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Emotional intelligence: Dad steps into son's shoes as he takes a step back

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Kristin Streff/The Journal-Star/AP

(Read caption) In this Jan. 5, 2015, photo, Sophomore Brady Pham, takes advantage of free time in the media center to do his homework at Northeast High School in Lincoln, Neb.

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Recently, I said something like this to my 13-year-old son. If you’re a parent, or a child of parents, you can probably relate:

“I’ve told you a thousand times, just do your work and we can stop fighting. Why don’t you just listen to me???? I hate having to shout to get you to pay attention.”

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Yes, I realize that’s not a very effective way to communicate.

Yes, I’m supposed to be an “expert” on emotional intelligence.

Yes, you’re right, there’s a total lack of empathy getting in the way.

We recently surveyed several hundred parents about their biggest challenges, and the key emotional intelligence (EQ) skills every parent needs. I found that I’m not alone in this kind of “communication train wreck.” The most frequent issue parents said they want to improve: Peaceful communication. The EQ Network created “Emotional Intelligence-101 for Parents,” a new free online course to answer these needs.

Creating a collaborative, peaceful relationship with our children is a huge test of emotional intelligence – and particularly empathy, one of the central skills of the new course.  In the example of my “communication” with my son about homework, there are a number of emotional intelligence failures:

  • I was escalated, so I was reacting unconsciously instead of responding intentionally. Underneath my anger was a feeling of powerlessness and fear. I was scared that he is not self-motivated and won’t do well.  I reacted to the fear by attacking.
  • I was trying to use my force of will to “make” him comply. The first rule of emotional intelligence: When people feel pushed, they resist.
  • I was blaming him, interpreting his lack of interest in homework as a kind of personal attack on me and implying that he was making me behave the way that I behaved.
  • I was focused on what I wanted and my perspective. I was certain that I was “in the right,” and therefore he was wrong.

I’d like to focus on this last point, because it turns out that this lack of perspective-taking – this lack of empathy – is the key to unraveling parent-child tension. In the cool light of self-reflection, I can now look back at the exhange and realize that my sense of righteous anger was blocking me from advancing the conversation.

When I increase empathy and relook at the situation with compassion, I see a different story.  Perhaps he was afraid, too.  Perhaps he felt powerless, too.  Perhaps he’s learned the exact same pattern I’ve modeled: When you’re afraid, attack.  Perhaps our power struggle was simply two people afraid to honestly share their fears.

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Of course, writing this hurts. This isn’t the kind of father I want to be. The good news is that I’m certain this same pattern will arise again this week.  We’ll have a chance, probably many chances, to retry this interaction.  Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll remember to take that all-important pause and ask myself: I wonder what’s really going on for him right now?

That moment of curiosity is the doorway to empathy, and it’s a game changer.  Empathy is not actually a complex skill. As we know from neuroscientists like Marco Iacoboni, we’re wired for empathy – it’s a basic part of the social brain.  However, as stress increases, it’s harder for us to access empathy.  That little pause of curiosity is a way to step out of the stress reaction, and step into being the person we choose to be.

This article originally appeared on the Startempathy.org blog, published by the Start Empathy project from Ashoka.