What my Mother with Parkinson’s Disease is Teaching Me

My mother is disintegrating before my eyes. She is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and I am learning that this cruel disease is not simply a degenerative movement disorder. Parkinson’s has snatched memory from my mother, replaced with confusion and dementia. Parkinson’s has robbed my previously verbose mother the ability to speak beyond basic phrases and has left my mom trapped within herself.

My mom is brilliant. She has a Master’s Degree, was her high school valedictorian and is certified in multiple diagnostic testing for diagnosis learning disabilities. In a previous life, my mom was the backbone of my father’s business, travelled the world, was the heart of the family all while leading a thriving business as a teacher, with a focus on children with learning challenges.

And today, just before Mother’s Day, I reflect on my mom, who she was and who she is today.

Perhaps a part of me is writing this as a cathartic vehicle for sharing my family’s struggles. But the professional, executive coach in me keeps jumping back to a foundational leadership skill – listening.

I’m taking a course called ‘Conversational Intelligence’ by Judith E. Glaser (http://www.creatingwe.com/benchmark/conversational-intelligence). Judith shares that dopamine and serotonin are released in the brain when transformational conversations occur – where trust and listening occur. It is rather ironic that Parkinson’s patients are lacking in dopamine.

So what does that have to do with my mom?

I listen differently than I have in the past. I have learned that listening is not simply an audible activity. I thought I knew how to do this as a coach, but my mom has taught me this lesson far more effectively than any course or book could.

I look for eye movements or a bottom lip quivering which means Mom has something to say.

I listen to long silences with staccato breathing, while on the phone. And I keep silent knowing that Mom needs the time to formulate her thoughts, then needs more time again to vocalize them.

I search for any cues that indicate approval or otherwise. Does Mom need help getting from the table to the sofa? Is she not eating because of a lack of appetite or a lack of ability to feed herself?

And I listen deeply to my dad’s anguish as he selflessly and lovingly cares for my mom.

There are many types of coaches: life, executive, transitional, health, career… the list goes one. Regardless of practice, the underlying theme is that as coaches, we have been given the luxury of time to carefully listen to our clients. We give them space and time and permission to share, challenge, wonder, be curious and to come to their own conclusions.

An added benefit to coaching is what I term the ‘cascading positive effect’ that our clients have upon their individual ecosystems. If a coachee can take the lesson of truly listening – fully and thoughtfully and without judgment – back to their daily lives, they are infinitely better at working and being with people.

Mom, on this Mother’s Day, I listen to you as your daughter, as your champion and as your best friend. Please know that you are continuing to teach me how to be a better person. You are teaching me the incredible power of the gift of listening

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