Empathic Listening for Parents
Does it ever seem that the more you try to engage with your child or teenager, the more they pull away? It can be disheartening to have a total communication breakdown that leads to arguments, distancing, and rebellion. Many teens and older kids just want to be left alone, but as a parent you know how important it is to engage with your child and stay present during the difficult stages in their lives. So, how do you break through and get them to listen without lecturing? A simple strategy called empathic listening can help.
Empathic listening involves more than just your ears. It means, listening with your eyes, your heart, and your undivided attention. Mark says that empathic listening cannot happen when we are focused on personal agendas, prescriptive advice, or judgment when talking to teenagers and children. Instead, empathic listening requires parents to tap into how their children feel, to notice sources of pain, and to ask questions that go deeper, so their children feel less alone.
In this article, bestselling author Mark Goulston will show you exactly how to use empathic listening to make your teen feel heard, loved, and less alone. Mark is one of the world’s foremost experts on the science of listening. He has been named America’s top psychiatrist, he’s a suicide prevention specialist, and he trains hostage negotiators for the FBI. Mark has over 40 years of clinical experience practicing the power of empathic listening and has written 7 books on the topic, including the #1 book on listening, Just Listen. Here, he uncovers his most powerful, FBI-grade strategies to unlock closer communication with kids and teens. He’ll show you how empathic listening can open up several routes to stronger relationships and help you impart advice to even the most resistant teenagers.
Mark Goulston’s Parenting Master Class
We also have an interactive video course with Mark Goulston, which breaks down the concepts from this article in precise detail. In these 9 relatable video lessons, Mark teaches a variety of game-changing strategies to talk to your moody or silent child or teen without causing them to shut you out. By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to apply these approaches with ease and use empathic listening to help you and your children become better talkers and listeners.
Why Empathic Listening Breaks Through
According to Mark, what kids and teenagers crave most is to feel heard, understood, and empathized with. Ultimately, they want to be less alone. Parents can accidentally cause their teens to feel more alienated by not understanding empathic listening. When a parent chooses to lecture, give advice, or listen inattentively, a teen might feel alone and unpaired. However, Mark explains that having an effective conversation will help your teen pair with you and feel heard and seen.
Advice Can Be a Dead End
You might wonder, why does offering helpful advice make my teen feel disconnected? It can be painful when you commit yourself to offering solutions, only to make your teen feel worse. Why does this paradoxical effect happen? First, if your teenager is in a rut, they might have the sense that they can’t do anything right. Everything they attempt seems to end poorly and they have no confidence that things will turn around. In this case, they don’t want solutions because those can feel like just another thing to fail at and feel guilty about. So, instead of offering solutions, Mark recommends finding a way to deeply connect with what your teen is experiencing. That’s where empathic listening comes into play.
Six Steps to Deep Connection
Your teen wants to feel heard and less alone, and you can hit these targets dead-center if you follow Mark’s six steps. It all begins with your demeanor, or Focus. When parents don’t set their intentions on being present, teens will notice and disengage. Why would a teenager try to relate when they realize Dad is focused on the radio, his phone, or the shape of his lawn? Step one of empathic listening is all about being present, which includes disregarding the past and future. What that translates to is not being judgmental about what your teen has done in the past, or authoritative about what they should do in the future. Your teen probably isn’t asking you about their painful problems because they’re not looking for judgement or instruction. They just want to feel better. By listening presently, you can tap into how they feel, and by doing so, help them pair with you in a moment of despair.
The second step to empathic listening is to become a first-class observer and Notice. Mark identifies three parts of speech that can clue you in to what’s really bothering your teen. One is hyperbole, which can come out as, “I feel horrendous,” “awful,” or “horrible.” Another is inflection on certain words, such as “I just can’t!” or “It sucks.” Third, Mark wants you to look out for juicy adjectives and adverbs that negatively modify your teen’s language, like “ugly,” “disgusting,” or “useless.” All of these elements of speech have emotional components that can help you identify your teen’s major source of pain.
Step three of empathic listening is to Be Curious about these emotionally charged descriptions by showing interest or empathy when they arise. This funnels into the fourth action, which is to Ask. Mark recommends that you ask your teen why they describe their situation in these ways. Since they’re likely emotional when they use inflection or hyperbole, a simple question can open the flood gates to reveal even more about their internal experience.
But you’re not through with the process of empathic listening just yet. The next step is to Go Deeper. This is as simple as asking your teen, “Can you tell me more about this?” and you’ll be shocked at how articulate they can be about a problem they might have been hiding from you all along.
The sixth and final step of Mark’s guide to empathic listening is to Reiterate what your teen has said, and see that they understand you. When they hear you accurately repeat their feelings, they’ll know you’ve been closely and deeply listening to them. Suddenly they don’t feel so alone. And in a best-case scenario, your teen will hug you and say, “Thanks Mom and Dad. I feel better.” As Mark puts it, “That’s a 10.”
Conversational Hacks to Take Empathic Listening to the Next Level
Often, parents find that starting the conversation can be the greatest challenge. How can you make progress with empathic listening when your teen ignores your every advance? Well, Mark has three secret weapons that you can use to turn the tables on your teen and get them to open up.
This empathic listening technique has a complicated name, but don’t worry, it’s actually very simple. ‘Catharsis’ refers to getting something off your chest to have an emotional release, in this case, it’s getting your teen to say something they’ve been keeping inside, but don’t want to say to your face. When Mark says ‘mediated,’ he just means that the teen won’t be performing the catharsis all on their own. Instead, you will act as a mediator.
Here’s an example of the exercise. When you’re feeling stuck and can’t get the conversation started, you can say:
“Hey Sarah, I think I’ve got a solution to help us get past this. But you’ve got to play along. I know it might sound crazy and you can tell me to zip it if I’m off track, but really I think I’ve got an idea, so play with this for a minute. I want you to tell me ‘Mom, you are a controlling, manipulative b*tch and I never want to talk to you about anything because I know you’re just going to talk behind my back and use it against me. I’m so sick of you, it’s no wonder why I go straight to my room every day and talk to my friends online instead of you. You just don’t get it!’ Okay, now you try saying it to me. Don’t hold back, I mean you really should lay into me.”
Yes, it does sound a little crazy at first. But this is empathic listening at its finest. When you engage in mediated catharsis you are putting yourself in your teenager’s shoes and listening to their unspoken emotions. That’s the definition of empathic listening! If you can get your teen to express feelings that they wouldn’t otherwise tell you, it can segue into a meaningful conversation about improving the relationship. Plus, you won’t take the criticism personally since you are the mediator and you’re the one running the show.
Here’s another advanced-level empathic listening technique. Assertive humility essentially boils down to saying, “Help me to help you.” For this to work, you need to assert, or admit, to your teen that you can’t figure out exactly how to help them, but you would really love it if you could.
This can help your teen open up because it puts you on a level playing field. With assertive humility, you’re claiming that you’re not the expert, nor are you here to lecture. On the contrary, you’re admitting that your teen has the key to alleviating their own anger, sadness, or fear, and you’re asking their advice on how to help. When you put your teen in the driver’s seat, that’s a form of empathic listening and it leads to a closer connection.
This method for jumpstarting empathic listening is a bit more direct than assertive humility, which some teens might prefer. To use declarative humility, you just have to make a statement that highlights an area you’re lacking in, or need to work on more to connect with your teen. It could be as simple as saying, “The way I communicate with you sucks. How do I become less suck-y?”
Like assertive humility, declarative humility is a way to demonstrate that you value your teen’s recommendation, which might make them more receptive to connection. Plus, you’ll be relating to your teen by humbling yourself and asking for their help. Ultimately, this empathic listening hack helps your teen by introducing new ways for him or her to take charge and improve your conversations.
Four Levels of Talking and Listening
According to Mark, there are four different levels on which conversations can take place. Empathic listening is about getting to the highest level: talking with someone and using receptive listening. These levels of communication will have your teen leaning in to hear what you’re saying, as well as recognizing a connection that makes them feel less alone. So, what makes them so special, and what are the ‘lower’ levels of communication?
In Mark’s framework, the four types of talking are paired with the four types listening. The first level of talking is talking over somebody, which comes across as condescending or demeaning. It is paired with removed listening because it occurs when you aren’t being present and you are simply focusing on yourself. This is about as far away from true empathic listening as you can get.
The second level is talking at somebody, which causes the listener to either cower from the verbal onslaught, or puff out their chest in defiance. Parallel to talking at is reactive listening, which can be described as hearing, but not understanding. It is competitive and aggressive, leading to arguments instead of relating. At least you’re taking turns to talk on this level, but it’s still nowhere near empathic listening.
Mark refers to level three as “business as usual” communication. It is comprised of talking to someone and responsible listening. This might sound like, “Hey, it was raining outside and I noticed you got wet. You’re probably cold, so you should change into dry clothes.” It’s respectful, but lacks a strong connection. The two people are listening to each other and hearing the other person’s words, but they aren’t listening past the words. That’s what it takes to achieve true empathic listening.
The gold standard for incredible communication is level four: talking with someone and demonstrating receptive listening. This type of empathic listening can only be established through a warm, open tone, an effort to take in the emotions and context behind your teen’s words, and a focus on ways to make your teen feel better. It might sound like, “Oh no, that sounds really horrible. Are you okay? Let me get you some tea so you can relax and tell me more. I’m sure you’ll feel much better after you sit down, but if you’d rather be alone in your room, you can always talk with me later. I’m here for you.”
Why Prescriptive Advice Kills Empathic Listening
Often, teens simply don’t want to hear solutions from their parents, which can make you feel like you have no way to help your child solve their problems. Giving solutions when your child doesn’t want them completely destroys empathic listening. There are a few issues with giving your kids the answers, Mark says.
For one thing, giving unwanted advice can inhibit your teen from developing crucial problem solving skills, putting them at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have learned how to answer tough questions on their own. Another issue is that teens who feel like they can’t win at anything don’t want something else to fail at. They will ignore a solution from a parent simply to avoid the possibility of coming up short if they were to put the advice into action. That’s a serious barrier to empathic listening.
Further, some teens aren’t receptive to their parents’ advice because they are defiant. This isn’t the end of the world, it just means that the teen might have to get their life lessons from an alternate source, such as a mentor, coach, or their own self-discovery. Mark believes that it isn’t so important where the advice comes from as long as they get it from somewhere.
Finally, parents who focus on giving advice can inadvertently enable their teens to make more poor decisions. When a teen feels guilty or trapped and needs to express their problems to a parent, having a conversation about solutions might get the negative feelings off their chest without inspiring them to change their behavior. Solution-giving often leads to level three listening, not true empathic listening. Parents who are always available to offer advice might enable their teen to make the same mistakes again next time knowing you’ll always be there to soothe their discomfort. Without discomfort, a teen can be less driven to take advice to heart and make a tangible life adjustment. Mark’s advice is to cut your teen off from your answers until they prove they intend to take them seriously. Providing temporary relief is not helping to solve anything.
Mark Goulston dives deep into each of these missteps and offers his own insights on better ways to communicate in the full, interactive, video masterclass. If you want to learn more about empathic listening and take home a few personalized word-for-word scripts to help you connect with your teen, you can take the first four lessons of Mark’s course for free any time right here at Talking to Teens.