Communicating with a Contemplator About Personal Needs


icon ContemplatorContemplators are used to seeing a problem, analyzing it, and solving it. They love focusing on details, and they value perfection and logic more than feelings. This can make it difficult to communicate with aging contemplators about their personal needs. While they’re focusing on details, they may miss larger issues. Their tendency to avoid emotions until they become unbearable can make personal problems more difficult, especially in the short term. As a caregiver and loved one, you can communicate in ways that help your contemplator refocus their attention outward and deal with emotions in a healthy and appropriate way.

While it can be difficult for someone who’s used to being the caregiver to accept care, and for a perfectionist to come to grips with their own need for help, good communication can help you help your contemplator navigate changing personal needs and difficult situations.

Discussing Personal Concerns with a Contemplator

When you’re dealing with a contemplator, it can be difficult to get a good sense of what’s going on inside their head. However, most personal concerns fall under these broad categories.

Because contemplators are perfectionists and used to doing everything for themselves, they’re likely to place a high value on living independently and having control over their space. The same focus on details that makes them excellent chemists, accountants, and carpenters may lead to paralysis when it’s time to make a decision about a change in living situations. As a caregiver, you can help them focus on the most important issues first, and then let them dive into the details after the main decision has been made.

After Mark’s mother died, it wasn’t safe for his father to continue living in his own home without outside help. He needed the stability and support that would come from moving in with his son’s family. However, there wouldn’t be room for a lifetime of possessions in the new house. Mark planned to move some items into his home, some into storage, and put some up for sale. He needed his father to make the decisions about what to move, what to store, and what to sell. The day before moving day, Mark arrived at his father’s house to find that nothing was packed or sorted. “That’s not true,” his father replied. “This stack of books is going with me to the new house, this one is going to the storage locker, and these you can sell.” Mark’s dad had sorted a total of 57 books in a week.

Mark realized that his father was avoiding the difficult emotional task of sorting through the house by focusing on the books. However, they also had to move forward with the project, and quickly. Mark called in his siblings to help. Each one took a room and sorted. Then Mark led his father from room to room and asked, “Show me which things we put in the wrong pile.” This helped focus his father’s efforts on the bigger move, and relieved some of the pressure in the situation. Once the ‘forests’ had been sorted, it was no longer impractical for his father to focus efforts on individual ‘trees.’

Contemplators often live inside their heads. When they’re focused on a difficult problem or are busy perfecting their environment, they can forget to maintain relationships. Then, when they finally see someone, all of the worries and ideas and hurts and joys can come tumbling out at once, overwhelming the other person. In families, this can sometimes lead to hurt feelings and estranged children. As the primary caregiver for a contemplator, you may find yourself managing their relationships with children and grandchildren to promote family stability and closeness.

Rachel had a pretty good relationship with her mother. She lived down the road, and while they occasionally got snippy with each other, they usually got along well. Her sister Jessica lived 8 hours away and only came to visit on the holidays. Before the visit, their mother would spend hours planning how the family gathering would go and thinking about the conversations she would have with her long-absent daughter. When Jessica actually arrived, her mother would unleash a flood of worries, criticisms, and unwanted advice. Rachel hated these events, because they’d end with her mother furious, Jessica in tears, and the holiday ruined by drama.

She realized that the problem was that her mother was storing up everything she wanted to say to or about Jessica until they got together. This stockpiling of emotion, combined with her mother’s total focus on a perfect holiday, was destroying her mother’s relationship with Jessica. Since she lived in town, Rachel took the lead in improving the relationship. She encouraged her mother to call and write Jessica more frequently. When her mother expressed worries and fears to Jessica at regular intervals, the family was able to avoid the annual holiday tensions.

Contemplators demand perfection from themselves and everyone around them. This can cause problems when they can no longer perform everyday tasks like housecleaning, pet care, or gardening for themselves. How can you hire help when no one is ever good enough? As a loved one, part of your job is to help your contemplator see the good in the new situation, and to make peace with the tasks they can no longer do on their own.

Huan’s dad had always prided himself on his lawn. He devoted at least 4 hours a week to maintaining it. He carefully mowed to make a checkerboard pattern. His weed whacking skills were legendary in the community. Everyone knew Huan’s dad as the man with the perfect lawn. He loved this designation, and constantly sought new ways to achieve the perfect look for his flawless grass. Until the quadruple bypass. After the surgery, the cardiologist told Huan’s father to take it easy. No driving, no lifting, and no lawn mowing. He’d have to hire a lawn care company to maintain the lawn for the summer.

The first week was a disaster. They didn’t mow in a checkerboard pattern. They missed some of the edging. They’d rushed the job, and the lawn was no longer perfect. When Huan went over to check on his dad, he found him in the backyard, trimming up edges and grumbling. Huan couldn’t let his dad endanger his health over a plot of grass, but he also knew that picking a fight wasn’t the answer. Instead, he used a combination of affirmation and forthrightness. “Dad, you’ve always had the best lawn in the neighborhood, and I can’t wait until you can mow again. But you have to listen to the doctor. If you don’t follow his orders, you’ll end up back in the hospital and someone else will be doing your lawn care forever.” Huan’s approach helped with the immediate issue. His dad didn’t stop grumbling about how the lawn care company wasn’t up to his impossible standards, but he did stop trying to finish the job himself.

The same attention to detail, focus on perfection, and tendency to reflect on problems that can make a contemplator succeed in a crisis can also leave them prone to depression and anxiety. Contemplators tend to internalize their feelings, and they’re more likely to relive a failure over and over, trying to work out what they should have done differently. Without help, it’s easy for contemplators to fall into bad mental habits that leave them vulnerable to a slide into mental illness. Caregivers need to be especially alert, since a contemplator’s focus on individual worries can leave them unable to see the larger picture. A contemplator is likely to claim that she’s not depressed, just upset about one particular event, because she can’t see the larger effects of that event on her life and her relationships.

After Luisa’s mother died, she’d formed a very close relationship with her Aunt Geraldine, her mother’s youngest sister. Now, at 95, Geraldine was slipping further and further into the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Geraldine was Luisa’s last link to her parent’s generation, and she wasn’t ready to let go. Luisa’s children noticed that she was becoming angrier and more withdrawn. She didn’t want to socialize and she spent the time she wasn’t with Geraldine worrying and researching Alzheimer’s. She was also collapsing under the strain of acting as a caregiver when she herself had health issues. She’d stopped sleeping, wasn’t eating, and was withdrawing from family and friends.

When Luisa’s daughter first brought up the subject of depression, Luisa brushed her off. “I’m not depressed. I’m just busy with Geraldine. She needs me so much. I can’t get out like I used to. She might not be here much longer. I couldn’t live with myself if she called and I couldn’t go to her.” Luisa was so focused on the details of Geraldine’s illness that she couldn’t recognize the signs of her own. Her daughter carefully outlined the symptoms of depression, how Luisa was displaying them, and where she could get help.

“You’re right that Aunt Geraldine depends on you, Mom. But you need to be at your best so that you can help her. If you agree to go therapy, I will sit with her while you’re gone. If you introduce me before you leave and leave a note telling her who I am, she should be OK while you get help.” This was enough of a solution to let Luisa get into therapy and begin working through her grief over the loss of her parents and Aunt Geraldine’s condition.

Contemplators love perfection and arranging the details of places, events, and social groups. In retirement, this can often take the form of heavy involvement in gyms, community groups, and family activities. You can trust a contemplator to prepare for problems, create solutions, and keep everything in perfect order, which means that they quickly become indispensable to whatever group they’re in. However, sometimes this emphasis on perfection can leave a contemplator isolated. Because she can’t find a perfect organization or activity, your contemplator may opt to stay home. It’s important to make sure that contemplators aren’t letting their high expectations deprive them of human relationships.

Bernardo’s mother had moved across the country to be near him and her beloved grandchildren. In New York, she’d been involved in several volunteer projects and even an exercise group. Now, in a new city, she stayed home. Her social life revolved around the grandchildren, and when they were sick or at school, Larissa stayed at home. Bernardo would suggest groups in her new community, but she found something wrong with each potential social circle. “Those people are too old. That group is too stuck up. The Ladies’ Club at church wants too much of my time, and then I’d never see the grandkids.” Bernardo could see that his mother was growing isolated and unhappy in her new community, but he was unsure how he could encourage her to make new friends.

One Sunday after church, he introduced Larissa to the head of the summer program for children. “Erica is worried that there won’t be any camp for the kids this year,” he said. “She needs more volunteers and help planning. The girls would be so disappointed if it doesn’t happen this year.” Bernardo’s plea appealed to his mother’s desire for perfection, and her desire to create a memorable summer for her grandchildren. She agreed to help with the summer day camp. Once she’d become involved with that project, she met more people and began to take a more active role in her new community.

Because contemplators tend to be detail-oriented and introverted, they can have trouble remembering to stay connected with friends and family. A typical contemplator will delve deep into a problem, shutting out everyone so that people drift away. When they finally surface for air and want companionship, they’ll often wonder “Where did everyone go?” As the caregiver for a contemplator, you may have to remind them to stay in touch with friends and family, or even take the initiative to put them back in touch with loved ones.

Brenda had always enjoyed her coworkers. When she’d still been at the hospital, she’d go out to lunch with them at least once a week. When she retired, she promised that her lunch dates wouldn’t suffer, but then April happened. Brenda had always longed for time in the garden, and she threw herself headlong into creating the yard she’d always dreamed of. Emails and phone calls went unanswered as she planted, weeded, pruned, and watered. Eventually, her work friends stopped calling or emailing.

Her daughter noticed that her mom hadn’t had any new stories about ‘the girls’ in a while, and asked, ‘Why haven’t you been seeing them?” Brenda replied that she’d just been busy. “You need to have them over to see this garden, Mom. Pick a date and we can plan a garden party for them.” The garden party proved to be a great chance for Brenda to reconnect with her old friends, and her daughter was careful to keep an eye on her in the future, to make sure that the thrill of a detailed project didn’t cause friendships to suffer.

General Tips for Communicating with a Contemplator

  • Lay out problems in a detailed and orderly manner.
  • Be truthful and forthright in your conversations.
  • Give breathing space before you expect a response.
  • Ask them what they’re thinking and feeling.
  • Show empathy when they share concerns and worries.  
  • Try to bring a big-picture view to the discussion.
  • Use humor to bring them out of themselves and their worries.
  • Speak in ways that show your appreciation and affirmation.

Better Communication Helps Contemplators Meet Their Personal Needs

Highly-focused contemplators can be great at meeting very specific personal needs, but they can miss out on big picture problems and opportunities. Meanwhile, their desire for perfection can exhaust or disappoint them if it isn’t tempered by realistic expectations for themselves and their situations. Using communication strategies tailored to your contemplator’s communication style and focus can make it easier to make sure that they’re meeting their personal needs and getting appropriate levels of assistance where necessary.