Friday, April 7, 2017

Parenting Pointers: Empathy Is Not a Strategy

First things first: I do not have any commas or letters after my name that make me an expert in any parenting stuff. I am a parent, though, and I have learned some lessons along the way. I have learned to translate my work life into childrearing, and apply my parenting skills to being an entrepreneur.

Here are 10 of my favorite lessons.

Lesson #1: Feelings matter.
Business taught me a simple hack for influence that changed how I parent: The way people feel about themselves when they are around us dictates commitment versus compliance.

Some people describe my thinking on this as being “kind.” That is part of it. If we make a person feel small, they will resist us in some way. Feelings matter.

Lesson #2: Feelings can be challenging.
I believe that it is my job to teach my son emotional literacy and how to live a self-authored life. This can be a challenge for me since I was raised in the generation of “Oh, just get over it.” As a result, it’s not exactly easy for me to feel my own emotions, so I am really good at numbing any feeling I don’t feel like having.

Lesson #3: Numbing feelings creates latent reactions just waiting to come out.  
And those latent reactions tend to come out irrationally and erratically, because I refused to pay attention to them sooner. These reactions (as you can imagine) do not create the outcomes I want, which are moments when I am self-authored, living in my values, and teaching my son emotional literacy.

Learning to feel has become a deliberate practice for me. My son began teaching me lessons about this when he was three-years-old:

“Momma, when you are sad and you act like you are happy, I know you are sad.”

“Oh. Okay.” (And boy, did I tear up hearing this.) “Tell me, son, what should I do?”

“Just cry and we will go play.”

What a brilliant idea. It was liberating to imagine that he and I could live in a home of feelings from that moment on. It began a delicious, personal practice of my feeling things.

Lesson #4: My first impulse isn’t always the right one.
I’ve learned that my first impulse, in parenting and in business, isn’t always the right one.

My first impulse is often to FIX or SOLVE a problem rather than let my son (or a colleague, or a client) feel it. When this happens, I solve the wrong problem.

Lesson #5: Emotions are beautiful.
There is no such thing as a bad emotion. All emotions are genius in some way. Anger, for example, gives us delicious adrenaline. If we can take time to notice anger when we feel it, we can also notice that our frustration is a sign of a unique ability or a precious value. Sadness often helps us connect to something sentimental and important to us, like justice and fairness. Envy can direct us toward something we really want that we aren’t striving for, like more control over how we spend our time.

Lesson #6: My son is going to feel feelings that I don’t feel like having.
My son is human, so there are times he’s going to be angry. It is so important that he learn emotions are temporary and delicious, and only problematic if we do irrational things that hurt people and the outcomes we want.

My son must feel that I love him MORE when he is real rather than disappointment that he is upset. I cannot (and should not) accidentally teach him to hide his true self to soothe and cope with my weak emotional skills.

I once heard a speaker say that, when a kid is having a bad feeling, we should banish them to the “happy stairs” until they feel better. All around me, people applauded. They loved it. I sat there in tears.

I do not want to teach my son to move away from me when he has hard, real feelings. I do not want whomever is on those “happy” stairs (peers or, far worse, a scary adult) to give him advice. I want him to run to ME when feelings are hard, not a peer or a video game, or drugs, or alcohol. In fact, I don’t want him to run at all when he feels something. Feelings are to be embraced, not pushed away.

Lesson #7: Empathy is a feeling, not a strategy.
Another speaker said that, when his son was angry, he would say, “That isn’t like you” to calm his son down. He told us to use empathy as a strategy. There’s a problem, though: “That isn’t like you” is harsh judgment. It is not a sentence full of empathy. Empathy is a feeling, not a set of words.

“That isn’t like you” says his son does not -- and should not -- have those feelings. “That isn’t like you” says “You are not allowed to feel angry around me.” That speaker’s son will learn to hide his real feelings from his dad.

I do not want that. I want my son to feel my love especially when he is struggling. Love isn’t soft. It can handle the worst of him: “Is that all you’ve got, son? Me too.”

Lesson #8: Empathy has helped me understand what to fix, and that I do not need to fix my son.
One day, my son came home from school, threw his water bottle on the ground, and shouted “I HATE SCHOOL!”

What did my body want to do? My body wanted me to tell him: “School is good for you. Don’t throw things.”

Instead, however, I just felt EMPATHY. I said, “I hated school too, in 7th grade. Mr. Radovich was pretty mean to me and told me I was stupid. Why do you hate school?”   

My son stopped, leaned into me with rage and fear, and said “A substitute teacher put her hand over my mouth today.”

As I mentioned, I have a tendency to want to fix things. In this case, there was something I actually needed to fix, but my son was NOT it.

I want to teach my son (and myself, and my clients) to see discomfort as a sign that something is going right. Instead of soothing discomfort unconsciously, my son learns to see each moment as happening FOR him, not TO him.

In order to do this, we must be able to notice sooner that something has changed in ourselves or another person. If my son is having a feeling that I do not feel like having that day, I feel my feelings around it rather than tell him to stop feeling.

Lesson #9: A collection agency taught me kindness.
I was a teenager working my way through college at a collection agency. I met the kindest humans on earth in the breakroom. Moments later, though, my hands shook as I tried to file paperwork amid all their ruthless and harsh demands for money. It was awful. Most of us owe money to someone at one time or another; some of us are just more current than others. Why the demeaning accusations and demands?

I got a wacky notion in my head: I wanted to start a collection agency that collected debt by being nice. We would help people find jobs, send them get-well-soon cards, and do what we could to HELP the situation. I opened my company in my home and asked my first employee, “What is the number-one goal of a collection call?”  He said, “To get the money.”  


The number-one goal of a collection call is to establish a relationship, so that people tell you the truth. Once you know what is going on, you can help them. I thought we would collect less money this way, so I targeted companies that I thought cared more about how customers felt: water delivery companies, healthcare, etc.

We collected 3x more money than other agencies and got invited to weddings. (I am not kidding about that.) When we awarded bonuses based on thank-you cards received rather than money collected, we found that the collector with the most thank-you cards also had the most money collected. Funny, that.

But not really. Why was our method more effective? Empathy. When we FEEL genuine empathy, we open up a human connection. We keep a conversation from becoming a confrontation. When we FEEL the feelings of another person, remember a time when we felt them, too, and just stay CURIOUS and open, a new and precious reality can arise.

Lesson #10: Empathy is bad ass.
People have a basic need to feel understood. When we listen to understand rather than correct people for having a feeling, magic can happen. I believe that how you do anything is how you do everything: A practice of real empathy applied to parenting, leadership, and all communication helps me move closer to the outcomes I really want.

Most of us just want to be heard. It is my intention to give people a feeling they aren’t getting enough of: “I see you, and I want to hear your story, especially if it feels hard.”

My best parenting moments happen in the struggle. That is go-time for me as an entrepreneur, too. Emotions definitely happen FOR me, not TO me.

Christina Harbridge is the founder and MisChief Executive Officer of Allegory, a behavior change company, a mom, and the author of Swayed: How to Communicate for Impact.

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