A Guide to Better Conversations with Your Teenager
My teenage daughter and I have very different political viewpoints. Recently, while discussing difficult issues, I’ve realized that the more I try to change her mind, the more she digs in her heels. The harder I push my point of view, the more polarized we become.
One day it dawned on me: maybe it’s not so much the content of my arguments as the way that I present them which causes her to close off. When my worldview and authority are challenged, rather than trying to find middle ground, or aiming to truly understand her point, my ego wants to be crowned the winner of the argument. When trying explicitly to prove that I am right, the tone of my voice hardens, my body language closes off, and she perceives my emotion, not my message.
The paradox is that by framing the conversation as a debate – with one winner and one loser – rather than an opportunity to learn from one another, I embolden both of our egos, closing myself off from truly understanding her perspective.
“The ego… strengthens itself through emphasizing the “otherness” of others. In other words, the ego needs an “enemy” for its continued survival.”
– Eckhart Tolle
My “wake-up call” came unexpectedly while talking to a friend about a movie we had recently watched. I asked him what he thought about it, and – with the flip of a switch – his voice suddenly became rigid and tense. I could no longer focus on the content of what he was saying; the specifics of his speech were overshadowed by the palpable anger underlying his words. His inability to keep cool made me want to disengage. That’s when it hit me – this must be how I sound when I talk to my daughter about charged topics.
Seeing my own reflection in my friend’s reaction, I realized I needed to reevaluate my approach to difficult conversations with my daughter (and in general).
I decided to take her out for coffee to put my epiphany into practice. I committed to swallowing my ego and listening to her – not listening in order to respond and change her mind – but listening in order to understand her point of view. Even if I disagreed, I vowed to empathetically approach the conversation as an opportunity to learn where she was coming from.
As the typical charged topics came up in conversation, I noticed her grow tense, fearing I might jump all over her for expressing her opinions. Every time she made a point that struck me as wrong, I resisted the urge to argue, and made a conscious effort to keep open body language, maintain a calm tone of voice, and curiously ask her follow-up questions. While this felt contrived at first, over time I felt myself listening – genuinely listening – for her response.
By the end of our time together, she was at ease, chatting and laughing freely. I felt I understood her point a view a little better than before. Then, suddenly, without a warning, she said something that shocked me.
Unprovoked, she mentioned that there was a lot of sense in some of the views and ideas I had been sharing with her recently. I couldn’t believe my ears. Ironically, it was only when I stopped trying to shove my opinions down her throat that she sympathized with my point of view.
What does this example teach us about the difficult conversations we have on a daily basis?
Conversations are hard. Admitting we are wrong and updating our worldview is painful. We are fundamentally tribal beings, with strong opinions interwoven into our identity. As the Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt has so eloquently expressed, morality binds us with our ingroup and blinds us to our biases, leading us to seek victory rather than truth . But the reality is that when we treasure our beliefs so tightly that we lose compassion for people with a different perspective, we never change anyone’s minds. Just as importantly, we close ourselves off from learning anything new.
How do we combat this tendency, and build bridges rather than burn them?
We must first display a commitment not to defeat others, but to understand them. Above all else, we must seek truth from a place of love, rather than victory from a place of pride.