Questions: A Cry for Empathy in Disguise
People often ask questions when they are in emotional pain.Sometimes it's obvious that they don't want you to answer.For example, if someone asks, "Am I stupid or what?!"It's pretty rare that they would really want your assessment of their relative stupidity.It's more likely that what they really want is empathy.
Other times it is less clear.A Gem reader offered this example of her daughter calling from college."I studied really hard and thought I had done really well. But I didn't get a good score! What did I do wrong?"
In this example, our reader mentioned that her daughter was so upset it was difficult to understand her.How can you respond and connect in this situation?
First, as a parent you may want to pause and give yourself empathy:"Hearing my daughter is so upset I feel tense and worried because I want her to be okay.I notice I am telling myself that I have to be helpful here.I want to take a deep breath right now and remind myself that the best thing I can do is listen."
Next, especially if she is really upset, it can be grounding just to repeat back the details and get clarity on what actually happened (Observation)."Yea, you worked hard to prepare and thought your score would be higher. What score did you get?"This piece is important, because the score may actually be passing or above, but the daughter's jackals are screaming because they want a perfect score.Getting clear on this can create space from those jackals.
Then offer empathy for feelings and needs."Yea, and it really sucks for you because it's important to you to do well."
If your daughter answers, "Well, duh." That's her way of saying yes.Then you can offer the next level of empathy. "Sounds like this is especially frustrating cuz you are not understanding what happened."
If your daughter is able to receive your empathy, you will hear an exhale and softening in her voice.If not, she may have jackals howling in her ears and respond accordingly with:"That's what I just said!"
If this is the case, you might help her name the jackals."I am guessing you are giving yourself a hard time about this."
Daughter:"I should have done better."
You:"Hard not to get on your own case about it, huh."
You:"I am guessing you feel hopeless when you work hard and don't get the result you want."(If jackals are particularly loud, it's a good bet that hopelessness and despair are underneath them).
At this point, your daughter might offer more about the hopelessness which you can continue to meet with empathy or she may spontaneously ground herself with what is not hopeless.Resist the temptation to do this grounding for her immediately.This will be more powerful if she comes to it on her own.
A conversation in which empathy was given and received is completed with a request/plan of action to meet the needs identified.There may be a request/plan of action for each need identified.In this example, the needs are for clarity, competency, and self-acceptance.You can move the conversation to this step by asking, "Is there something you would like to do or is something I can do around this?" She may ask for some direct advice about how to better prepare for tests, or she may spontaneously come up with a plan of her own.Either of you might offer how she could meet her need for self-acceptance.If this step seems difficult and laborious, then you likely need to back up and offer more empathy.There are probably unidentified feelings and needs up for your daughter.
This week listen for cries for empathy underneath questions.When someone in upset asks you a question, resist the temptation to answer them directly.Offer grounding by asking for clarity about the situation and/or offer empathy by guessing their feelings and needs.