Why I suck at listening: How to listen so your kids talk (Pt 1)
I suck at listening.
My wife has told me so 100 times – and that’s only the times I heard her say it. Before we had kids it was about my failure to listen to her. Now she says I often apply the same inept attentiveness to our little ones.
I wouldn’t have believed her, until other people noticed the same pattern. In fact, my boss gave me this humble-pie for feedback: ‘Terran, if there’s one thing you really need to work on, it’s listening.’
I struggled to hear what he was saying. But on reflection, I often make up my mind before I hear what others think. While they talk, I do listen – but to my own thoughts about what I will say next. And though I hear their words, I fail to discern the feelings under the utterance.
Adele Faber in her landmark book, ‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ says, ‘If there’s one piece of advice I find myself offering more than any other to parents, it is to say less and listen more.’
So, here’s my resolve: before I inflict any more frustration and misery on others (and myself) I choose to get this right. I choose to learn to listen to my wife and kids – and when I get back to work, my colleagues.
But before I chart a course to better listening (in future posts), let me diagnose this humbling dimension of my parenting incompetence…
6 Reasons I Suck At Listening To My Kids.
1. I see silence as a cue to say something.
‘Listen’ has the same letters as ‘silent’. John Wayne once said that so many of us are ‘long on mouth, but short on ears’. But this is a redundant expression, because when we are long on mouth, we will always be short on ears. Others, especially less articulate children, won’t be able to get a word in edgewise. Being articulate feels great. But being with someone who doesn’t realize the tyranny of their articulateness can be diminishing. Embracing silence is my invitation to others to speak.
2. I’m distracted by stress and by screens.
What do screens and stress have in common? They both guarantee that, though we’re there in body, we’re not there in mind and spirit.
Sure there are ways to simplify your life and reduce stress. (I will write on this in the future). But try as we may, things still go wrong, complexities arise and deadlines fast approach. Stress is inevitable. And it eats away at my capacity to be present. I might be looking at Ivy or Eli, even nodding, but my mind is still at work trying to resolve a more urgent, less important issue.
As for screens, we tried to dupe ourselves to think we can both drive and look at them. Until the research proved otherwise! Well, we still apply the same insanity at home: we try cyber-surf and communicate presence and love to loved ones. The research reveals that it doesn’t work – the Swedish government did a study that revealed one third of kids wish we’d stop looking at our phones.
3. I assume parenting is more about what I say than what they say.
To be honest, when I first read Faber’s book title, ‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ I was more interested in the first part. I tend to think of myself as a jar full of wisdom and knowledge, and my kids as empty containers needing to be filled up with my sage advice. Of course there’s truth in that, but that’s only half the picture. One reason is that very quickly they start to learn and see things that for some reason I have failed to observe or maybe long-forgotten. Jesus once brought a little child into the midst of a crowd and suggested that they had more to learn from the child than she did from them! ‘I don’t think he would not have used my child in that object lesson’, we laugh. Just maybe he would have.
4. My kids don’t always ask me to listen.
Dr Les and Leslie Parrot in ‘Becoming the parent you want to be’ write, ‘Kids generally don’t advertise the fact that they need your attention. They want you to give it without their having to ask. And if you aren’t deciphering their coded requests, they’ll become more and more drastic—until they stop asking for your attention altogether.’
5. My genes and upbringing play a part.
Genetically, I’m predisposed to be a lousy listener. Strengthfinder claims to discern one’s inherited talents, there in seed-form already at birth. What a moment of self-awareness it was for me to see that none of my top natural talents easily translate into relational aptitude (unlike the majority of the world). My strengths are more in the areas of thinking and executing than relating. This is not an excuse, just a sobering reminder that I have to try that much harder to read and receive the thoughts and feelings of others.
As for upbringing: my parents (who have loved me so) were not particularly good listeners. Here’s why: neither were their parents. I’m trying to break the cycle in the way I parent my kids. Says Faber, ‘The language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our mother tongue. Most of us grew up not having our feelings articulated and hence denied. To become fluent in this language of listening and acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods’.
6. I’m selfish.
My eye caught an Instagram quote the other day: ‘Listening is an art that requires attention over ego, and others over self’. Every time I listen to someone, I am putting that person before me – and one more weed of narcissism gets plucked out. Having kids and really listening to the many things they say everyday – this invades my self-centeredness.
To marry, to parent, is to put someone before me. They are not accessories to my ego. I’m meant to love them and serve them. Us dudes don’t get that very easily. Most refusals to listen (consciously or unconsciously) are simply evidence that I believe (consciously or unconsciously) I am more important than those around me.
Maybe all my years of trying to become more interesting were misguided? If I want to become a better person, husband and dad I need to work at being more interested.
How about you? Anything undermining your readiness to really listen?
See my next post for what’s at stake if I fail to learn to listen, then two or so more on exactly how to become better at really listening.
Also published on Medium.