This week I'm reflecting on my experience employing Active Listening with my children. When I initially considered this topic I thought, "Well, this is easy. I've been teaching adults the skills of active listening for years. I've got this for sure!" Then I started paying attention to my interactions with my kids, and I remembered the old saying, "The shoemaker's children have no shoes."
To be clear, I work to integrate my conscious parenting and conflict management skills in to all of my relationships, especially with my children. What I discovered when I started really paying attention, though, was that I had to REALLY PAY ATTENTION to be successful.
For purposes of this discussion, Active Listening includes:
- Listening Intently
- Listening without Judgment
- Refraining from Interpreting
- Refraining from Comparing
Not a small order, even for someone with years of training and practice under her belt. Here is what I've found. I hope it will be of use to you.
When my children are excited or upset about something there are typically at least two things going on. First, they are experiencing some big emotion (joy, embarrassment, grief, anticipation) and that is reflected in how they are communicating. Second, the form of communication they use might be verbal, lots of words, it might be complete silence and isolation, or it might be somewhere in between. No matter where they are on this spectrum, though, true active listening by me as their parent requires energy and focus every time.
The best place to start, always, is with an open-ended question. "You seem upset. What's going on?" "Wow! You're bursting with energy right now. What's that about?" The next step is the most difficult. Be silent and wait. It may take a few seconds, it may feel like an eternity, but I promise patient silence will get you somewhere almost every time. The key to keeping things going in a positive direction, in my experience, is to reflect what my kids are saying rather than respond. In reflecting, repeating back to them the message they shared with me, I'm letting them know that I truly heard them. If I get it wrong, they always tell me, and I get a second chance!!
As parents, we want to help, to solve, to make things better or give advice. We have years of education and experience from which our kids should benefit! Active listening, however, requires we put that aside and focus on what our children are experiencing right now.
Invariably, we will have reactions to what our kids tell us, but our job, as active listeners, is not to share those reactions. It is to listen without judgment. We naturally make assumptions and fill in blanks in our children's stories, but our job, as active listeners, is to ask clarifying questions to understand their reality. We have our own experiences and stories that we believe will be relevant and helpful, but our job, as active listeners, is to refrain from sharing those unless asked.
Initially, this approach might feel incomplete somehow. I know it did for me. There's often no real conclusion to the interaction, other than that your child feeling acknowledged and heard. The rewards for engaging consistently in active listening with your child, however, are great. Before long, a child who did not want your opinion may very well come to you asking for it.