By Stephen Walton
..Developing active listening skills is one of the most important strategies of positive parenting. At times it can be challenging as it requires an enormous amount of patience and self discipline, however, it is a growth experience where the benefits enrich all elements of parenting and the rewards are immeasurable.
Our main objective is in blending the principles of "active listening" and "empathic listening" which are considered the most significant ingredients for effective family communication.
With active listening skills you use your auditory system to perceive all of your child's spoken words, you use your cognitive functions such as your attention, memory, thinking and reasoning. And you use your visual function to pay close attention to mood and the body language of your child. Active listening also involves using your verbal cues such as "ah,huh", "ok","hmmm" to let your child know he/she is being listened to.
With empathic listening skills you listen with your heart. It's very important to understand that "empathy" is not the same as "sympathy." Sympathy is feeling for someone, whereas... empathy is feeling as someone. In order to listen empathically you must put yourself in your child's shoes and genuinely put their feelings ahead of yours.
For simplification purposes and for the breadth of this article we refer to the blended form as "Active Listening Skills"
1) It's critical to model your capacity to listen and understand. In turn, your child will instinctively develop active listening techniques of their own. They will become less argumentative and defensive, become more democratic and develop emotional maturity.
2) Active listening inspires openness and trust, supports and encourages your child to think and speak for themselves developing self confidence and building positive self-esteem.
3) Good effective communication is the most important skill in life. If you inspire your child to genuinely apply active listening skills, they will strengthen social competence and shape favourable character traits that are extremely vital in today's society.
4) As mentioned in our article on "How to Improve Communication in families," a fundamental need of your child regardless of their age is the need to understand and to be understood. They need to believe their thoughts, ideas, and emotional feelings are respected and valued. This is a core element in developing and sustaining a healthy and trusting relationship.
So!… Where do we begin?
In order to develop good listening skills it's prudent to be mindful of the wisdom of The Greek Philosopher Epictetus when he declared;
"We were given two ears and one mouth so we could
listen twice as much as we speak."
Hearing is a passive action that requires no effort at all, whereas listening takes conscious attention and concentration.
For most of us "active listening skills" do not come naturally. We often get caught up in a balancing act between hearing the words of our children and the chatter of our own inner voice preparing to respond.
The late Stephen Covey asserted that: "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."
When anxious to speak (prematurely), I personally like to reflect on an interesting fact observed by the musician and author Alfred Brendal;
“The word "listen" contains the same letters as the word "silent"
As parents we tend to listen from the perspective of our own paradigms based on our many years of experience, however we must understand our children will always view things through a different lens and we must listen with our hearts and realize the way we see the world is not how our children see it at all.
Good listening skills are about building a positive relationship by showing respect for your child's feelings and point of view. It requires intentional effort with a willingness to practice humility and suppress the urge to "provide all the answers" or the desire to "always be right."
At first this may seem contrary to common parenting ideology. After all, as parents, are we not expected to be a fountain of information and help solve all our children's problems?
That can not be further from the truth…..
With positive parenting, your most important role is to guide and encourage your child to look within themselves for answers. Teach them to understand and come to terms with their own personal feelings and emotions, (a skill unfortunately lacking in many adults today).
Your goal in listening is not to gather information on your child to win an argument or assert control, it is to better understand how they see the world, find ways to help them understand, interpret their own feelings, develop their inner personality and to illuminate and celebrate their individual uniqueness.
This is best achieved by being attentive to your heart and knowing "when to listen" and "when to restrain your impulse to respond." This warrants extraordinary patience and self-control.
A Simple Framework for Applying
Active Listening Skills
Here are 3 very simple steps to practice active listening skills. It's not rocket science, it just takes a little patience and consideration with focus on empathy.
1) Listen attentively to clarify the facts or information being presented.
2) With a heartfelt effort, step into your child's shoes to understand the way they see things and truly feel their emotional sentiment.
3) Without being defensive, judgmental or critical, empathetically acknowledge your child's feelings or emotions by paraphrasing in your own words how you perceive things to be.
In order to clarify the facts, you might say;
."If I understand you correctly,"….. or "What I feel you're telling me is"….
(filling in with your interpretation and asking if this is correct)
To show empathy, you might say;
..."I understand why you feel disappointed your game was postponed, you sure do enjoy playing and I know how much it means to you."
..."I can sense you are feeling a little nervous about your dance recital, I remember feeling that way at my first one too."
A response to a simple sibling dispute:
Mother: .."That look on your face tells me you're upset. Would you like to talk about it?" (recognized nonverbal cue from facial expression)
Daughter: . "You bet, Bobby left without me. He said he would wait but he didn't. Ohhh… I'm so angry!"
Mother: .. "Well, I can understand your frustration, as he did promise you he would wait, (acknowledging her feelings) however your anger will do nothing to change the situation, (labelling her emotion) anger hurts no one but yourself, take a few deep breaths and let it go…(guidance in anger management).
Daughter: . "Ya…your right mom, but, I just don't understand why he would have done that." (calming down)
Mother:. "That's not normal for your brother to be like that. He did seem to be in a big hurry didn't he? I'm sure he'll have a reasonable explanation. I trust you'll ask him rationally and calmly when he gets home." (being non-critical while defusing possible backlash by the daughter)
Daughter: "Ok mom, I will."
Of course as parents we know a child's reply is not always as smooth as in the daughter's above, however, if the fundamentals of effective family communication are made a top priority, you will undoubtably increase your odds of a positive outcome.
Active listening is not only intended to clarify the facts or information being presented. In fact, more importantly it is about establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, by identifying and responding to the feelings and emotions of all members of your family.
The one thing you can count on as a parent is that your children will never remember the words you have said. But… they will never forget the way you have made them feel.
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