Above All Else, Listen!
It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that what we have to say – as parents – is much more important than what our children have to say. If you take this logic, then our children need to listen more keenly to our words than we need to listen to theirs. We will say, ‘Don’t interrupt while I’m speaking!’, while remaining free to interrupt when they are speaking.
In principle most parents would agree that this approach is flawed, but in reality we still fail to listen. A 2013 Prince’s Trust survey found that 22 per cent of young people in the UK felt they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their problems while they were growing up. Most of them surely had friends and family around them, but they didn’t trust that they would be heard.
Why are we so much better at the speaking side of conversation than the listening side? Partly it’s because we think we are older and wiser (?) than our children, and we are keen to pass on our experience. After all, we recognize that the education of our children doesn’t just happen at school, and we take on this role as parents.
But the question remains: why should this mean that the ratio of speaking and listening is stacked in our favour? The sad truth is that our children may benefit more from our listening than our speaking.
Here are 3 ways of listening that get progressively deeper in terms of the attention that’s given to someone’s speaking:
1. Pretending to listen.
We’re perfectly capable of sitting in front of someone and appearing to be attentive, while actually thinking about my jobs list for the day, or what to make for dinner. The art of pretending to listen without actually listening can be a useful device, but it’s not conducive to healthy conversation.
2. ‘Normal’ listening.
We like to think that conversations consist of one person speaking and the other person listening. However, the reality is a bit different. While person A speaks, person B is preparing to speak. Then person B cuts in and becomes the speaker while person A prepares to speak. Then person A jumps in again, and the process continues in this way.
The question this raises is, ‘Exactly who is doing the listening?’ Of course, both of them are listening to a degree, but it’s quite shallow and when listening is shallow relationships tend to be shallow, too.
3. Listening from nothing.
There’s a much deeper form of listening that requires being fully present while the other person is speaking. I call this ‘listening from nothing’. It’s not as easy as it sounds because we tend to spend a lot of our conversations being preoccupied with:
o Evaluating the merit of what the other person’s saying.
o Composing our reply.
o Seeking to get our point of view heard.
o Working out how to fix the problem that’s being outlined to us.
o Waiting for the other person to stop speaking so that we can speak.
When someone listens this way, you’ll feel as if you’re being fully heard and that the person with whom you’re speaking is deeply connected with you and your world. Depending on who you’re talking to, feelings of respect, profound affinity or love will be a natural consequence.
What can we learn from this as parents? We can’t possibly listen this way all of the time; it would be a completely unrealistic expectation. A better question is, ‘Can we listen this way when it really counts?’ For instance, when our child has had a disagreement with a friend at school, or when they begin to tell us about their worries with their exams.
I would suggest that, by the time our children become teenagers, they already know whether we are likely to listen to their concerns or jump in with our good ideas, our advice or our solutions. The good news is that we get infinite opportunities to practice, knowing that we also have endless room for improvement.
How do you practice deeper forms of listening?
1. Be in the conversation you’re in.
For more important conversations, mentally put everything else away and give your full attention to your child. This takes practice, but also becomes easier with practice.
2. Suspend solutions.
Hold back on the urge to go straight for solutions, and ask questions that give your child the chance to explain further.
3. Allow pauses.
Rather than filling gaps and pauses in the conversation, allow your child to fill them and see what happens. In the process, they often become clearer about how they feel, what they really think and how they wish to move forward.
4. Hold back on offering your opinions.
If you do have an opinion or view on the matter, check with your child before offering it, especially for older children or teenagers. There’s a good chance that they just want you to listen. They’ll be able to find many people who are quick to give advice, but very few who are willing to ‘listen from nothing’.
Note: Image by Clay Sinclair at Woolff Gallery, London, and www.easyart.com/prints/clay-sinclair