Q: I don’t know how to talk to my teenager about a problem without it becoming an argument. I try to keep it going as a discussion for as long as possible but I admit I get really annoyed when she starts to shut down before I’ve even finished saying my side of things. It quickly turns into a yelling match with no one actually hearing what the other person wants or needs so nothing changes. What can I do to make this turn out differently?
A: You’re not the first parent to have a yelling match with their teenager and you won’t be the last. But that doesn’t make the experience any less unpleasant, plus you’re right – no one benefits from an argument where neither person is heard and nothing is learned. In a previous post we addressed using John Gottman’s emotion-coaching parenting style to help connect with children in distress, and it sounds like implementing those concepts, steps, and mindset might be helpful in your situation. But let’s also talk about the concept of Position vs. Interest, which is best described by this little story:
There were two chefs who worked for the king. One day there was only a single orange and both chefs needed it for their dish. They fought bitterly over it, loudly declaring, “I need the orange!” “I need the orange more!” In the end they compromised and cut the orange in half, so one chef had half the amount of pulp needed to squeeze the orange juice, and one chef had half the amount of zest he needed for the dessert.
Had the chefs discussed why they needed the orange, they would have simply peeled it and each chef would have gotten exactly what he needed for his dish for the king. Instead they focused only on what they needed. They focused on their position (needing the orange) rather than their interest (why they needed the orange – for the pulp or the peel).
Often we enter a discussion (especially one where we expect some pushback) with our position very clear to us – I want her home by 10. I want him to get his homework done before playing a video game. Just as important as our what is our why – I want you home by 10 because I’m worried about you drinking at a late party or driving home late with post-partiers on the road. I want you to get your homework done before you get distracted for hours playing a game.
That might be the end of it. They might say, “Oh! I hadn’t understood. Sure, no problem!” (Hey, a parent can dream, right?) But more importantly, it might invite conversation from your teen on their whys. You might learn that she wants to stay out until midnight this time because her friend who moved away will be at this party and it’s her last night in town. Your son might tell you that he wants to play a video game before he starts his homework because the thought of getting down to homework after a whole day of school is too much and he needs to unwind first.
So at this point in the discussion there’s no yelling but even more importantly people are feeling respected, cared about, and understood. A person’s anger can begin to dissipate when they feel heard, and a sense of team is strengthened when one feels understood. And there is a connection that comes when you acknowledge that the other person’s needs are different from yours and are just as valid and valuable. So demonstrating that you hear what your kid is saying and digging deep to feel some compassion for their side of things will go a long way towards staying connected and not having your discussion devolve into an argument. And then the team is further strengthened when you work together to negotiate based on each person’s whys. You want your daughter not-partying and not-driving after 10. She wants to see her friend on her last night in town. Together you might decide to invite the friend to dinner or for a sleep over instead of meeting at a late party. Your video-game-loving son needs a break between school and homework. You want him to get his work done before he plays, lest he fail to do his homework and not develop good study habits. You two might decide to have him unwind before starting his homework, and then schedule homework breaks if doing it all in one shot is too much for him.
So remember that each time you practice expressing interest and not just position you are strengthening your relationship with your child and also modeling skills you want your child to develop – like approaching a conversation with curiosity and open-mindedness about the other person’s needs, wants, and concerns; empathy; and negotiation and compromise. Which is an even better end result than them grudgingly complying with your position (and then sneaking video games or a party after you’ve gone to bed!).