When your child comes home from school with a problem and you are in the middle of a million things at once, what is the initial thought that comes to your mind? You want to know how to fix the problem as fast as possible. So you quickly begin spouting off some trite solutions that may or may not hit the mark like, “just ignore him” or “tell the teacher” or “find someone else to play with.” Chances are your child dismisses all of them for one reason or another, leaving you both frustrated. Next time this happens, try empathetic listening instead. You may find the conversation ends on a much different note.
What is empathetic listening? If you have images of lying on a coach having someone nod or repeat, “I see” a hundred times after you speak, you are mistaken! Empathetic listening is active and engaged and seeks to get to the heart of the matter for the person in need.
How can I do this?
- First, stop what you are doing. If you can’t, tell your child that you can see that this issue is important to him and that you want to give it your full attention. Make a specific appointment time when you will be free and keep it. Saying, “we will talk about it later” is not specific and will send the message that you are not really available to him.
- Second, make eye contact and ask him to tell you what is going on. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask any probing questions, except those that will help clarify.
- Third, as your child speaks, try to match the intensity (but not necessarily, volume!) of what is being told. You can say things like, “Boy – how maddening!” or “You just wanted to get out of there.” Get to the essence of the feelings that your child is trying to communicate. The quicker and more accurately you can do this, the more likely he will feel heard and will find no need to exaggerate or embellish to communicate the level of the feeling he is having.
- Fourth, get over the discomfort you may have with doing this. You may feel silly. You may even think the issue at hand isn’t a big deal! But you have to remember that it is a big deal to your child. Give him the same compassion and reflection of feeling you would give to a friend in a crisis.
- Fifth, if you accurately empathize, you will be able to watch your child soften before your eyes. Once this happens and he has given full expression to his feelings, you can ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” It is possible that venting was all that was needed. If not, problem solve together. As much as possible, let him come up with his own solutions.
Empathetic listening may be just the “fix” you were aiming for!