‘I am concerned about your…’ How to handle sensitive conversations and be heard

When you are worried about someone you care about, how do you finesse your worry so it doesn’t sound like you’re attacking them, which might end the conversation abruptly?  

Unsolicited advice is usually not welcome. 

 To soften our concern, we resort to the tried and true “I” message: “I am concerned…” rather than go into “you,” which can seem attack mode. The words may seem touching when first heard, but it’s what comes next that matters most. Of course, so much depends on why concern is expressed and the type of relationship you have with the person you are addressing. 

A partner, spouse or close family member might balk at any comment that resembles a criticism. Maybe, they have hearing problems or memory issues, both sensitive topics for sure. However, you love them and care about them, which might be a good way to start the conversation and grab their attention. 

If a close friend or even a long-time business partner, you might feel it’s okay to flag a problem, especially if there aren’t close family members who are part of regular conversations or it impacts their ability to do business, which, in turn, affects your performance, too. 

Then’s there’s an acquaintance giving their unsolicited opinion. They might blurt out, “You’ve gained weight,” which someone Barbara barely knew did utter years ago and in a store where many also heard it. We feel that’s overstepping and not kindly done. What was the point, Barbara wondered at the time, and why would she bring this up? She kept silent. 

Margaret encountered so many of these intrusive questions after she was widowed, many from almost strangers. “How are you?” “Are you okay?” The list went on. She didn’t have answers in many cases and if she did, she wasn’t about to share them with everyone. 

Before opening your mouth, we suggest you slow down and ask yourself if you’re crossing a boundary and have the right to express your concern or opinion. Giving some guidance is our lifelessonsat50plus.com resident expert psychotherapist Jill Davis, an MSSW with a private consulting practice assisting pre-med and medical students.   

Davis recommends asking yourself these questions: “Are you close? What is your history of sharing more intimate details of your life with one another? Are you willing to risk a disruption of your friendship that sharing a concern may lead to? Is your concern one that affects the other person's safety or puts them or others in danger? That could include a person driving a car when you see signs of dementia.” If so, Davis adds that this does warrant a discussion, but be circumspect and do so with respect and care. 

There are certain areas where we should not tread. Davis recommends staying away from advice about smoking or weight. “These folks know their weight and nicotine addiction (or any addictions) are bad for their health. Your bringing it to their attention doesn’t help them change their behavior.” 

In fact, we think they most likely will become defensive and strike back with, “This is none of your business,” or “Well, I’m concerned about you, too,” accompanied by one or several critical comments aimed at you. And there goes the relationship in some cases. 

Davis shares some personal examples of how she voiced concerns with others and the consequences:

“I once shared with a friend that I was concerned about her drinking, and it almost derailed the friendship. She was furious. We are still friends, but something was lost. Of course, part of addiction is a very strong denial so it might not have been worth it on my part to say anything.”  

“When I approached my mother about assisted living, she was adamantly against it. So, I just told her that I wasn't going to  force her, but I did want her to just take a look at the unit and then decide. She agreed, insisting all the while that she would never move, but she liked the apartment very much and took it.” 

“My telling my father that I thought he shouldn't drive anymore fell on deaf ears”. 

“And my friend who told her colleague and closest friend that she was concerned about dementia almost crashed a friendship of 40 years.” 

“These are the risks, so you have to be aware of them,” Davis says. 

Davis offers several ways to approach a conversation: 

  1. First, ask before you offer your perspective. "I have been a bit concerned about you. Would it be okay with you if I shared what I have been noticing?" You can then state your concern as more of a question. "Have you noticed any difficulty with directions while driving?"
  2. Consider a more direct approach. "You know how important you are to me. I cherish our friendship, and because of that, I want to share that I have been worried about you. I have noticed that you sometimes seem disoriented when you drive, and you aren't as safe behind the wheel as you have been for most of your life. We are all going to get to the point where we need to give up driving. I am wondering if you feel that you might be at the point now?" 
  3. Weigh a group intervention. If you feel a parent needs a different living situation with more support and assistance, adult children should sit down together with their parents and tell them what they think. Again, it's important to preface every comment with love. "You know how important you are to us. We love you so much and because of that, we want you in a living  situation that keeps you safe and healthy.”
  4. Preempt these talks by making agreements with your friends or family to share this kind of feedback if the need arises. That way the conversation can start with a reminder of this pact. "We promised we would tell each other if we saw signs of memory lapse that might indicate the need for an evaluation. I am concerned about you in this regard." 

Whatever the concern, be kind and considerate if you want to be heard. The cliché, it’s not what you say but how you say it, is the operative approach. Threatening or criticizing will only cause the other person to shut down, and that may curtail any possibility of change in the person’s outlook or derail the relationship for good.  



  • Jeanne Kempthorne

    Very important topic, and such a difficult one! One thought: “I am concerned” can sound patronizing. If at all possible, it might be better to start with “I am noticing . . .” or, even better, to raise the issue in a way that doesn’t immediately focus attention on the other person. Self-disclosure can be a good way to do it, e.g., I’m beginning to think about how long I can continue to do maintenance in this house. Often, the other person will open up about their own experience and concerns: e.g., yes, it’s so hard to find help, and I really need someone to wash the windows, etc. That can lead into a chat about other housing options you yourself are thinking about for the future. Way less confrontational, and you, the friend, do not come off as superior, challenging, or critical. Thanks for raising this issue more and more of us are struggling with as we and our friends and family age.

  • Lynn Marks

    Wise observations and suggestions as always. And nice to see your “resident expert”, psychotherapist jill davis be quoted!

  • Debbie

    Excellent advice. Thank you.

  • Audrey Steuer

    Wonderful ideas about approaching such a touchy subject. I have been through this for years with my late parents and it never gets easier!

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