Empathize to Harmonize

Having raised two teenagers and now watching five Grandsons work their way through their teen years, I truly understand how difficult this age can be for the parents responsible for these young lives. Dr. Sharon Maxwell, PhD, likens it to labor pains. Just as we went through the physically painful birthing process of our babies, we are now enduring the emotional birthing pains of this new young adult. One valuable lesson I have learned through the years is that learning how to listen with empathy and validation goes a long way to taming the bickering and discord that comes with living with a teen. First fact to remember is that taking the time to listen with patience and empathy does not require me to understand or to agree with the teen. It allows them to have an open ear to hear them without judgment. It can be enough to say I " hear you. You are upset that this happened, Tell me more".

Being heard is very important to young people today. Their lives are filled with adults who are telling them what to do, how to do it and often when to do it. Being heard opens an opportunity for communication to actually take place; increases your chance of actually being heard when you speak; and decreases the likelihood of arguments arising. Learning how to listen with empathy goes a long way to improve family communication.

The second important step in this process is to be attentive to the empathy blockers commonly found in our conversations. You may be tempted to give advice to help them successfully resoluve their issues. This is a big time empathy blocker, and often a conversation stopper. I am sure that you are already aware of how well advice goes over with teens. Unless they ask for it, put a lid on the advice. If you must respond try a heartfelt "Wow" or "Oh"!. "Wow, that must have been hard", is another good choice. Be sure you are sincere and authentic. Insincerity rings loud and clear. It will definitely put an end to communication.

How about this blocker? Have you ever been tempted to be defensive? Of course most of us have. Closely related to this is the need to prove your view is right. Try to remember at this moment it is not about you, it is about you hearing their perspective on what happened. Again it can be enough to say I " hear you. You are upset that this happened, Tell me more". Remember that when your teen is talking about their emotions right or wrong has nothing to do with resolving the situation. At this moment the feelings need an empathetic ear, not a lecture or lesson to be learned.

There is one more subtle trap that can easily be fallen into. It is what The Relationship Foundation calls "Empathy Guessing". For example, they share that they gave the wrong answer in front of the whole Math class. You respond in your best empathetic fashion "this must have been embarrassing for you". Well perhaps, or maybe they were disappointed or frustrated or even angry at themselves. How do we really know what someone else is feeling? It truly is a guess on our part. If you want to elevate yourself to an empathetic All Star practice some of these responses. "I imagine that you might be feeling ...", or I am wondering if you are/were feeling ...."? By slightly changing how we ask the question gives them room to clarify what was really going on in their life, and not just responding to your prompts.

Developing the skill of empathetic listening can bring a whole new dimension to your conversations with your teen. It helps deepen connections and foster healthy relationships. It is a powerful tool.