How to Listen When Your Kids Speak So They Listen When You Speak
I can’t believe I am writing an article on listening! By nature I suck at it. So says my wife, and she should know.
But in the last few years I have grasped what a liability that is – not just as a husband, but especially now that I am a dad!
So I have been working on it, and want to share with you what I am working on – even though I have a long way to go in translating theory into practice.
Parenting experts on listening.
Here are 4 of my favourite quotes by parenting authors:
Adele Faber – ‘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, really listen. If you listen well when they speak, they will listen when you speak.’
Dr Les and Leslie Parrot -‘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, at which point she’ll find that attentiveness somewhere else—typically from her peers.’
Rob Parsons – ‘Listening is a long-term investment. If when your kid is 5 or 6 you spend a lot of time listening to them, when they’re 15 or 16, they will more likely listen to you. So, when they are small, cup your hands under their chin and look into their eyes when they’re trying to tell you something that is really important to them. Make extra time for them, as they struggle to articulate their thoughts.’
Gail Saltz – ‘If they feel listened too, they will trust you more, and be more interested in what you have to say.’
You motivated to listen better? Me too.
So here’s 7 ways to better listen to our kids:
1. Listen when interrupted.
Parenting is, at essence, a million interactions with one person over many years, half of which happen in those moments you planned to do something else.
I often feel that my life is being interrupted every time, when I am doing something else, a child wants to share something with or show something to me. I sometimes respond with irritation, and try ignore or flick them off like a buzzing fly.
But I’m realising that the interruption is my life. These little moments when I am neck-deep in thought or some practical task and a child ‘interrupts’ me is precisely my chance to come back to the main thing of my life – these interactions are the lifeblood of my relationship with them.
Of course, sometimes I must finish what I am doing, but it’s best to then say, ‘Give me a minute and I am all ears.’
2. Listen without interrupting.
When people take too long to say what they want to say, I find myself trying to finish their sentences. So I’m working on patience. I have to suppress my longing to get this interaction over and done with.
I’ve found the best way to do this is to remind myself that this conversation is precisely how I show them I love them, then take a deep breath, turn my face to theirs, and decide not to say anything back other than, ‘Oh … umm … I see … then what happened?’.
Then as they talk, and this is the hardest part, I try not even think about what I’m going to say in return. In other words, I try to listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply. This kind of attention, challenging as it is for me, is immediately rewarding – their little face lights up as I just listen.
3. Listen without fixing.
I remember one of my kids crying from a hurt finger. I wanted to give the boy some perspective: ‘Eli, pain makes you strong.’ I’ll never forget his tearful response, ‘No daddy, pain makes you sore.’
Dudes tend to especially be weak at empathy. We don’t want to just listen to problems, we want to fix them. Sure, sometimes we will get onto giving advice, but first make sure they feel like a person to be cared for, not a problem to solve.
Besides, it’s usually more empowering to hold back your advice anyway and ask, ‘What are you going to do about it?’
4. Listen by asking questions.
Sometimes we need to initiate the conversation.
For starters we can ask them for their opinions on things – trivial and serious. With a little one, ‘Which of these flowers do you think mommy will like best?’ or with a teenager, ‘I’m a bit worried about … what do you think I should do?’’
My buddy told me his method for drawing a decent answer out of the kids after school. No longer does he ask them what the best part of their day was (which is like extracting a tooth). Now he says, ‘Tell me anything about your day – especially something boring.’ With the bar so low, most times he says his kids end up telling him the best part of their day anyway.
By the way, the 2 most basic questions to draw out someone’s contribution on almost any topic are, ‘What do you think about that?’ and ‘What do you feel about that?’
Then I have 2 points that especially help with parenting teens…
5. Listen by simply showing up.
Listening is only possible if you’re around when they talk.
Rob Parsons says the antidote to the growing distance between us and our children is not usually found in expensive holidays, or even ‘quality time’, but in quite a lot of ‘ordinary time’ spent doing everyday things together, talking while you do them.
Saltz adds, ‘Everybody wants there to be a good setting and time to have an important talk with their children, but kids operate on their own timetable, so the most important thing is making the time to be around. You want opportunities that don’t feel too high-pressured, like ‘now we are going to have a talk.’’
Another buddy of mine has realised that teens tend to open up far more erratically than kids do. That’s why he’s decided to cut back on work during their teen years (the opposite of what most do) because he wants to be in the room when they’re ready to talk.
While you wait, you can also ask. Research shows the greatest predictor that your teen will tell you what’s really happening in their world is that you keep asking – despite the many cold shoulders you get. Sure, teens prefer to disclose to friends first, then moms, but even dads can expect some vulnerability if we are there often enough. And if we keep on asking.
Now and then we can also say, ‘You might not want to talk about this now, but any time you are ready, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind.’
6. Listen with unshockability.
Saltz says that not making eye contact is sometimes better: ‘If you’re broaching an uncomfortable topic like drugs or sex, face-to-face conversations may make things more difficult. Instead, try talking in a car where your child can look at the back of your head or during a walk when you are side-to-side.’
Another buddy tells me his best connection with his boys has been in their teen-phase. I asked him his secret. ‘It’s to listen with apparent nonchalance. For example, last month my oldest boy (19) came home from a two-week trip and told me not to tell mom, but he got a tattoo. I just said, ‘Oh, interesting! What’s the tattoo of?’ It turns out he got each of our family member’s names tattooed!’
I’m not saying we won’t be shocked by what our teens tell us (if they’re really talking), but don’t let it show. Keeping cool will keep the communication channel open.
7. Listen with empathy.
Their problems might seem tiny compared to yours, but their lost teddy is every bit as looming to them as if you had lost your car keys.
Empathy is about honing in on their feelings. Faber guides us: ‘Instead of denying their feeling, give the feeling a name. For example: ‘That sounds frustrating!’ ‘You seem disappointed by that?’ The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.’ In other words, as you respectfully name their feelings, you will tame their feelings.
Mark Kopta, a professor of psychology agrees: ‘My golden rule is when you have trouble with a child, listen to them first and then empathize with them before you say anything.’
Empathy is hard work. It involves setting aside my frame of reference temporarily so I can enter into another’s. Once when Eli was three, he lay tummy down on the couch, facing sideways, looking across the room. ‘Daddy, come put your head on my head.’ I did. We were cheek to cheek. Facing the same direction. He then asked me the profoundest question: ‘Daddy, can you see what I can see?’
Since then, I’ve come to believe one of the greatest gifts we can give to people we love is to make the effort to see what they can see – by really listening.
How about you?
Though it will take a lifetime to master these listening habits, which of these can you start working on right away in your parenting?
- Listen when interrupted.
- Listen without interrupting.
- Listen without fixing.
- Listen by asking questions.
- Listen by simply showing up.
- Listen with unshockability.
- Listen with empathy.
By the way, this post is part 2 of a 10 week series on practically learning to love our kids even more effectively than we now do. The first post was about affection – the writing of which helped Julie and I a ton to better love our own kids.
Every 2 or so weeks, I’ll share another key skill – so maybe you want to keep updated by liking my facebook page? (And feel free to share this post with other parents so they can join in the series too.)