“Television can be videotaped but children are best raised live and in person.” - Frank Sesno, Emmy award winning journalist and Dad of 3. Also known as "Mr. Breakfast" (to his kids at least!)
Will you go out with me? Will you marry me? Do you want to have kids? The questions we ask each other have the power to change the course of our lives forever. In this interview with Frank Sesno, an Emmy award winning journalist and author of Ask More, we draw upon Frank’s experience as a father and an expert questioner to figure out how we can use questions to communicate better with our children and, ultimately, be better parents.
This is Part 2 of our interview.
Empathy questions are especially pertinent to us as parents as they have the power to help us influence our children and modify their internal behavior, which in turn modifies their behavior for life. Frank analyzed Empathy Questions in his book.
“Empathy questions are some of the most important types of questions that we have. Empathy questions are gigantically important in connecting with our children.. whether you’re communicating with a 3-year-old, or a 6-year-old, or a 12-year-old.”
He continues, sharing empathy question examples,
“What does it feel like when someone picks on you at school? What does it feel like if the teacher embarrasses you or praises you in front of a whole class? How do you process success? How do you process setback? What does that make you feel like as a young person when you don't have a lifetime of experience to draw against that? What does it feel like when you're a teenager and you're either feeling like the most popular, or the least, or the ugliest person in the room and just generally awkward (never mind when your hormones are raging)?”
So often, we see what we would do in a certain situation and try to get our children to take that perspective. If instead we use empathy and recognize that our children are individuals with distinct needs and views, we can help guide them more successfully.
“Sometimes we come at our children thinking “Well, I've been where you were once and let me tell you what's going to happen.” or saying “Trust me this is going to work.” Well, wait a minute. What if we take that sense of perspective taking. How do we take perspective taking and apply that to our experience with our children?.. .That can be something as simple as very big open-ended questions, like “How are you doing today? How do you feel today?”
Empathy is about projecting that you can take that person's perspective; you can stand in their shoes. The research, for example, with doctors, as I pointed out in the book, shows that patients who feel that they have an empathetic doctor in an empathetic relationship have better outcomes than patients who do not. They also trust their doctors more. That sense of trust, isn't that what we all want with our children?”
An important aspect of listening well and asking empathetic questions is keeping our own emotions and judgements out of the questioning, which of course is very difficult when you are so passionate about the one being questioned: your child. So how can we put in place structures or ways to manage our emotions when conversing with our children? Frank shares his findings on creating “intimate distance” and the power of making appointments.
“There is no place where intimate distance matters more than in certain moments when you're parenting. Intimate means you're right there. You care. You love. You connect in a profound way. Distance means that at the same time you're standing back just a little. Maybe you're hearing emotion but you're not becoming emotional yourself so that you can provide some clear-eyed perspective. Maybe your child is crying. Maybe hysterically crying because someone was mean to her or him at school today and you want to be comforting but that distancing also helps you be the instructor of the moment.
Well, what do you think you could have said that would have changed this? What do you think that other child should say or do now that would make you feel better? That sense of intimate distance invites you to share the emotion without being caught up by it. That brings you into an intense moment of discussion or discovery. It also lets you stand back from it just enough so that you can be clear eyed. It is crucial to this parent/child relationship. Every parent is going to have to be a little distant at times to say, “these are the hard places in life” or “this is the lesson you're going to have to learn from this” or “Let's talk about the lesson. What do you think the lesson is that might be learned from this?”
Make An Appointment
There is something powerful and productive about having an appointment. Tomorrow afternoon, can we talk about my allowance? I'd love to talk to you tomorrow about a couple of things that I've been thinking about. Tomorrow afternoon about 4:30 work for you?
When you come to that 4:30 meeting or your kid comes to that meeting after school tomorrow, you come prepared to talk about something in a different way.
I'll give you an example. For the book, I had this class and I gave them assignments to do oral histories. I encourage them to do it with their families. This one young woman interviewed her dad. The family had lost a child early in this young woman's life or before she was born, actually two years before she was born. They never really explained what happened. Ever. She was interviewing him on camera for this class. After a few, kind of warm up questions got him going. She asked actually the first time ever: What actually happened to this little girl? Her father started telling her. He grew very emotional. She was very emotional. It was an incredible thing. Part of the reason that that moment happened was she was preparing to sit down and ask questions and he was preparing to sit down and answer them.
Parents get into trouble sometimes with their kids where they will blindside them. The kids go instantly defensive and it just doesn't go well.
Make that appointment. For example, “I’d like to talk to you some more about how you think we might approach an allowance”. You create a question around which their brain starts to turn to come up with answers. That is the power of the question. It Is prompting an answer from that other person. Research shows us that people remember, retain more, when they say something themselves rather than when it's said to them.
“It’s always more valuable to me as a parent, as a manager, or as a human being, to see if I can prompt somebody else to come to a conclusion rather than be making the conclusion for them because I am more powerful.”
Indeed, after reading Frank’s book, we started to use this technique with our children. We tried getting them to come to the conclusion themselves. For example, our children are on the younger side, 5 years and under. Our younger two children could not swim, at the beginning of last summer, by themselves. We were trying to enforce that they should not go into the pool without and adult so we made sure they came to their own conclusion about it. When we discussed pool safety, we proceeded with a line of questions that they could answer and ultimately come to the conclusion themselves and say out loud to themselves that “we should not go into the pool without an adult”. It’s so important that the children learn new lessons and rules by saying them themselves because as Frank writes in his book, “people remember what they say not… . It’s been life changing to use this technique with our children.
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