Effective Communication Skills for Better Caregiving

Caregiving by its nature involves an interdependence among people. Caregivers need other people if they are to get their needs met. Without effective interpersonal communication, life as a caregiver can be much more difficult than it has to be. But there is hope. Communication can be improved at any time.

Effective communication involves:

  • dealing with feelings,
  • active listening,
  • assertive communication, and
  • acceptance.

Facts About Feelings and Effective Communication Skills

Understanding the function of feelings is the first step in being able to communicate effectively.

  • Feelings give us the energy to solve problems.
  • Feelings that are suppressed don’t go away, they simply remain unexpressed.
  • Suppressed feelings may cause sickness.
  • All healthy people experience all human emotions, including the “negative” ones.
  • People will not be judged on their feelings, just their actions.
  • Feelings speak in “code” and sometimes require interpretation.

Facts About Listening and Effective Communication Skills

  • In effective communication, learning to be a good listener is just as important as speaking.
  • Caregivers should listen to themselves. They should pay attention to their feelings rather than suppress, argue with, or deny them.
  • Caregivers should listen to their family members. They should pay attention to the other’s feelings and not argue with, judge, fix, or try to talk the person out of their feelings.
  • Good listeners offer suggestions only when the other person seems open to suggestions.
  • Good listeners do not allow others to dump their problems on them, or to vent their problems endlessly as a substitute for solving them. Good listeners know when to stop listening.
  • Good listeners simply listen and acknowledge what the person is saying. They do not have to agree, but they do not judge.

Facts About Assertive Communication Skills

Practicing assertive communication is the most effective way for caregivers to get their needs met.

  • Assertive communicators do not attack or belittle others.
  • Assertive communicators are clear about how they feel and what they want.
  • Assertive communicators open their hearts to the other person.
  • Assertive communicators validate the good in the other person.
  • Assertive communicators are clear and effective. They are not aggressive or wishy-washy.

Facts About Caregivers Getting Their Needs Met

Caregivers must realize that they are entitled to get their needs met about 50% of the time, just like everybody else. This is crucial to prevent caregiver burnout. This means there are times when a caregiver’s needs will not be met. Accepting this gracefully is also part of effective communication.

Even when communication is the best that it possibly can be, sometimes people do not see eye to eye. Others may not change or respond to the caregiver’s needs no matter how clearly and effectively those needs are communicated. Others may try to argue, or not accept what the caregiver is saying.

It is up to the caregiver to not get sucked into an argument in this case. People do not have the power to change other people. If the other person does not respond in the desired way, the caregiver at least knows where he or she stands and can make decisions accordingly. If the need is still very strong, the caregiver can try a different strategy or enlisting other help.

How Not Dealing with Feelings Contributes to Family Communication Problems

If the caregiver is not listening to and dealing with his own feelings, he may be sending mixed messages to others. A mixed message is a communication problem that results when caregivers are unaware that they are saying one thing, but feeling something opposite of what they are saying. The listener may become confused and communication problems result.

Why People Don’t Deal with Their Feelings in Family Communication

Part of the reason this happens is because people don’t like to acknowledge their own negative feelings and they try to suppress them. People misunderstand the function of feelings. They mistakenly think that having negative feelings makes a person “bad”, instead of understanding that feelings are important and they give people information and energy to solve problems. Read also this article before thinking of becoming a family caregiver.

Why Caregivers Suppress Instead of Deal with Feelings

Perhaps a caregiver keeps feeling angry at the care recipient (spouse) and keeps getting the feeling he’d like to walk out and never come back. He says to himself, “Don’t feel that way, it’s wrong to feel that way, you are a failure and not living up to your vows if you feel that way.”

The caregiver suppresses this feeling instead of trying to understand what it means. Feelings speak “in code” sometimes and have to be interpreted. Perhaps these feelings are telling the caregiver simply that he is overburdened and needs a break.

Suppressing the feelings prevents the caregiver from getting what he needs and it doesn’t make the feelings go away. Instead, it creates a conflict of thoughts vs. feelings. This causes the caregiver to send a mixed message. For example, when the ill spouse asks for help, the caregiver says through clenched teeth, “It’s alright, no trouble at all.” The care recipient picks up on the negativity more than the words and will certainly feel bad about asking for help.

In addition, the caregiver may angrily tell his grown children, “I’m fine, I can do just fine without your help.” The words don’t match the tone of voice. The children become alienated and back off. The communication was not effective. The caregiver feels isolated and becomes frustrated that nobody will help.

Improve Family Communication by Dealing with Feelings

Ironically, to prevent communicating a mixed message, the speaker needs to become a better listener to himself. Caregivers should let themselves have whatever feelings come up. They shouldn’t try to talk themselves out of their feelings. Instead, they can just let the feelings come and try to understand what the feelings mean. Don’t judge the feelings, just let them be. Meditation training can help with this. Caregiver support groups are also helpful.

People will be judged on their actions, not their feelings, and having a “bad” feeling does not make anyone a “bad” person. Once the caregiver understands his own feelings and needs, he can better communicate them to others and ask for help. But automatically suppressing and dismissing feelings out of hand will not lead to any clear understanding by anyone.

Importance of Effective Listening

For caregivers, family communication problems can add stress. By improving one simple skill, caregivers can help improve communication in the family. Improving family communication involves both talking and listening. The caregiver needs to learn to listen to others. The communicator should see himself as both talker and listener and take listening as seriously as talking. Communication problems such as arguments often result when people try to solve each other’s problems instead of just listening to each other.

How Poor Listening Results in Caregiver & Family Communication Problems

Assume that a person is caring for her sick spouse. The spouse is frustrated about all the medicine he has to take and complains when his wife/caregiver gives him his pills. The caregiver argues, tells him he shouldn’t feel that way or tries to downplay the issue. The sick spouse does not feel like he has been heard, so he feels he has to keep repeating himself. As a result, a fight occurs every interval when pills need to be taken. Communication has failed.

If the caregiver simply takes herself out of the role of problem solver and fixer and understands the value of simply being a listener, she will be taking so much pressure off of herself. The spouse will feel relieved too.

Why People Don’t Listen when Communicating

If the listener feels anxious about what the speaker is saying (“Oh no, what if he stops taking his pills?”) this can cause the listener to respond instead of listen. Learning to contain one’s own anxiety will help. This can be done by simply becoming aware when one is acting out of anxiety and making a point to pause, take a deep breath, and resist the urge to act out. For those who need more support, therapy, support groups, relaxation training, meditation, and yoga can help caregivers manage and contain anxiety.

How to Improve Family Communication with Listening Skills

Managing anxiety is one helpful thing, practicing listening skills is another. The next time someone is communicating something important, just listen to what he says and repeat it back to him. Don’t try to fix or solve the problem (unless, of course, he is specifically and plainly asking you for your opinion.) Don’t come up with an “answer”. Don’t criticize him for feeling that way or try to talk him out of his feelings. Just let him know that he has been heard and that these feelings are accepted. The listener does not have to agree, just accept that this is how the other person feels. This is called “active listening.”

How to Prevent Communication Problems by Practicing Active Listening Skills

Here’s an example of how this works: when the husband complains about having to take pills the caregiver says,

“It sounds like you feel frustrated about taking all of these medicines.”

The caregiver listens to the next thing the spouse says and repeats it back.

“It sounds like you feel hopeless and don’t think the medications are helping.”

The only response given by the caregiver is “It sounds like you feel ____.” This indicates that the caregiver has heard and understood. It does not try to fix, solve, or answer the problem. Indeed, there may be no solution.

By the end of the conversation, the caregiver should know exactly how the spouse feels. The spouse should feel better because his feelings were heard and accepted. The caregiver does not argue or try to talk him out of his feelings. However, she still continues to give him the medication at the proper time, until such time as an alternate plan is agreed upon.

Improved Communication Results in Less Stress

Allowing others to simply express and have their feelings should help relieve tension in the household. If the caregiver lets herself and everyone in the household simply have their feelings without denying them, arguing, trying to squelch them or invalidating them, everyone in the household should feel relief.

Once a person learns how to listen to her own and others feelings, communication in the family will be greatly improved. The next step is learning to communicate what one has to say in an effective way.

How to Communicate Effectively

To communicate effectively, caregivers must first validate the other person. To do this, understand what it is like to be in the other’s shoes. Know what he or she is going through. And say what comes from the heart.

  • “I know that you care about us and I appreciate all the time you sacrifice in trying to help us.”
  • “I know that you are suffering and in pain and that what you are going through is very difficult.”
  • “You mean the world to me and it touches my heart that you are trying so hard to do the right thing.”

Caregivers should not communicate anything that they do not believe or feel, because it will undermine trust and it will not be effective.

How to Communicate Assertively

Caregivers should use assertive “I-statements,” as opposed to “you-statements.” I-statements promote effective communication because they do not attack the other person or put them on the defensive. I-statements reveal something about the caregiver and are less likely to lead to an argument.

How to Come up With I-Statements for Effective Caregiver Communication

An I-statement always begins with the words, “I feel”, followed by an emotion. The next part is to communication to the other person the behavior of theirs that caused the feeling.

  • “I feel put down and hurt when you question my judgment and dismiss what I am saying.”(As opposed to: “You never listen and you act like a big know-it-all.”)
  • “I feel unloved and worthless when you yell at me and criticize what I am doing in such an angry tone.”(As opposed to: “You are a tyrant and all you ever do is yell and criticize.”)

To make communication even more effective, caregivers can also assertively state what they would like the person to do instead of the offending behavior.

“I feel frustrated when you take over without asking first because it is not helpful to me. There are many ways you could help me and I would value your help so much. I just need you to ask me first.” (As opposed to: “You are way too pushy and not the least bit helpful, why don’t you just leave.”)

The I-statements above are a far more effective communication strategy than the you-statements in parenthesis. But beware of you-statements that are disguised as I-statements. These statements are not recommended, for example,

“I feel that you are a jerk.”

Simply putting the words “I feel” in front of a sentence does not make it an I-statement! The statement must reveal something personal, an emotion that the caregiver feels. It must be free of criticism and judgment, yet it states clearly what the other person’s behavior is that is offensive. In addition, it can also communicate clearly and assertively what the caregiver wants.

Effective and Assertive Communication Improves Family Relationships

To bring people closer together, reduce stress in relationships, get one’s needs met, and make it easier to be in a relationship with others, effective communication is the key.

Caregivers can improve communication by practicing. They can remember to validate the other person and use assertive I-statements to get their point across. Effective communication can enrich the lives of everyone involved.

Dealing with Some Common Communication Issues

As a caregiver, you have to face some common issues on daily basis i.e. speech impediments, difficulty in understanding words, etc. It is not too much difficult to deal with each issue. You just require a little practice and patience.

Speech Impediments

Speech impediments include slurring of words, stuttering, and mumbling. This can be very frustrating for the caregiver, especially if you can’t identify any of the words being said. Stay calm. There are ways to try to understand what is being said.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one to repeat themselves. “I didn’t hear you, Mom.” You don’t always have to say that you didn’t know what they were saying. Maybe if they speak up, you will be able to catch a few of the words.
  2. Repeat what you think they are trying to say. “You want a drink?” If they seem agitated, chances are you didn’t catch what was being said. It can be quite hard trying to determine what someone is saying when they mumble. Try again.
  3. Look for key clues. Moving side to side may indicate that your loved one needs to use the washroom, while coughing may mean your loved one wants a drink.
  4. If you cannot identify any words, it is all right to look at your loved one, nod your head, and smile. They may just be wanting to have a conversation and you listening is all they need.

Creating New Words

As weird as it sounds, persons with Alzheimer’s may create new words or put words together. To us, it sounds unbelievable, but to loved ones these words exist. It’s their way of communicating, so we should listen with open ears. Please read below for tips.

  1. Try not to laugh if a word is said that sounds funny. It’s all right to giggle in private, but doing so in front of your loved may make them feel like you are laughing at them.
  2. If you think that you know what they are saying, repeat it back to them.
  3. Words may become confused with other words. Learn your loved one’s new vocabulary to make this change easier on you.


Swearing can become quite a problem, even abusive. I have heard of caregivers who care for a loved one that would never think of saying a curse word, but have all of a sudden become addicted to it. Your loved one may be acting out. Don’t stress yet, as constant swearing is also known to be a stage.

  1. Don’t laugh or make comments to other family members when your loved one is with you. It’s very much like the way we don’t encourage our children. If your loved one thinks you approve, he will continue swearing.
  2. Don’t yell. Instead, stay calm and try to ignore what was just said. You can make comments such as “We don’t use that word.”
  3. If possible, try to replace the bad word with a more appropriate word.

Getting Too Close

It is possible to get too close to our loved ones. When this happens, your loved one may push you away, yell, or tell you to go away. It’s important to get close to our loved ones without making them feel smothered. What we consider not close, they may consider very close.

  1. Notice body gestures. If you are sitting across from your loved one and they start moving away from you, let them. Do not take it personally. Give them their comfortable space.
  2. Don’t sneak up on your loved one. If you are coming from behind, let them know you are there. Speak lightly.

There may be a time when you have tried everything, and you still do not get through to your loved one. Do the best that you can and try to remain patient. Take a deep breath and slowly let it out. Learning a new way of communicating with your loved one can be time-consuming and at times frustrating. But, once you get used to it, you will learn a whole new way of talking with your loved one.