When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.
– Stephen Covey
Most parents, particularly with young children, may feel like they are listening all day long. Because children are exploring the world around them, they may have many observations and questions. “Why are you going upstairs?” “What is Dad doing now?” “How many days until school is out?” and “Why is that bird chirping outside our window?” Though we perceive that we are listening regularly, often times, the reality is, we are not. Research reinforces that notion. The average person listens with only 25% efficiency.1 And no wonder. There are multiple distractions from people and media that compete for our attention. Listening is a critical skill for your children as they attempt to make friends, participate in family life and achieve in school. When your child does not listen to you, it can be extremely frustrating and sometimes dangerous if for example, you are warning them about a safety issue. Effective listening in which the person hears and understands what is said, can build trust in a relationship, reduce conflict and inspire a higher level of commitment to working together.
As you prepare for school letting out and having your children home more of the time, why not practice some listening skills to proactively promote stronger communications? Try out the following practices.
Have a dinner conversation about listening.
You might pose the question, “What does it take to listen well?” “What do our bodies do when we listen?” Start a conversation with the whole family and allow each member to contribute. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interaction or judgment.
Practice listening strategies.
Try interactive modeling with listening skills. Model the listening technique and then, ask your child to try it out.
- Active Listening is listening to fully understand what the person is saying. Wait until the person is clearly finished. A response is a simple “yes,” “uh-huh,” or “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Providing Wait Time is particularly important with children but can also be important with adults. We get anxious with our own needs and thoughts and jump in before the speaker can complete their thought. Building from last week’s article, “The Chance to Wait,” providing wait time can allow for deeper thinking and better responses particularly when you ask questions of others. Wait for their response. What you may perceive as awkward silence may actually provide the space for the speaker to formulate her thoughts and come back to you with a well considered response.
- Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But this step is an important way to teach children how to listen for comprehension. It forces the listener to step up their game as they are going to be “on the spot” to communicate back what you have said. It might go something like this:
Parent: “I ran into my Kindergarten teacher at the grocery store today while I was getting you carrots and she said she remembered me.”
Parent Modeling Paraphrasing: “So you ran into your Kindergarten teacher and she remembered you.
- Seeking Clarification is something that we, as adults, may do naturally. Particularly if we are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, we seek clarification on details so that we are certain we understand. Practice seeking clarification with your child and reinforce when they are able to do it on their own.
Mom to Dad: “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning. What happened?”
- Questioning or Commenting with Empathy takes practice. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own opinions or experiences, you focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. Avoid using “I” in your response.
Child: “Today Mrs. Smith started a project with us. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait. I need to get sticks and lots of other stuff to help build it. Okay?”
Parent: You might be tempted to say, “I built a bird house when I was in school.” Instead you might say, “Okay. Sounds like you are excited about this project your teacher began. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?”
This pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some but to children, it is a major challenge and requires experience. Your modeling will make a difference in their own comfort with this style of communication.
Try out some listening games.
For Younger Children:
This classic children’s game is not only fun but also instructive. Play this as a family or when a group of children are at the house for a playdate. Get the children in a circle. Whisper in the first child’s ear one sentence that they must whisper in the next child’s ear. The sentence get passed from child to child in a whisper. The final child gets to reveal aloud what he heard. Make the first sentence simple and increase the difficulty with each turn. Giggles are likely to result! A simple one may be, “The cat is orange.” A more difficult one may be, “The curious cat calls out his command to come.” On the first go-round, just pass the sentence. On the second go-round, ask, “what could you do if you didn’t really hear what was said?” This will give children additional practice in seeking clarification. You could model what they might say. “Could you repeat that, please?”
For Older Children:
If you have children 9 and up, this will be a true challenge for them. Created by Classroom Conflict Resolution Training for Elementary Schools in San Francisco, California and reprinted in the A Year of Student’s Creative Response to Conflict curriculum, it has been used effectively in classrooms. Children love it! The parent relays a robbery report and children must remember the details of the report by listening to it. Say it once and see what they can remember. Then, read it a second and perhaps, third time and see if they’re listening improves.
Parent: “Please listen carefully as I have to go to the hospital right away. I just called the police from the gas station on the corner. Wait here and report the robbery to them. I was walking into Johnson’s Convenience Store and this guy came running out and almost knocked me over. He was carrying a white bag and it looked like he had a gun in his left hand. He was wearing a Levi jacket with the sleeves cut out and a green and blue plaid shirt and blue jeans with a hole in the right knee. He had skinny legs and a big stomach. He wore wire rim glasses and high top red Converse tennis shoes. He was bald and had a brown mustache and was six and a half feet tall, probably in his mid-thirties.” 2
Adult Listening Challenge
In addition to modeling and teaching your child skills in listening, here’s a challenge for you to exercise your own listening skills. This is not easy! It takes concentration. Try it out multiple times and see if you can make improvements as you practice.
Listening for Thought, Listening for Feeling
Pick any listening opportunity in a day whether it’s listening to your child relay a story from school or your partner telling you about his day at work. In addition to listening to the content of what the person says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content, in other words, the context. Here’s an example.
Your Partner: “Oh, the day was okay. I had four meetings back to back this morning and they seemed to drag. I am glad I checked them off the list.”
Thought: The morning was long and difficult.
Feeling: I was tired and bored and am now feeling relieved that my meetings are over.
Now that you have identified the thought and the feeling, you can better respond to your partner. Listening is a skill that can bring a family closer together if practiced regularly. Try out one of the techniques or games and see if adds a sense of connection and understanding to your family communications.
1 Williams, S. Listen Effectively. LeaderLetter. Dayton, OH: Wright State University Raj Soin College of Business. Retrieved on 5-20-14.
2 Nia-Azariah, K., Kern-Crotty, F., & Gomer Bangel, L. (1992). A Year of Students Response to Conflict: 35 Experiential Workshops for the Classroom. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Peace Education.