Empathic Listening

Empathic ListeningOur parenting roles with our adult children and their families can at times be complicated and conflictual. The ever-present vestiges of sibling rivalry live long in most of us. Often I talk with my therapist about ongoing issues with my five children. She smiles sympathetically and replies, “Joan, you have too many children.”

Thankfully, my clinical training has prepared me well for my lifelong occupation as the resident complaint department. I have developed and refined the art of empathic listening about sibling complaints without losing my impartiality and sense of propriety—most of the time.

Psychotherapists learn how to hone this skill with patients. We must be able to compartmentalize our personal feelings and biases in order to listen to what our patients think and feel without becoming defensive or argumentative. We recognize and appreciate each person’s reality and perspective without judgment or criticism, and we must accept the idea that there is not one single truth—each person’s perspective comprises his truth and reality.

In my work with adult twins, I have discovered how challenging it can be for some parents to listen to their twins’ perspectives about each other. Parents in general have tremendous longings about their children getting along. Twin parents, especially, seem even more invested in this congeniality than parents of singletons. This may be the result of the age-old expectation that twins should be best friends and soul mates forever. Moreover, having watched their twins grow up and seeing how they recovered so quickly from fights and disagreements, they have a belief that this instantaneous rebounding will always be the case.

When adult twins fight, parents seem to recoil from the notion that one twin is criticizing the other. For instance, if a twin tells her mother that her sister is mean, cruel, insensitive, or nasty, the mother may automatically jump to her other daughter’s defense and insist that these feelings and observations are not true. The end result is that in this moment, the mother is unknowingly violating her daughter’s sense of reality and her feelings. Since many twins discover that their road to individuality is fraught with bumps and detours, a parent who cannot tolerate each twin’s perspective will make that journey all the more complicated and prolonged.

In our efforts to help our adult twins embrace their individuality along with their twin identity, we must help them learn how to manage conflict and anger. Unfortunately, because twins often unconsciously accept their differences without negotiating them or learning from them, they find themselves ill-equipped to articulate differences and respect each other’s realities as they mature.

Until they recognize that they can be connected and loving in spite of their ambivalence and differences, their relationship will remain stunted and unhappy.


Photo courtesy of Probably Okay (CC BY-SA 2.0)



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