Listening is the most powerful skill a parent can have. It has the potential to “change the game” with regard to your relationship with your child. In my writing about this skill, I refer to it as “listening to understand,” a phrase I borrowed from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. Thomas Gordon in his book, P.E.T. Parent Effectiveness Training, called it “active listening.” Elsewhere, it has been called “reflective listening” and “empathic listening.”Like any skill, it takes lots of practical application to master. And like any skill, if you never stop trying to improve the way you listen you can achieve a very high level of effectiveness.
The classic approach to listening is usually presented as four steps:
- Give your child your undivided attention
- Listen for the meaning
- Check what you think you understood
- Encourage your child to continue talking
The idea is to listen to what your child says and how he says it until you think you understand some of what he’s saying, and then tell your child in your own words what you think you understand. Then continue this exchange until your child indicates that he feels completely understood.
Because parents and teens are rarely on the same wavelength, listening this way is crucial to avoiding misunderstanding. If your child feels he’s not getting through to you or that you don’t want to consider what he’s trying to say, the frustration can be so intense that your child may stop trying. Imagine what this would do to your relationship, not to mention your future attempts to get something across to your child.
When done well, listening to understand can create a revelation – it can clarify thoughts and feelings that your child was unaware that he had.
But listening this way works only if you do it. The problem is, parents often fail to recognize situations when they should be listening instead of reacting. And they don’t approach encounters with their kids in the right spirit.
So the first step to effective listening needs to be recognizing the “listening moment,” when you realize: my child is trying to tell me something that’s important to him. These opportunities can take you by surprise: problem behavior, emotional outbursts, unexpected problems, mistakes in judgment, bad attitudes, or asserting a point of view contrary to your own. You might feel irritation, disappointment, frustration, or anger; and your first impulse may be to express these feelings. What will protect you from making this mistake is what I call the “listening mindset”:
I care about my child’s problems, thoughts, and feelings. Something is going on with her right now, and I need to know what it is. So rather than react negatively or assume I understand, I’ll check what I think I’m hearing.
So before you can listen to understand, you need to do two things first: (1) sense the listening moment, and (2) engage the listening mindset.
In my opinion, it will be worth your while to memorize the listening mindset. Thinking these thoughts at the right time will be like using the power of love to turn on your radar and set it at the right frequency.
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.
Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”