today I’d like to offer one such journaling prompt that falls on the practical side — how to map out and practice a tough conversation you know is in your future.

Have you ever had a disagreement or full-blown argument where you thought of the perfect retort well after the outcome was decided? Apparently, this is a common and distinct enough phenomenon that the French language has its own idiom describing this potent emotional mixture of deep-seated regret and righteous indignation: l’esprit d’escalier (the spirit of the staircase). The story goes that during a dinner party, philosopher Denis Diderot was left speechless by a remark he explained that, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and doesn’t come to himself again until at the bottom of the stairs.”

Be honest, how many of you are already playing out pretend arguments in front of the mirror or daydreaming about saying the right words in the right order to a fictionalized version of a wrongdoer of your choosing? Why not harness that energy for something productive, eh? So, get your pens ready for…

A Journaling Prompt for Tactfully Handling a Grievance

Before we dive into this exercise, it will be important to familiarize yourself with the differing forms of consequences. The term consequence may have a negative connotation for some and may even be associated with terms like “threat” or “punishment”. This unhelpful mentality stems from the incorrect belief that Assertive = Selfish.

Potential consequences, when clearly outlined, emphasize a person’s individual choices — minimizing your role in the equation. Framing actions through the lens of consequences offers individuals the choice to correct their behavior while also reinforcing the “you made your bed, now lie in it” mentality in a less harsh, more supportive format.

Take a moment with these definitions before moving on to the prompt itself. You may need to adjust accordingly based on the individual’s physical and cognitive capabilities:

Natural Consequence: a reaction that will occur in response to a person’s choice, regardless of outside interference. Examples:
If someone touches the stove while it is on, they will get burned.
If a person doesn’t take ownership of their prescribed medications (or seek assistance doing so), their condition will worsen/they will be in pain/they will have a more difficult time regulating their feelings.)

Logical Consequence: a reaction that will occur in response to a stipulation set by another person or entity. Logical consequences are different than “threats” because they do not seek to manipulate actions through fear — but rather, inform them through accountability. Logical consequences are effective because they relate to the action that prompts them in a cause-and-effect relationship. Examples:
“If I am interrupted during my relaxation time, I will not have the energy to take us out to dinner.”
“If you won’t take a driver safety test I will have to write a letter to the BMV or Grady Memorial Hospital’s D.R.I.V.E Program.”

Positive Consequence: a reaction that will occur either in response to a stipulation set by another or through an internal source of motivation. Examples:
“Since you completed your physical therapy routine we can confidently and safely go on [insert outing of choice here].”
“Your face really lit up when you finished that last art project! I’d love to attend an art class with you next time.”

In this next long-form prompt, we will practice an alternate method of communication that has shown to be beneficial in conveying our viewpoints clearly and unambiguously. This new framing can stop disagreements from turning into arguments or escalating further beyond. This is sometimes called the DESC model—which stands for Describe, Express, Specify, and Consequence. Using your own manner of speaking, answer each of the following questions to create an outline of how you might persuade someone to reevaluate their actions.

Here is an example scenario based on an amalgamation of conflicts I’ve encountered in Caregiver Support Groups: you and your other adult siblings visit your mother throughout the week. Mom was a caregiver herself to her late spouse who passed nearly three years ago and during that time she became isolated and disconnected from her hobbies and community. During phone calls, mom often indirectly expresses what she sees as a lack of involvement from you and your siblings.

She presents this sometimes under her breath, through hyperbole, or in other ways that do not invite helpful dialog. It has gotten to the point where even during physical visits she will bring up how seldom she sees any of the other family members and she has recently stated that you and your siblings view her as an obligation. It has contributed to an anxious presence in the room, and you now find it difficult to organically enjoy each other’s company.

Once you have finished writing your responses, feel free to take it one step further and create what you imagine to be realistic responses to each of your statements from the person in conflict with you. This part is optional and should only be attempted if you believe it could lead to a stronger outcome when you have your real conversation addressing the grievance.

That’s it for today’s segment. I’ll be sure to deliver additional prompts in future articles, including other communication styles that do more to harness the emotional side of a conflict rather than remove it from the equation—but that’s a little trickier.

Please check out our updated list of Summertime Caregiver Programming such as a new support group with a focus on mental health concerns, The Alzheimer’s Association expanded educational suite: The Empowered Caregiver, or the twelve-week workshop: Aging Mastery for Caregivers!

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