Empathy Opens the Door . . . to problem solving and more

MarcilieUncategorized3 Comments

While walking in Lake Tahoe with a friend, my 8 YO daughter ran up to me and said, “I’m dying for some jelly beans!”

“Jelly beans are terrible for your body and your teeth,” I replied.  

My daughter looked up at me, frowned and then ran away. I had literally repelled her with my unfeeling retort. I closed the door.

I realized immediately what I had done. It wasn’t a huge deal, of course, but I missed the opportunity to connect, build our relationship, and maybe even do some problem-solving together.  

It’s small moments like this that can leave children feeling disconnected, misunderstood, or hurt. Even worse, these moments can teach children that it doesn’t pay to share authentic thoughts, feelings, or desires with their parents. They learn to be quiet or careful about sharing real problems.

Put yourself in a child’s shoes for a moment. For the following scenarios, imagine you’re on the other side of a door when your parent says these things to you. If you feel understood, connected, and open to more conversation, open an imaginary door.  If not, close it.

Scenario 1

Child:  “I’m so upset! The classroom fish died today and I found it floating in the water!”

Parent: “Oh, it’s just a fish. Your teacher can get a new one.”

As the child, what are you thinking and feeling? What are you deciding about your parent? Do you want to open the door or close it?

Scenario 2:

Child: “I have way too much homework tonight. I can’t believe my teachers feel the need to pile it on so high.”

Parent: “The longer you wait, the longer it takes, so I suggest you get started.”

As the child, do you feel heard and understood? What do you want to do with that door?

Let’s try again, this time starting with empathy.

Scenario 1

Child:  “I’m so upset! The classroom fish died today and I found it floating in the water!”

Parent: “Oh no! That must have been quite a shock and really sad. Was it the little orange one or the black one?”

As the child, what are you thinking and feeling? What are you deciding about your parent? Do you want to open the door or close it?

Scenario 2:

Child: “I have way too much homework tonight.  I can’t believe my teachers feel the need to pile it on so high.”

Parent: “Your teachers gave you way too much homework tonight, huh? Ugh.”

What are you thinking and feeling now as the child? What do you want to do with that door?

“Empathy opens the door to problem solving. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it allows the next steps to occur.”  

These were the exact words of Stephen Foster, co-author of Positive Discipline for Special Needs, at an educator workshop in 2012. They felt so true to me then, and still do today.

Once the door is open, I can probe further to get to the root of the issue. Or I can help my child figure out what to do next.  Here’s an example using Scenario 2 above:

Child: “I have way too much homework tonight.  I can’t believe my teachers feel the need to pile it on so high.”

Parent: “Your teachers gave you way too much homework tonight, huh? Ugh.”

[Door is now a little bit open]

Child:  “Yes! Why can’t they do a better job of coordinating with each other? I’ve got three papers in three different classes due!”

Parent:  “Wow, that does seem like a lot. I wonder if they even know what the other teacher is assigning.”

[Door opens a bit wider]

Child:  “It doesn’t seem like it. It’s just ridiculous. I don’t know how I’m ever going to finish.”

Parent: “I don’t know, either. What are the papers about?”

[And we are potentially off and running . . . right through the door.]

Empathy opens the door to much more than just problem-solving, however.  It also opens the door to understanding, connection, and trust. It helps children feel that you’re on their side.

And once children see you as an ally, they’re much more likely to be calm, creative, and open to your influence and to new solutions. They’re more likely to come to you with problems. They’re more likely to become empathic, emotionally-intelligent adults, too.

Have you ever experienced a time when you were confused or upset, and you happened upon a good listener who simply listened and validated your feelings as you talked through your situation? They didn’t try to talk you out of your feelings, or tell you how to fix them, or judge you for having them. They simply listened with empathy.

And then the answer just came to you, all on your own?

How connected did you feel to that person? Did you respect them? Would you go back to them again when you had another problem?  Maybe a more serious one like drug abuse, bullying, or depression?

Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute has this to say about empathy:  

“When kids are able to watch an interaction that’s empathic, empathy isn’t just being taught; it’s being demonstrated,” Dan says, “When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. . . . Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”

Why is it so hard to start with empathy?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’d love to know if you agree.

1. It’s hard to start with empathy because we believe that validating feelings is the same as validating actions.

If we validate our child’s love for jelly beans, we think that means we must then give her the jelly beans.  But we don’t. We can empathize with her wants, and still hold a limit. 

“Allow feelings. Limit behavior.” — Dr. Laura Markham

For example, “You really love jelly beans and you want some right now!” simply validates my child’s experience. It does not mean that I must go get her the jelly beans. Sometimes being understood is enough, and children can then more easily let go of the thing they want but can’t have.  

2. It’s hard to start with empathy because we think acknowledging our child’s experience will prolong the problem or make it worse.

When my son complains about homework, it’s much quicker to just say, “The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be done.” We hope that this kind of response will snap some sense into our kids, but in reality, it feeds disconnection and will likely invite even more delays. Now your child has two enemies rather than just one:  the homework and you!

If instead I could start with, “You’ve got a lot to do tonight. It feels like too much, huh?” then I’ve opened the door for him to be heard, understood, and to finding solutions.

Even simply naming an emotion — “Name it to tame it” as Daniel Siegel says — lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream, leaving people feeling more calm and creative (The Whole-Brain Child). Naming emotions can be as simple as the following examples:

“You seem frightened” / “I feel frightened”

“You look really angry / “I feel angry”

“It sounds like you feel hurt” / “I feel hurt”

3. It’s hard to start with empathy because sometimes we actually disagree with our child’s position, and believe that they need to hear another side to the story.

A prime example is when your child hits another child. We’ll all agree that hitting is not OK.

We’ll also agree that we all want our hitting child to be able, at some point, to inhibit the impulse to hit (or yell or whatever), see the other child’s perspective, have empathy for others, and be able to communicate feelings and needs productively.

In other words, we want our child to have empathy for others — even when he is angry!

How powerful would it be if we could model what empathy looks like . . . even when we are angry with our child who just hit someone? (I know; it’s not easy.)

Starting with empathy might sound like this:

“Whoa! You are so angry that Sally knocked down your tower! And, I can’t let you hit her. Let’s go over here and calm down so we can figure out what to do next.”

Once again, one can validate feelings without validating actions.

With empathy and some time to calm down, children will be much more open and able to learn something constructive from this “teachable moment.”

To sum it all up, starting with empathy can open the door to all of this and more:

  • Problem-solving
  • Connection
  • Open-mindedness and receptivity
  • Trust
  • Calm
  • Creativity
  • Emotional intelligence (understanding feelings of self and others, knowing ways to self-regulate / calm down, etc.)

If only I could remember to start with empathy, so many doors would open. I’m going to make this my priority this week! If you do the same, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comment section below.

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Read more about “Connection Before Correction” here.

Or watch this short video from Brene Brown on empathy here

3 Comments on “Empathy Opens the Door . . . to problem solving and more”

  1. Thank you for this insightful article. A couple more reasons I think we are not empathetic:
    1. Most people have not grown up with adults around them who never listened to them. Due to lack of a role model, most people do not learn this skill. Even in our adulthood, other adults around us are only listening to us in preparation of their response, they are not really listening at all. Due to the lack of a culture of empathy in our world, empathy does not come naturally to most people.
    2. Our lives have become so busy that we are always running out of time, and hence do not have the time or the creative space required for an empathetic response. Reducing the clutter of activities in life and giving ourselves space might help with improving our empathy quotient. The challenge is determining what is the “clutter” in our lives 🙂

  2. Thank you for this insightful article. A couple more reasons I think we are not empathetic:
    1. Most people have not grown up with adults around them who never listened to them. Due to lack of a role model, most people do not learn this skill. Even in our adulthood, other adults around us are only listening to us in preparation of their response, they are not really listening at all. Due to the lack of a culture of empathy in our world, empathy does not come naturally to most people.
    2. Our lives have become so busy that we are always running out of time, and hence do not have the time or the creative space required for an empathetic response. Reducing the clutter of activities in life and giving ourselves space might help with improving our empathy quotient. The challenge is determining what is the “clutter” in our lives 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comments! I completely agree with both of your reasons. I snapped at my kids yesterday and this morning realized the reason: my life is too busy right now. So this morning I delegated two projects to my husband. And I’m looking down my list to see what i can eliminate or simplify right now. Thank you!

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