You may have heard it said that “Few people are good listeners.” While this may ring true, I know you’d like to be a better listener for your teen. The benefits to your relationship are enormous. What you find out! The amazing way it strengthens the bond between you. And yes, because you’ve been burned so many times by not listening well.
But realistically, listening well to a teenager can be challenging. There are reasons for this.
One reason is that they don’t make it easy for you. They ramble, giving voice to everything in their head. They don’t get to the point. Often they aren’t sure themselves what point they’re trying to make. They just feel like venting. They repeat themselves. They use indefinite pronouns such as “it” and “this” and you have to guess what they’re talking about. They change the subject. They start their story at the middle, skip to the end and omit the beginning. They leave out certain key facts. They push your emotional buttons.
You know what I’m talking about.
Then there are the distractions. Your brain can pay attention to only one thing at a time. If you glance at the TV or your smartphone, notice an unusual noise, catch the lyrics of an oldie-but-goodie on the radio, your attention will shift away from your child and for those moments you won’t be conscious of what she is saying.
Likewise, there’s all that stuff going on in your head. You think about something you’ve got to do. Something about what you’re hearing triggers a memory. You start planning what you want to say back. Your child says something that annoys you or offends you and you feel irritated, even angry. If you shift your attention to any of this stuff, it’ll cause you to miss some of what your child is trying to say.
You know what I’m talking about.
Maybe you know how to be a good listener. Maybe you attended the course, saw the video, read the book. You know what to do.
But there’s a good reason why you don’t listen this way. Nobody taught you how to listen well when you were young. When people talked to you, you just reacted the way everybody else did. You only partially paid attention, thinking your own thoughts and continuing to do whatever you were doing. When you disagreed, you interrupted to offer your own opinions. You criticized what others were saying. You argued, debated, tried to convince people how wrong they were. When somebody talked about a problem, you jumped in with your advice. Or you just ignored the other person.
Lacking instruction, this is how all of us learned to listen – “on the street.”
Now, decades later, these old listening habits are physically hardwired in your brain. These are the behaviors that kick in automatically, before you can stop yourself and consciously try to do what the experts encourage you to do.
You know what I’m talking about. Listening is hard, man.
But if you really do appreciate the benefits of listening well to your child and you really do want to listen effectively more often, here are three things you can do that will set you up for more success.
1. Adopt a “listening mindset.” I’m talking about a pro-listening attitude that goes something like this:
My child’s thoughts and feelings are important to me, so when he tries to tell me something, rather than reacting negatively or assuming I understand, I need to check to be sure I actually get the message.
I recommend that you memorize this. It probably won’t pop into your head unless you do.
2. Consciously try to recognize “listening moments.” There’s a difference between conversation and listening. Conversation is wonderful, you just enjoy being with your growing-up child, sharing an experience, expressing your thoughts and opinions. However, when listening, you need to consciously try to grasp what your child is getting at. Yes, this is challenging, but when you know you should be listening, getting the message is your goal.
3. Memorize the steps of effective listening. How can you consciously listen the way experts say you should if you’ve forgotten what to do? After you sense that this is a “listening moment” do this:
- Give your child your undivided attention. Block out stuff going on in your head or in your environment
- Listen for the meaning. Sort through the nonverbals and all the words to find “the point.”
- Check what you think you understood. Say back in your own words the point you believe your teen is trying to make
- Encourage your teen to continue talking. You want to hear the whole story so you can keep checking the message and get to the bottom of it.
Yes, it’s hard to be a good listener. I think it’s hard because our old habits kick in before we have the presence of mind to do anything else.
But it doesn’t do any good to know what to do if you’re not doing it. I believe if you set yourself up for listening well – bring a listening mindset to your encounters, recognize listening moments when they happen, and have the steps for effective listening burned into your brain so you don’t have to struggle to remember what to do – you’ll have a better chance of pulling it off, no matter how much is working against you.
More truth-telling about parent-teen communication.
My how-to instruction on listening is the topic of Chapter 4 of Connect with Your Kid: Mastering the Top 10 Parent-Child Communication Skills.
You can grow the bond with your child through better listening. Download the FREE ebook, Listening to Understand.