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The Informed Parent

Are You Really Listening?

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 01, 2007

Parents who know the ins-and-outs of effective communication generally experience fewer family upsets and misunderstandings than those that haven’t learned to fine-tune their skills. Developing the art of communication that works takes time. The effort required to hone the skills until they become habitual takes effort. Putting in the time and effort results in benefits that can’t be denied.

This month we’ll talk about effective listening. Other terms for effective listening that can be used interchangeably are active or reflective listening. All are apt names. They indicate that listening requires participation. It requires attention and full engagement. It tells us that when done well it is effective. It works.

In parenting, effective listening means the parent attempts to understand the feelings and messages his child is conveying. He then reflects his understanding back to the child. He does not analyze, question, or teach. He only “feeds back” to his son or daughter, in his own words, what he has understood.

When children recognize that their parents are fully involved in the communication process they talk more freely, give more information, and respond more positively. When parents engage in effective listening they and their youngsters ultimately reach a common understanding where both know that the message sent has been understood.

Jillian came home from school in tears. She ran into the house crying, “I hate my teacher. I hate her so much!” Her dad, Mr. Smith, stopped what he was doing and went to his daughter. “I can tell that you are pretty mad at your teacher. Do you want to tell me what happened today?”

Jillian proceeded to tell him that she had not finished her math during class and was required to return to the classroom after lunch to finish instead of playing outside with her friends. “Your math must have been hard for you,” said Mr. Smith. Jillian shook her head affirmatively. “Maybe you could show me what you were working on and we could practice together.” Jillian agreed. She then said that she hadn’t asked for help because she was embarrassed.

Mr. Smith used effective listening skills with his daughter. He heard the pain behind the words “I hate my teacher” and addressed that. He opened the door for Jillian to express her real concern--that she hadn’t been able to spend time with her friends.  And even more than that she had not understood her math. Only after that did Mr. Smith offer assistance and indicate a way Jillian might have prevented the situation.

How different this interaction turned out than if Mr. Smith had said to Jillian, “Oh, you don’t really hate your teacher.” Discrediting the words children use sets up the possibility for confrontation or a power struggle. Taking away their perceptions or feelings lead them to feel misunderstood and unaccepted. 

A more unfortunate situation would have occurred had Mr. Smith chastised his daughter for saying she hated her teacher. Had he said, “I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that about your teacher,” or “Don’t you ever let me hear you say something like that again,” he would have closed the door not only on that conversation but also on future communication.

Effective, reflective, or active listening means that you listen for the feelings behind the words and reflect them back to your child. If you miss the mark she will let you know. In Jillian’s story, if Mr. Smith had heard incorrectly, Jillian might have said, “No. I’m not mad. She hurt my feelings.” When you reflect feelings to your child that don’t quite fit, she will guide you to a more accurate interpretation. This may take several tries. You will know when you’ve succeeded by both her words and her more relaxed posture. Her body will say, “Whew! Dad finally got it.”

When you reflect the feelings or the message you have heard, do so with compassion. Take responsibility for your words. Begin phrases with words like, “It sounds to me like…” or “I can hear that…” or “I can tell that…”indicate through your body language that you are available to your child. Sit with her or stoop to eye level.

Reflective listening takes time. Not all situations require lots of time but many do, and none can be done without your full attention. Had Jillian’s father not had time to explore what was really bothering his daughter he could briefly address the issue and set an appointment. He could have said, “I can hear that you are upset, and I’d like us to talk about it. How about sitting down together in half an hour?” Most children accept appointments unless you make a habit of it. If you rarely have time to listen in the moment you’ve closed the door for intimate communication, and kids will stop trying.

There are times that effective listening isn’t called for. When your child asks a direct question and you’re sure there isn’t a hidden request behind it, simply answer the question. For example, when your son asks to go to a friend’s house or your daughter asks if she can have a sleepover a direct response is warranted. You will learn to hear when to use reflective listening as you practice the skill. Since you will find that it enhances the relationship with your child you will want to increase your ability to listen through practice and effort.

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