We continue with what is turning out to be a month of guest bloggers with a post from featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.
Just the other day I got a text message from one of my adult children complaining about a problem. I texted back a helpful suggestion, and another, and another. Which were received with several, “Yes, buts.” It wasn’t until a couple hours later that it occurred to me that I could have simply been empathetic. I could have listened and acknowledged the challenges of dealing with that problem instead of trying to fix it.
I know that listening with empathy is the best way to respond. I have experienced the benefits many times.
- When I listen empathetically, I show respect. Being respected helps anyone cope with difficult situations.
- When I listen without trying to solve the problem, I convey confidence in the other person’s ability to deal with the situation. The process of coming up with one’s own solutions to problems promotes learning and growth and increased ability and confidence.
- When I refrain from offering solutions, I usually find out more information about the situation. When the other person feels free to tell me more, the problem becomes clearer to both of us.
Empathetic listening without jumping in to try to “fix it” is the cornerstone of the classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and a major part of most other parenting books and curriculums. It’s a skill that is useful in any relationship.
Yes, there are times when fixing a problem is necessary—medical emergencies and dangerous situations are times to act and be empathetic along the way. In non-emergencies, empathy is a place to start; sometimes it is all that is needed, other times it opens the door to finding out more information and problem solving together or with outside help.
I share the strategy of empathetic listening with parents in my workshops and in my volunteer work all the time. I’m reasonably successful in responding empathetically to other people. But, as I tell parents, it is a whole lot easier to respond with empathy to a stranger or a friend than to your own children—even when they are competent adults! When I’m the parent, I have a strong gut urge to fix whatever the problem is. However, I have found some strategies that help me remember:
- Giving myself empathy first.
- Acknowledging (to myself) my underlying worries and fears about my child’s condition or situation. The urge to jump in with solutions is usually based in fear.
- Apologize when I jump into fix-it mode. Request a do over. Ask my children to remind me.
Being empathetic isn’t easy. It is worth it, though. One mother shared in a workshop that she dreading having her children tell her things because she thought she needed to solve all their problems, once she let go of having to “fix it,” she was happy to listen more. Now that I think about it, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that text in the first place without a background of years of (much of the time, anyway) listening without trying to “fix it.”
Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to two boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.