Adam Price Ph.D.

The Unmotivated Teen

Communicating With Your Teen

Part 1: Lessons learned from an FBI hostage negotiator and Buddhist monk.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

The old adage, “children should be seen and not heard,” is dead wrong.  After their basic needs are met, being seen and heard is what children need most. A child who is truly seen and heard feels understood and loved unconditionally. Listening is the gateway to empathy, and it helps boys get in touch with their emotions. Listening and empathy can also help reduce parent-teen conflict, and lead to better problem-solving. When a teen sees a parent as a safe and trusted sounding board, they are often able to solve their own problems.  Yet many parents find it difficult to be a “duct tape parent”—to be quiet and listen. Too many times they rush in with a solution or directive when kids just want to be heard. They evaluate a good talk with their teen based upon what they said, rather than what they heard. It may be counter-intuitive, but clearly understanding an adolescent’s perspective (as whacked as it may be) is more likely to either lead to an outcome the parent prefers, or one that that is worked out with their child. At least that is what I learned from Chris Voss, and FBI hostage negotiator.

Lessons Learned From an FBI Hostage Negotiator

After reading Chris Voss’s fascinating book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depends on it,” I learned how much he relies on empathic listening to convince kidnappers to release their hostages unharmed. This approach might come in handy with your teenager, right? After all, don’t you sometimes feel held hostage by their mood swings, power struggles, and oppositional behavior? Voss employs a process called “tactical empathy,” where everyday empathy is defined as “paying attention to another person, asking what they are feeling, and making a commitment to understand their world.  Tactical empathy involves “learning the position the other person is in, why their actions make sense to them, so you can figure out what might move them.” Really listening to your teen helps them to feel “safe, seen, and significant.” Once heard, your son will be more receptive to hearing you.

Remember, empathy is not endorsing another person’s position, it is just validating their feelings. Here is an example.: Several weeks back a mom called me after learning her 8th grade son, Jason (my patient), ghosted a friend who sent repeated texts asking if they would be going to the same high school next year. Though the boys played football together they attended different middle schools. So the boy did not know that Jason was held back in kindergarten, and high school was still a year away. His mom and I both thought Jason was too embarrassed to tell his friend, so he did not respond. Jason, however told me that he did not want to be friends with the boy, who was always pestering him! He assured me he would never ghost a real friend, and would feel fine revealing the situation.

The less you talk the more your son will open up.  The more he talks, the more information you have to understand his perspective. Even better, talking will help him understand his feelings! Joining your teen’s side, through understanding, helps get him on to your side. The goal is to help him resolve his own conflicts. However, once you are on the same side, even if his solution differs from yours, you will have greater influence over the direction he chooses.   

Here is an example:

Bad Listening

Son: I’m done. No more baseball for me. I hate it.

You: You can’t quit baseball. You made a commitment to the team.

Son: OK, but that doesn’t mean I have to try. (Sulks off).

Good Listening:

Son: I’m done. No more baseball for me. I hate it.

Parent: You hate baseball? (Tone is curious and upbeat)

Son: I do! Practice sucked today.

Parent: Practice sucked today?

Son: Yep

Parent: (silence)

Son: I struck out and the other kids called me a loser.

Parent: They called you a loser? That must have stung.

Son: It did! I hate being called a loser. But I do strike out a lot.

Parent: So you are saying that you don’t like baseball because the other kids tease you and your batting needs some work.

Son: Exactly. What I really want to do is become a better hitter.

Parent: Maybe we can get you some help for that.  

Granted, real-life conversations don’t always go so smoothly, but the example demonstrates how this approach can open up better options. Let’s break down the interaction through a tactical empathy lens.

Step 1: Mirroring: The first part is easy---repeat back the last few words your son says. He says: “I want to quit baseball,” and you respond, “You want to quit baseball?” Make sure to use a playful, curious, and good-natured tone. Now comes the hard part—don’t say anything! Even if there is an awkward silence, wait until he speaks. The objective of mirroring is to demonstrate you are interested, listening, and giving him a chance to tell his story. As long as he says something new you can use this technique a couple of times.

Step 2: Labeling: Validate any emotion your son expresses by labeling it. The parent in the example used “That must have stung” to label her son’s feeling of being hurt. The goal is to get beyond the surface to understand what motivates that behavior. If you don’t know the underlying feeling, labeling (as a question) can be used to figure it out.

Step 3: Paraphrasing and Summary: After you give your son’s emotion a name and you show you understand how he feels, use paraphrasing and summarizing to go a bit deeper and help your son understand what is going on. Some of this is intuition, some of it is noticing their reaction to what you are saying, but it’s mostly hypothesis testing. You are getting more data and narrowing down what they are feeling by saying “It sounds like…” Once again, after you speak, give your son space to respond.  

These techniques, when used as part of a natural conversation, help your son get to a “that’s right” moment. “That’s right” is different than “You’re right,” which is usually just a pacifier. “That’s right,” or some variation, conveys that you hit the nail on the head, and that your son owns his feelings.  

Voss also has an interesting spin on the 5W’s: who, when, why, what, and how. He never uses the first three, because they lead to one-word answers. ‘Why’ is also off-limits because it will make your son defensive, as in “Why did you fail your math test?” That leaves ‘what’ and ‘how,’ as in ‘what happened?” or “how did you end up failing your math test?”  Same questions, but more likely to get an answer.

Listening is the gateway to empathy. A good listener is like a detective, asking questions, looking for clues to piece together your son’s underlying feelings and motivation. A bad listener uses words that are critical, dismissive, or directive. A good listener says as little as possible. And shows respect for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Remember the words of the pianist Alfred Brendel: ‘Listen’ has the same letters as ‘silent.’

These techniques are easy to understand, but hard to use. It’s difficult to be quiet and listen when your son is about to make a bad decision, or drops an emotional bombshell in your kitchen. Open ears require a quiet mind. That is where the Buddhist monk comes in, which will be the subject of next month’s post.

In the meantime, thanks for listening.

References

Voss, Chris. (2016) Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depends on it. Harper Collins: New York.

Orenstein, Peggy. (2020) Boys and Sex. Harper, New York.