How to Talk to Old People And What You’re Missing if You Don’t

I played Scrabble with an 88-year old woman – and English was her second language.

I lost.  Miserably.

I’m pretty good with words, and I do pretty well with Scrabble.  But my daughter’s in-laws had invited us over for Thanksgiving, and the game was an after-dinner tradition.  So Angie and I sat at the table and lined up our tiles.

I went first, and proudly placed the four-letter word that jumped out at me.

She emptied her tile rack on the first play, which included a double word score.

I thought it was just a lucky move – but it was a pattern she repeated throughout the game.  I would play my little words, and she would play her big words.

I don’t remember the final score.  But I remember being amazed at her skill.

When I asked about how she got so good at it, she humbly said, “Oh, I guess I’ve always been pretty good at word stuff.” She told me about growing up in Mexico, and things about how her family played games.

I forgot she was 88.

She was just a person – like me, like all of us – in an 88-year old body.

She might not be up on the latest technology and might have a more traditional outlook on life.  But we were on the same journey; she was just further down the path than me.

It occurred to me that I could learn something from people who have already traveled the path I have ahead of me.

It’s like getting a travel guidebook when exploring a new country.  It gives an overview of what to expect.  I don’t have to do everything that’s in the book, but it gives me a place to start and what highlights to look for.

Without the guidebook, I might miss some of the most amazing features because I’m ignoring the experience of others who’ve been there before.

Older people can be tour guides for life.  But they’re often ignored because we assume they’re out of touch, old fashioned and stuck in their ways.

Sometimes they stop talking because nobody takes the time to listen.  We start thinking that they’re older, and slower, and out of touch with things that are “current.” We assume that they’re set in their ways and wouldn’t understand our circumstances, so we have nothing in common.

I’ve found that the opposite is often true.  They have wisdom that comes from experience, but they won’t force it on someone who doesn’t value their perspective.

So we miss out.

Older people used to be teenagers.  They had struggles with school, with dating and with self-esteem. They argued with their parents, negotiated with teachers and navigated first jobs.

They had skills and awards and activities that simply brought them to life.

They danced and sang and played.

They had dreams.

They had their hearts broken.

They loved.  They lost.  They survived.

Now, time has passed, and they face the challenges of aging.  But on the inside, they’re the same person.  They’ve lived through life and figured it out.

We can learn from that.  We don’t have to walk their journey, but we can gain a perspective that can be priceless.

So, how do we learn their perspective?  Here’s a practical outline:

  • Spend unhurried time with them.
  • Ask specific questions about their life:
    • “What was dating like when you were a teenager?”
    • “What kind of stuff did you do after school?”
    • “What kinds of things were you passionate about?”
    • “Tell me about your first job.”
    • “What kind of relationship did you have with your parents?”
    • “What were you afraid of growing up?”
    • “What would you have done differently if you could live your life over again?”
  • Listen carefully as they talk. Write down things they say.  Ask clarifying questions.
  • Ask them about a challenge you’re facing with your relationships, your job, your health or your plans for the future. “What would you do if you were me?”  You don’t have to do exactly what they say, but you’ll gain their perspective.

Sure, some older people have mental impairments that make it tough to communicate.  Others have just become bitter about life and aren’t interested in sharing.  We can still value them by listening, but might not get much in return.

But if we don’t talk to older people, we’re missing out on one of the most valuable resources available to help us navigate life: Perspective.

Older people have stories.  Many of them are simply waiting for you to ask.

We’ll go to a theater and pay money to watch a fictional story about someone’s life, and we give it our undivided attention for two hours.

What if we talked to a real person about their real story instead?  They might just be a living Wikipedia about life.

Here’s the challenge: Sometime this week, talk to an older person, and just listen.  But instead of seeing them as not having anything to offer, approach the conversation with expectancy.  Don’t do it for what you can get out of it; do it to simply have a human connection with another person.

I can’t tell you what will happen.

But I’m confident you’ll be amazed.  You’ll think differently.

It could change the whole direction of your life!

Try it – then share your experience in the comments below.

Home Improvement Shows, 1958

Does Your Relationship Need A Complete Makeover?

It started with Extreme Home Makeover.

Remodeling homes are not new.  But doing it for people who couldn’t afford to do it themselves was less common.

And nobody had televised the process before.

Within a few months, it became one of the most popular shows on television.  The producers found the perfect formula for attracting viewers of all ages:

Discover a family who had experienced tragedy or hardship, who live in a house with severe problems – and it interferes with their quality of life.

Put a likable cast of characters together: A likable, extroverted leader (Ty Pennington); an attractive female contractor who wears pink gloves and hard hat (Paige Hemmis); a quirky, pseudo-grumpy contractor (Paul DiMeo); and a rotating cast of warm, friendly designers and occasional celebrities.

Find a formulaic structure crafted to tug at viewer’s emotions (surprise the family, listen to their story, send them on a dream vacation while rebuilding their home, run into last-minute problems that threaten an on-time completion, bring the family home to a big reveal with hundreds of people in the street, then focus on their overwhelmed reactions as they tour their new house).

Script a few goofy vignettes to add a slapstick feel – scenarios that appear serious, but are just crazy enough that you know they’re not real (but you don’t care).

Some people hated it.  Some people loved it.

Either way, it started a trend of home remodeling shows that continues to this day.  The plots are based on two elements:

  1. Start with an old house that’s completely run-down, then emphasize the horrible condition it’s in.
  2. Redo the house so it looks like a model home, and people will pay big bucks for it.

One night, a few weeks ago, my wife and I were watching one of these shows.  The hosts were discussing how run-down the house was, and how the layout defied logic.  Built in 1958, the floors had rotted through; mold was found behind cabinets, and the plumbing and electrical were almost non-existent.

I thought, “Wow!  That house is a horrible house.  How could anyone ever live there?”

But that’s when I had a revelation:

Sixty years ago, that house was brand new – and someone bought it because they thought it was perfect.

They built memories in that house.

They decorated it.

They brought in furniture.

They made repairs, mowed the lawns, and might have actually “modernized” it at some point.

It was their dream home.

If HGTV existed in 1958, they couldn’t have used that house as the “fixer-upper.”  It was already “fixed up.”  They would have shown it as a model of what a dream home looked like (even though it would have been in black-and-white).

In fact, move ahead to 2078.  Sixty years from now, the same house we just saw remodeled to perfection will be “the nightmare house on Elm Street.”

It’s a simple principle of life, based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics:

Things run down over time.  They don’t naturally get better; they get worse.

It happens to relationships, too.

On our wedding day, Diane and I felt like our relationship was close to perfect.  Sure, other people struggled over time – but we were different.  Nobody understood how our relationship would withstand the test of time except us.  We were in L-O-V-E.

It was really good for the first few years, and we assumed it would stay that way.  We didn’t work on the relationship much, because we didn’t think we needed to.

But over time, we noticed the emotional paint peeling and the attitudes rotting and the mold in the dark, unspoken places.  We couldn’t ignore it anymore and finally began to talk about it.  We knew that if we didn’t do something, the whole thing might come tumbling down.

That’s when the maintenance and remodeling started.  We valued the relationship enough that we decided to do an Extreme Makeover.

We weren’t sure what to do, but someone recommended a book on marriage.  We bought it, read one chapter a week, then we went out to lunch to talk about our perspective.  For the first time, we looked at the messy things together and made a plan for moving forward.

It wasn’t overnight, but it put us on the right path.  It wasn’t even the content of the book that helped the most; it just gave us an incentive to talk and to listen to each other.  That listening built trust, and trust became the foundation for the future.

After 41 years, we realize that our relationship is far from perfect.  But we’re deeply committed to maintenance.  We still read together; we go to seminars together; we’ve gone to counseling together; we take long weekends away to stay connected; we hang out with other people who are equally committed to their relationships.

The more your house is worth, the more important maintenance is.

The more valuable a relationship is, the more important maintenance is.

Some relationships need a complete makeover while others might just need a fresh coat of paint.

Think about your most important relationship.  If HGTV used that relationship on a remodeling show, which example would it be?

Would it be the “fixer-upper?” (Before remodeling)

Or would it be the dream relationship? (After remodeling)

For most of us, it would be somewhere in-between.  But it doesn’t really matter.

Here’s the point: Every relationship needs regular maintenance. Without it, the relationship will begin to run down over time.

It can be painful to take an honest look at your relationship because you’re afraid of what you might find.  But that’s like finding a lump and not going to the doctor.  Ignoring it can be fatal, and you’re worth more than that.

You deserve an accurate diagnosis for your relationship.  You’ve invested a lot in it, and it’s worth the best treatment available.  It’s common to give up hope because you can’t see a way out.

But that’s because you’re doing self-diagnosis.

You need to ask for help.

If you find that you need an extreme makeover, you want a team of seasoned experts to invest in your success:

  • A licensed therapist who specializes in challenging relationships
  • An accountability group that believes in your relationship, and will walk the journey with you
  • Boundaries against family and friends who predict failure
  • A fitness partner to build physical stamina for the journey – which leads to mental stamina
  • Create margin in your life to give you time to process
  • The spiritual refreshment that comes from genuine faith

Will the relationship improve?  Not necessarily.  But like going through chemo for cancer, you’re giving it the best shot you can.

There are never guarantees.  But there is always hope.

Don’t give up.  Not you, not now.

What do you have to lose?

What are you doing to maintain your most valuable relationship?  Share your suggestions in the comments below so we can all benefit.

An Accidental Art Lesson

I don’t know much about fine art.  But a few years ago, I got a startling lesson – and it turned out to be a life lesson as well.

My wife and I had moved to Southern California from Phoenix, so we’d often visit the beach – something we didn’t get to do in Arizona.  (Well, we had plenty of beach there . . . just no ocean.)

This particular afternoon, we made a 20-minute drive to one of the wealthy beach communities in the area.  It’s where the houses were generally bigger than ours, and the mortgages had at least one or two extra zeros.  We parked just off Pacific Coast Highway where hundreds of quaint little shops lined the street, then strolled back there to go exploring.

There were boutique clothing stores, real estate offices, restaurants, and gift shops.  Candy stores, coffee stands, and cycling shops were interspersed with photography studios and Lamborghini showrooms.

And there were art galleries.

It seemed like every other storefront was a gallery for some type of artwork, from hand-crafted jewelry to oil paintings to glass sculptures and intricate designs in wood.  Most were the work of an individual artist who was selling their own creations.

I said to my wife, “I guess if you have one of these big houses, you need a lot of art to cover the walls.”  It just made sense.  A big house needs more stuff than a little house.

We decided to turn into one of the galleries, just to see what it was like.  The owner greeted us and offered to answer questions if they came up, then encouraged us to just look around.  He wasn’t the artist, but simply displayed the work of others.

One particular item on the wall caught my attention.  It was a white canvas board about two feet square, with squares of pastel construction paper forming a checkerboard.  Each two-inch square was mounted about an inch off the canvas, giving the checkerboard a three-dimensional effect.  The whole thing was mounted in a glass case.

It was simple and nicely done.  Quite interesting, in fact.

I looked below to see the engraved details mounted on a small plaque on the wall, which included the price.

It was $250,000. 

A quarter of a million dollars for a pastel construction paper checkerboard.

I whispered to my wife, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

I’m guessing that this wasn’t the first time the owner had been asked about this, so he smiled as he strolled toward us.

“I’m assuming you might have a question about this work?” he offered.

“Well, I’m not an art connoisseur,” I said.  “But you already know what I’m going to ask, right?”

“Probably, because it’s a common question,” he replied. “You want to know what makes this piece worth a quarter-million dollars, right?”


“Two things,” he said.  “For one, it’s signed by the creator.”  He pointed to the signature at the bottom.  “You might not recognize this name, but anyone in the art community would recognize the name in an instant – and they would immediately recognize the value.”

“Second, it’s an original.  There are no copies of it anywhere.  So when someone displays this on their wall, they know it’s the real thing from the real artist.”

We decided to pass this time.  Maybe later.

I thought about that experience for days.  I thought about how we’ve purchased great looking prints at IKEA or a swap meet and framed them to decorate our house.  They look great – but if the house caught on fire, those wouldn’t be high on my “grab-these-first” items.

People are willing to pay more for something when it’s original – and signed – than they are for a copy of the same piece.  It’s the uniqueness that sets it apart from everything else.

Then why do we try to be like others so often?  Why do we get caught up comparing ourselves, feeling like we’re not as good as them?

The musicians, artists and sports figures we admire most capture our respect because they’re unique.

Sometimes we hear a singer compared to someone else.  I remember hearing a really good singer described as sounding “just like Bruno Mars.”  That might be OK when you’re starting out in your craft, but people won’t pay big bucks to hear that person in concert.

They don’t want a copy.

They want the real thing.

That’s the danger of comparing ourselves or our work with others.  We see someone who is unique and want to be like them.

But that robs the world of our own uniqueness.

Authors run into this a lot.  I once had an idea for a book, then went to Barnes & Noble and saw a dozen other books on the same topic.  My mind went to the same place it always does:

“There are already so many good books out there.  Why should I write another one on that topic?”

I verbalized that to a good friend.  He said, “Because nobody else has your voice or experience.  You don’t have to write a book that’s better than all the others.  You have to write a book that’s uniquely yours.  Not everybody will buy it, but some people will because your story speaks to them.”

He continued: “But they can’t buy it if it’s not on the shelf.”

Do you ever feel like you don’t have much to offer?  That you don’t have much value compared to others?

Here’s the solution:

  • Create the work. Be original.  Don’t be a copy.  Be the best version of you possible instead of comparing yourself to others.
  • Sign your name. Your uniqueness can change somebody’s life.

Based on my friend’s advice, I did write that book.  It’s on that shelf now, and it’s helped a lot of people.

At first, the writing was tough.  I was still thinking of all those other books and wondering how to make mine different. But as I wrote, my own ideas began to surface.  I quit comparing and started composing.

And my voice came through.  When that happened, the book became valuable.  It wasn’t just a collection of tips and techniques; it became a conversation between me and the reader.

That’s how we create a work of art.  Not by copying, but by being ourselves.  It’s when we create something that’s uniquely ours.

That’s the criteria for a masterpiece.  It might not have a quarter-million dollar price tag, but it’s priceless.

Because it’s you.

You have a unique voice – a unique gift – a unique perspective.  What unique contribution can you make?  If you feel comfortable, share what you think your rare gift is in the comments section.  Sometimes saying it publicly makes it more real, and helps overcome comparison.  Let us know in the comments below.

A Communication Tune-Up

A Quick Way to Strengthen All Your Relationships

Suppose the world was divided into two broad groups; which would you be in?

  1. Those who have trouble talking
  2. Those who have trouble listening

Sure, it might depend on the situation.  But I bet you know which group you’re in.

If you’re in the first group, you’ve probably wondered how to become a better conversationalist.  Sometimes it’s a challenge, and you’d like to become more confident.

If you’re in the second group, you might not know it.  Conversation comes naturally for you, so you assume you don’t need any help with communication skills.  In fact, you might wonder why the other group doesn’t just talk more.

I grew up in the first group – and it’s still my default setting.

I’ve never considered myself to be shy, but I definitely grew up on the “quiet side.”  Everyone I knew seemed to be more outgoing than I was, and I envied their ability to strike up a conversation and keep it going.

Deep inside, I felt like there was something wrong with me.

I had a few friends I would hang out with who were also introverts.  We were kind of a “secret society” of quiet people.  Occasionally, I would build a relationship with an extrovert.  My self-esteem grew because a popular person would associate with me.

But no matter who I was talking to, I always wondered how they perceived me.  I assumed they noticed how uncomfortable I was, as though I was wearing a sign around my neck that said, “Don’t ask me about my day.”

My solution was to act like an extrovert.  If I could pretend to be more outgoing, maybe I could fit in with others.

In grade school, part of our grade was often based on class participation.  That was painful for those of us who learned best by listening, but was a reward for those who were naturally more outgoing.  I remember forcing myself to ask one question aloud each class period so I could get the participation grade, but it didn’t make me any smarter.  In fact, it hindered my learning because it didn’t allow for my unique learning style.

I read articles about how to be more outgoing and got a lot of good tips.  They worked for a while, but it was draining.  Pretending is hard work.

I was trying to become something I wasn’t.

I felt like a Volkswagen trying to become a race car.

I’ve often assumed that the confidence I see in everyone else is what they’re actually feeling.  But sometimes I pretend to be confident when I’m not.  If I’m doing that, it’s realistic to assume that others are doing the same thing.

Imagine what it would be like if everyone told the truth about what they were feeling during conversations:

“I’m afraid to talk to you because I’m afraid you won’t like me.”

“I’m really intimidated by you.”

“I’m a lot more interested in what I have to say than in what you think.”

Decades later, I’ve learned how to communicate with confidence.  But it hasn’t been by becoming more outgoing.  I’m still in the quiet group, and always will be.

No matter which group you’re in, I learned that effective communication doesn’t come through tips and techniques; it comes through being yourself.

I even wrote a book about it.

Conversation and Life

Conversation is the most important tool we have for 21st-century living.  Almost everything we do depends on it.  We can’t buy a car, negotiate a business deal or strengthen a relationship without conversation.

When it’s done effectively, we get satisfying results.

When it’s done ineffectively, we’re unsatisfied with the outcomes.

If it’s that important, why don’t we spend more time trying to get better?  We’ll pay someone to help us improve our golf swing, learn photography or develop our computer skills.  But when it comes to making conversation, we settle for the way things are – assuming it can’t change.

We might have read a book or article to get ideas for improvement, but just found tips for talking that seemed foreign to our temperament.  Discouraged, we resign ourselves to making the best of a bad situation.

But the problem isn’t having the wrong personality; it comes when we try to change who we are into something we’re not.

Compensating for perceived weaknesses won’t lead to conversational success.  Instead, we need to embrace the personality we have and explore ways to capitalize on it.

Taking golf lessons doesn’t change your body type.  It teaches you to get the most out of the body you have.

Why not spend time studying your personality and learning to get the most out of it?  The benefits will take you a lot farther than simply improving your putting skills.

Time for a Tune-Up

For some people, learning to communicate effectively requires a complete remodeling job.  For others, it’s just a fresh coat of paint.  No matter what our conversational skills are like, we could all use a little “spring cleaning” now and then.

I’d like to help make that happen – for about the cost of a venti mocha at Starbucks.  Here’s the assignment:

Click on this Amazon link and pick up a copy of my little book, How to Communicate with Confidence.

You’ve probably seen it on racks at CVS and other drug stores, grocery stores, and airport bookstores.  Now, it’s time to pick up a copy – for yourself, or for someone who could use help with their conversational skills.  You’ll learn how to:

  • Customize conversational techniques to fit your temperament
  • Start, continue and end a conversation
  • Handle tough conversations
  • Use electronic communication effectively
  • Listen deeply to others
  • Ask questions effectively
  • Be yourself

I’ve had several psychologists tell me they give their clients this book when their conversational skills need help.  If you’re an introvert, you’ll find tools for communicating effectively.  If you’re an extrovert, you’ll learn about communication styles that differ from yours and how to work best with them.

We all could use a tune-up, and this is a chance to try it for yourself.

You don’t have to be different.

You don’t have to be better.

You have to be you!


What one area of communication would you like to improve? Share it in the comments below.

Pick up your copy of How to Communicate with Confidence today – then let us know one way you’ll apply what you’ve read!

“Mike is a student of the art of communication.  He will make a good teacher for every reader.” – John Ortberg, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

“Does anyone really know how to communicate well? Mike does, and this is a great tool to develop intimate relationships and deeper connections in any situation.” – Steve Arterburn, New Life Ministries

What Happens When You Stop Learning?

(It's Worse Than You Think)

She didn’t fit the typical coffee shop crowd.

Usually, the place is filled with students with computers, business people with lattes and a few older folks scanning their iPads.

But not this woman.  She and her granddaughter sat across from each other a few feet down from me, and there was a small, open box between them.  Her silver hair was styled comfortably, making her look much younger than she actually was.  She also has a sense of fashion without being presumptuous.  She was stylin’.

When she spoke she was confident, but not in a pushy way.  “I can do this, you know.  That’s why I bought it.”

“Absolutely, Grandma.  You’ve never been afraid to try new stuff.”

“Maybe that’ll happen when I get old,” she said.

“So, how old are you now?”

“I’m only 94.  Now, show me what else this thing can do.”

The granddaughter, a woman in her early 40’s let her Grandma hold the watch herself and try things out while she talked her through the steps.

The box on the table had a familiar logo: Apple.

I was there to work on an article I’m writing and clean up some emails.  But this was too good to ignore.  A 94-year old woman just purchased an Apple watch and was committed to learning how to use it.

“Will it show my heart rate?”

“It sure will, Grandma. See?  It’s right here.”

“That’s important,” the woman said. “I’ll check it every morning.  If it shows I have a pulse, I’ll get up.”  They both laughed.

“Does it keep track of how many steps I take?”

“Yep. And it also shows exactly where you are, and I can see it on a map on my computer.”

“That’s good.  I’m supposed to walk 10,000 steps a day.  If I get lost, I’ll just keep walking until you come find me.”  They both laughed again.

This went on for another 30 minutes.  Grandma tried each instruction several times until she finally got it.  Granddaughter wasn’t irritated that it took multiple tries.  I felt like her patience was giving her grandma a gift of great respect.

Finally, it was time for them to go.  Grandma wrapped the watch around her wrist and snugged it up.

“Thanks, Honey,” she said to her granddaughter.  “Next time, can you show me how it connects with my iPhone?”

And they left. 

I watched them walk slowly away, and realized this wasn’t one of those older marathon runners that are in the peak of physical shape.  She was just an elderly woman who decided not to think elderly.

She had a young attitude because she decided to keep learning.

In the corporate work I’ve done over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who learned how to do their job really well – and then they simply stop learning.  The clock in, do their job routinely and clock out.

They feel stuck.  They feel like there’s nothing they can do about their circumstances, so they give up.  They feel like victims, so everything that happens reinforces that feeling.

If they believe that they’re a failure, they’ll see every mistake as evidence that it’s true.  When they do something well, they assume it was just a lucky break.

But they don’t have to do that.

Just because we believe something about ourselves doesn’t mean it’s true.

We can challenge those beliefs.

It’s not our IQ that holds us back; it’s our willingness to keep learning.

Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

Are you still learning?  Or do you find yourself pulling away from challenges?

This week, be aware of how you’re thinking about yourself.  Then, push the envelope just a little.  It doesn’t take massive change – just a little nudge.

If you always stay in your comfort zone, stick your toes just over the edge. For instance, I know how to write, but have always been overwhelmed by the process of “getting it out there.”  So I hired an expert who’s teaching me the ropes and managing the process.  She’s not demanding massive change all at once; she’s just making it “safe” to play in new territory. 

If you feel stagnant, pick one small thing you wish you knew how to do.  Google it, YouTube it or watch a video about it and then try it.  Pick something simple that you want to learn – how to make biscotti, write a blog, understand the stock market, forecast the weather, take great children’s photos, or play chess.

Get in the habit of learning little things all the time.

Maybe when you’re 94, you’re granddaughter will be teaching you the latest technology.

Or better yet – maybe you’ll be teaching her.

What’s one small step will you take to grow this week?  Share in the comments below.