When did our conversations with our children come to a grinding halt?
When did our interesting questions about activities receive a silent shrug for an answer?
When did “Whatever,” become the ritual response to any directions or advice we give?
Why aren’t our children wanting to listen to our wisdom anymore?
This situation develops as our children morph into their independent years, sometimes starting at age ten. Is it inevitable? Possibly, some of it, but we can retain more influence if we can start to listen to them, ACTIVELY LISTEN.
Parents Habitual Behavior
We may not have ever thought about how we listen to our children or anyone else. As parents, we are in the habit of hearing our children’s questions as requests for information. So, we share the information. We are also in the habit of being in charge, being right, and having the answers. We are in the habit of warning, reminding, and instructing. Isn’t that our job?
Unfortunately, the habits become so ingrained that we stop hearing the person behind the words. We take the child for granted, meaning that we forget to notice their essence. We haven’t been taught to do anything besides make sure they are ok so we stay busy talking to them about that. Suddenly, we’re stuck wondering why they no longer tell us anything, good or bad.
Active Listening is a Skill
Active listening is a skill that is taught to counselors, teachers, helpers, and, if they are lucky, to parents. It is a form of listening that allows the speaker to talk without worrying about being interrupted, being criticized, being contradicted, or being given a solution.
Active Listening means to listen to the emotions or feelings behind whatever words are being spoken. It is sometimes called reflective listening because the goal is to reflect back to the speaker the emotion you hear behind the words, without stating an opinion about the feeling. By naming the emotion, we show we respect it and this creates a place of safety.
When a 15-year-old Says
An Active Listening Response Might Be
“So you think my idea is stupid.”
Or it could be,
“Sounds like you think I don’t understand.”
Giving an active listening response to a 15-year-old may not get you more than a puzzled look as the youngster continues out the door but I promise you that if you keep it up, you will start to hear more.
The best way to maintain good communication with our children as teenagers is to start active listening as soon as we can and when it’s appropriate.
It may be challenging
For example, what would be your instinctive response if your young daughter came home and sobbed:
“Everybody hates me, nobody likes me. I wish I was anybody but me!”
Every one of us wants to hug her and say, “I love you. I don’t want you to be any different. I want to be your friend.” We want to reassure her and make her feel better.
Active listening would be: hugging her and saying, “Sounds like you feel alone and unloved.”
She might say, “Yeah, Maggie threw clay at me and I got all dirty and they all laughed at me and I don’t ever want to go back to school.” In which case, as an active listener, we might say: “Wow. Sounds like you think Maggie was mean and everybody is against you.” And she will continue sharing.
Parent: Sounds like you feel alone and unloved.
Parent: Feeling sad, eh?
Child: Yeah. (silence) How come some people are so mean?
Parent: That’s a tough question. You’re feeling hurt?
Child: Yeah. Like I thought Maggie was my friend and we have sat together in art class all year – But today she threw her clay at me and everybody laughed and …(cries)
Parent: (hugging, if appropriate) You feel hurt and embarrassed and confused. I hear you.
Child: Yeah- I think it was mean of her. She’s never been mean before. Why did she do it?
Parent: You want to know what I think?
Child: I guess so…why do people do mean things?
Parent: Well, I think people do mean things when they are feeling sad, scared and tired.
Child: Do you think Maggie is feeling sad or scared?
Parent: What do you think?
Child: Well, she said she hates her new baby sister because she cries all the time – maybe she is tired….
Parent: A new baby can make everybody happy and also always tired because babies cry and require lots of attention from the parents and sisters.
Child: Yeah – this baby sure cries a lot – Maybe that’s it – Maggie is usually funny and nice. Maybe I should tell her not to be scared, sad or tired.
Parent: So how are you feeling? Sad and hurt?
Child: Nope I am going to text Maggie and invite her to come over – can I?
When we active listen to the feelings, and we get it wrong, our kids will tell us.
Possibly, when we say, “Sounds like you feel alone and unloved,” she might say, “No, not really. It’s just that Jason teased me on the bus and some kids laughed. I wish Jason would be nice to me.” And, as parents we would be tempted to say, “Sweetie that means he likes you,” but that is trying to solve her problem. An active listening response would be: “It hurts when we get teased in front of other people, huh?” and she might say, “Yeah.”
The point is that when we active listen to our children when they are young, we will do it when they are older and the lines of communication will remain open. People like to share with others when they believe the other person is really listening.
Five Things to Remember when Active Listening:
- The other person (child, spouse, sibling, neighbor) knows what they are feeling and will tell us if we get it wrong. Don’t worry about it; if we are identifying a feeling, the other person will feel accepted and heard, and will keep talking.
- Our job is to listen, identify the feeling and that’s it. No problem solving, no criticism, no questions, no telling them they are right or wrong to feel a certain way.
- The other person has a resolution inside them and if they feel that someone is really listening, they will find their way. We respect their ability to be responsible for their feelings and their solution.
- If the other person says, “What would you do?” we ask, “Do you want to know what I think?” and wait for the answer. Most often the person doesn’t really want to hear our ideas. Wait until they ask the question twice; then it usually means they are interested.
- Active listening requires us to accept the other person, to support them, to encourage them and believe in their ability to negotiate an issue. We don’t need to have an answer.
- The fewer questions we ask, the more we actively listen to the people in our lives, the more they will talk to us.
No matter when you start Active Listening it’s never too late. Like all skills it improves when practiced.
For more information on parenting and active listening, look for Parent Effectiveness Training at www.GordontrainingInternational.com