When a Stranger Calls

unexpected contact[Prefer listening to reading? There’s a podcast episode based on this post: Reconnection Club Podcast Episode 7: Preparing for Unexpected Contact]

Whether you think you’re likely to bump into your estranged adult child out there in the world or not, it will behoove you to get familiar with this month’s topic.

Preparing for unexpected contact might feel like preparing for a monsoon in the desert, especially if your child lives far away.

But what if your child suddenly decides to call you? You could pick up the phone and find yourself waist-deep in a conversation you weren’t ready for.

Even when contact feels unlikely, preparing for the possibility will corral thoughts and feelings that may feel “all over the place” and focus them on what matters most. At the very east, it may bring more clarity.

At best, it could prepare you to make the most of a sudden opportunity.

You know what they say: “Expect the worst (no contact) but prepare for the best (contact that hits all the right notes).”

Unexpected Contact

Don’t let this happen to you:

“I turned around at the farmers market and my daughter was right in front of me. I was completely caught off guard. We exchanged a few words and things seemed to be going well until I accidentally mentioned a subject I shouldn’t have. She ended the conversation quite abruptly and left. I am kicking myself! I am afraid I pushed our relationship backwards five steps instead of forwards. I wish I could go back and do it over again.”

Or this:

“My son called last night out of the blue. He said he misses me, and was thinking about coming home for a visit. I was flabbergasted but of course very pleased. I started asking questions about how he was going to get here, where he was staying, etc. and he got mad and said ‘Never mind.’ I don’t even know what happened, but before I knew it, he’s not coming to visit anymore.”

The antidote to regret is preparedness. The more time and energy you put into preparing your unexpected-contact strategy, the better you’ll handle the moment.

Here are some steps to take:

1. Get clear on triggers.

Asking questions, talking politics, offering advice, even just plain disagreeing… anything that’s caused problems between you in the past may still be a trigger.

You can’t plan to NOT-do something. You can only plan what you WILL do. For each trigger, plan a to-do around its opposite.


Instead of asking questions, plan mostly to listen and reflect.

Instead of talking politics, pick 3 other topics that you will stick to.

Instead of offering advice, plan to validate.

Instead of disagreeing, plan to focus on finding points of agreement

If you have no idea what triggers your child, let him or her take the lead. Focus on listening and validating.

2. Don’t follow a script.

If you plan exactly what you’re going to say, you’ll get lost as soon as your child responds differently than expected.

You might also miss important cues from your child that could take the conversation in a fruitful direction.


3. Stay present.

If it’s been a very long time since your last contact, you might be gripped by thoughts like, “This is it! I’ve got to make the most of it!” or “I need him to know…” or “I’d better not blow this.”

Don’t get lost in a cloud of anxiety when contact takes you by surprise. Stay grounded in the here-and-now. Concentrate on listening, not speaking. It’s hard to go wrong by listening.

Practice being present in day-to-day conversations with others, so you know you can do it when it counts.

In person, notice their expression, body language, eye contact, and so on. If on the phone, listen for their breath, their vocal tone, the volume and pace of their voice, etc.

Drink them in. Get to know them in this moment.

Don’t rush anything. Allow the conversation to unfold. You don’t have to control it.

If you remember nothing else, remember #4…

4. Adopt a mantra.

Decide today on a single word or phrase that represents your personal stance toward your child. What attitude do you want to be sure to convey to them during your next conversation? What gift do you want to leave them with the next time you talk?

If you’re human, you probably already carry an unconscious mantra, or several different ones, with respect to your child. It might be something like “Defend (myself),” or “Hold tight,” or “Why?”

Choose a mantra that reflects your true purpose and practice projecting it out toward your child. You won’t use the actual word in conversation, or tell your child what you’re doing. You’ll express the idea through your words, your tone of voice, and if in person, with eye contact and body language.

Some suggestions for mantras are “Smiles,” “Service” and “Love.” If you have one of these keywords in mind the whole time you’re talking to your child, you’ll convey either a smile, a desire to be of service, or the love you feel towards them.

Having a mantra will help you choose the right words to say.

For instance, if your mantra is Service, you won’t request anything from your child. If your heart and mind are full of Love, Forgiveness, or Peace, you’ll use only loving, forgiving, or peaceful words.

Choose just one mantra that you will automatically activate the next time your child appears. Practice it when you’re with other people so you know how it feels to hold a conversation with someone from that place of smiles, or service, or love, or … ?

Choose one of these words or come up with your own. And practice, practice, practice.

This way, no matter what the content of your next conversation with your child, you will convey what you intend to convey, making the most of that precious contact.

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