1: Eric and his son Tony had an awful relationship.
Eric’s wife had left the family when Tony was eleven years old. The young boy had felt abandoned. “He became angry, irritable, and depressed,” writes Dr. Daniel Friedland in Leading Well from Within: A Neuroscience and Mindfulness-Based Framework for Conscious Leadership.
“Eric, who struggled with his own doubts of self-worth, found it difficult to empathize with Tony as a teenager and deal with his emotional swings,” Danny notes. “He was especially frustrated with Tony’s defiance, not doing his homework for school and his habitual lying.”
At age fifteen, Tony attempted suicide. While institutionalized for two weeks, he refused to see his father, a painful low point in their relationship.
At seventeen, Tony moved out of the house. Still, Eric loved his son and attempted to stay in contact via text messages and phone calls.
Then something happened that Eric says took their relationship “from awful to horrendous,” Danny writes.
Eric reached out to Tony, now twenty-one, to let his son know he was getting married. Eric planned to ask Tony to be his best man. He invited his son to join him and his future wife, Jennifer, for dinner.
They met at a restaurant where Tony “unloaded” on Jennifer, telling her, “I’ve never liked you. My dad could have done better!”
Eric told Tony that his comments were “the most painful thing he had ever witnessed one person saying to another.” He disinvited Tony from attending the wedding.
During the next two years, the father and son were estranged. It was during this period that Eric hired Danny as his coach. He told Danny one of the biggest things he wanted to work on was reconnecting with his son. “Relationship conflicts, whether at work or home, are very common,” Danny writes. They “make up a significant part of the coaching work I do.”
2: Something dramatic was about to occur.
Working with Danny, Eric began to see how his relationship with his son was driven by a cycle of reactivity. When Tony would act out, Eric would react with “anger, self-righteous indignation, and exasperation,” Danny recalls. Eric’s frustration and tone of voice further triggered his son. Tony would then stonewall Eric. Faced with what seemed to be an “impenetrable fortress,” Eric would react with additional pointed attacks.
Around and around, they would go.
Eric began to see how his actions were contributing to the problem. “I now understand how I was taking Tony’s behaviors at face value, rather than seeing his underlying suffering,” Eric shares.
“Once Eric could more clearly see the triggers and fight-or-flight behaviors, which were causing problems,” Danny recalls, “we shifted to focus on his deeper intention for the outcome he wanted to create, which was a closer relationship with his son.”
Danny coached Eric to reflect on how he might practice self-compassion and receive Tony with greater empathy and understanding.
“Bit by bit, over the subsequent weeks in his discussions, as Eric’s heart softened, he looked for small opportunities to simply ask Tony how he was doing and how he could be of support,” Danny recounts.
“He became more curious about what Tony was sharing and less judgmental. He also became more patient and expressed a more caring tone during their calls,” Danny writes. “They began to speak more frequently, and Tony started returning more of his texts.”
Tony had begun therapy to address his depression. He invited his father to join him for one of the sessions. “It was there that I truly understood just how sad and broken Tony was, and this just melted that final, icy layer of resentment that covered my deeper care for him,” Eric recalls.
During the therapy session, Eric shared with his son that he, too, struggled with depression, self-doubt, and a harsh inner critic.
“This sharing shifted something in the relationship,” writes Danny. “It created a new foundation of trust.”
Over the next few weeks, the father and son had several heartfelt conversations. “We just began to share with and support each other, not as a father watching over his son, but as people with similar pain and hopes and dreams,” Eric recalls.
Tony began to flourish at school and take better care of his health. Six months later, he invited his dad to join another therapy session. This time, Eric told his son how much he loved him and how proud he was of the young man he had become. Tony “teared up in response and said that he had waited so long to hear those words and how much it meant to him.”
3: Wow. That’s transformation. What are the lessons here for us?
Our relationships are infused with cycles of reactivity and creativity. We can be intentional about being less reactive and more creative.
“Eric and Tony managed to profoundly shift their cycle of reactivity, in which they triggered each other’s fight-or-flight behaviors, to a cycle of creativity, in which they found a way to more freely give and receive with each other,” notes Danny. “This shift, and especially the moment when Eric shared his vulnerability, established greater safety and trust in their relationship.”
How do we engage with greater kindness, empathy, and authenticity?
It starts with asking better questions. Of ourselves and others.
Reflection: What comes up for me as I read about Eric and Tony’s relationship?
Action: Journal about it or discuss with my spouse or a close friend.