My sister and I don’t always have to talk to make a point. Our shared history makes it easy to talk without words; sometimes a facial expression or a hand gesture is enough to convey a whole sentence (or paragraph). And sometimes we just know what the other one is thinking and feeling and we don’t have to communicate at all.

This shorthand method is great for most family interactions, but when it comes to making decisions about caregiving, this system can break down. You probably know families where one sibling ended up with most of the caregiving duties by default. This may have happened because he was always the responsible child, or because he lives closest to the parents or has the easiest relationship with them. But sometimes, the sibling in charge is not actually happy with this arrangement, and better communication could have resulted in a more balanced distribution of responsibilities.

Better Communication Starts with Better Listening

Human beings tend to think about what they’re going to say next when someone is talking to them. That means they aren’t really listening to the person who’s talking to them. Better listening requires paying close attention to what the other person is saying, including noticing what they aren’t saying. Body language, facial expressions and tone can convey feelings that aren’t being said out loud. If family members are scared or overwhelmed, they may not say that in so many words, but a careful listener will pick up on those emotions. Look at the speaker, listen carefully and let them finish speaking before you respond. Sometimes, you may even want to say that you would like to think things over before responding.

Say What You Mean

On the other hand, when you speak, you want to be as clear as possible, in case family members aren’t picking up your non-verbal clues. Say what you feel and need clearly and concisely. Don’t bury your important thoughts under so many words that listeners need to dig deeply to find them. Don’t bring up lots of small complaints if the problem is actually a large one. When you complain that the doctor’s office is too far away and his receptionist is unfriendly, family members may not understand that you’re really saying that your parents’ medical appointments are too overwhelming for one person and you would appreciate if your sibling accompanied you.

Caregiving can be extremely stressful, but it is easier if decision making is a shared responsibility. Better communication between family members can make it easier to make choices which are acceptable to everyone.