Empathic Listening As A Parent

John Green was a chaplain at a Children’s Hospital for awhile where he was trained in empathic listening. When he describes it on his podcast he says it’s the idea of hearing someone say, “I am in pain,” and responding by saying, “I hear you saying you are in pain.”

I mean, as he always clarifies, ideally you’ll be more subtle than that, but that’s the general idea. Although, he does point out that people are so receptive to empathic listening that even if you are NOT subtle they’ll say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying!” 

We tend to want to fix things. Especially as parents when it’s often our job to fix things. Parenting is actually where I struggle with empathic listening the most. I do much better with friends but with my kids, I very rarely say, “I hear you saying you are in pain,” and instead say, “Well you should have listened to me when I told you not to do the thing that causes you pain.”

I had a moment this morning like that with my kids. I will avoid the details as my kids having given me a strict “LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!” command on this blog (all parenting posts from yesteryear are in drafts permanently) but one kid called me in Tennessee having a REALLY BAD MORNING and my first response was, “Do you not remember me telling you how to avoid that thing that made your morning bad?”

GOOD JOB, KIM.

Lucky for me! Their morning got worse and they called me with yet another catastrophe and I got a do-over! This time I said, “I am really sorry you are having these problems. I know it sucks for you. Hang in there. You have a whole week off if you can make it through today. I am truly sorry for all of the chaos and misfortune. That’s simply a terrible way to start a day. I do think the universe hates you.”

(Always good to end with something that will make them giggle.)

(I also sent them a meme that had the f-word in it. Profanity also helps make them smile.)

John Green also points out that if someone wants help, they’ll usually talk about the solutions they’ve tried or might consider trying. If they say, “My back hurts all the time.” Then as an empathic listener you just say, “I’m hearing you say your back hurts all the time.”

However, if they say, “Even with steroids and physical therapy I still feel like my back hurts all the time,” then they might be ready for your stories of things that helped your back. “My back pain lessened once I switched to a stand-up desk, have you tried that?”

I mean, every situation is unique and every relationship is different, but this simplification from John Green about how to be an empathic listener has really helped me, especially as a parent where my empathic listening is non-existent some days. I’ve had a kid specifically say, “I just want to whine,” and I still will be like, “DO THIS THING TO FIX IT ALL AND STOP WHINING.”

My friends say they want to whine and I’m all in. My kids say it and I’m like: STOP IT NOW AND BE PROACTIVE WITH YOUR LIFE. 

It’s just harder as a parent. Those relationships are different. It’s easier with an adult child, honestly. I am much better at empathic listening with E than with my younger two, but I do still have to fight the problem solving instincts. Sometimes I’ll just ask, “Do you want to know what helped me?” because sometimes I really do have decent advice and I am his mother SO PLEASE LET ME HELP!!! 

It’s a journey and after my bad start and then do-over this morning I thought I’d share a bit of my learning process. 

One Comment

  • Beth Edwards

    Back in the 70’s when I was first teaching, it was called active listening, same skill. Like any other skill it takes a lot of practice to do it. It does work on kids. They frequently will continue to talk and eventually figure out the answers by themselves Just keep working at it.