4 Steps for Active Listening

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We all want our kids to be able to understand the feelings of others, and to respond to them appropriately. Empathy is an important aspect of emotional intelligence, and it’s an essential skill for maintaining relationships. Developmentalists expect this skill to appear naturally as a child matures, as long as they have a secure bond with a caring adult. That is, kids will become empathic if they believe that they have someone who values them and understands them. How can parents demonstrate their caring and understanding? One way is through active listening.

Listening sounds easy enough; we listen to people every day. But often, especially in high stress situations, we become distracted, thinking about what we want to say next rather than focusing and trying to understand someone else’s point of view. Active listening is an essential skill (for parents, spouses, leaders, employers) - Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon talk about it (albeit briefly) in their Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach, and we included listening as the primary parenting skill in our Genuine Parenting Philosophy.

Carl Rogers, the founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, almost literally wrote the book on active listening - actually, he and Richard Farson wrote an article called Active Listening in 1957. Their focus was on business relationships, but the same principles apply with parents and kids, spouses, or friends. With kids, active listening not only helps them to feel understood (and valued), but it also helps them to understand themselves. Let’s focus on how Rogers’ and Farson’s steps for active listening can be applied by parents.

  • Listen for total meaning: Sometimes your child will tell you something that’s pretty straightforward, but often, simple changes in wording can convey information that requires some thought on the part of a parent. There isn’t much interpretation required if your child says, “The teacher gave us math homework tonight.” But if he sighs, “The teacher gave us MORE math homework tonight,” there’s some additional, important information. The latter statement might mean that the child feels overworked or frustrated with math. A parent who just responds with, “Let’s get started, then,” has missed an opportunity. Instead, an active listening response involves saying, “It sounds like you’re getting tired of doing math at night,” could let the child know that his message has been received.
  • Respond to feelings: This is probably one of the most difficult things that parents have to do. It requires us to try to understand what our child is telling us without immediately offering solutions, trying to make him feel better, convincing him of a different point of view, or taking what he says personally. If I send my son into time out for swearing at me, I might not hear him using bad language again, but is he going to talk to me when he’s mad? Will he learn better ways to understand or express his feelings while he’s alone in his room? Unlikely. If I can stop myself from taking it personally, use active listening skills, and say, “You’re really angry right now,” I might have a chance of getting somewhere. I can talk to him about the language later when he’s calm, but if he’s mad, he needs to know that I want to understand why. Otherwise, what’s the point of coming to me when he has a problem? Our responses to our kids’ feelings helps them to understand them better and to develop language to talk about them.
  • Note all cues: Not everything a child communicates will be verbal. Parents who are sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and hesitations in speech are more likely to be able to get to what a child really means and how they feel. The nonverbal cues are especially important when kids don’t yet have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings!

So parents should listen to the whole message, using body language and other nonverbal information to understand how their kids are feeling. Then they need to engage in the final step of active listening:

  • Convey understanding: When you think you have an idea of what you’re child is saying, it’s time to tell them by paraphrasing or rewording the message. Remember, saying, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed by math homework,” doesn’t mean that you agree that the teacher is assigning too much - it’s an acknowledgement of the child’s point of view. In fact, it’s best not to necessarily agree with what the child is saying, because you won’t give him a chance to consider alternatives. For example: my son tells me that his friends were talking and laughing on the playground, and he feels bad because he thinks they were gossiping about him. It might not be helpful to say, “It’s really hard when your friends spread gossip about you.” I’d be better off saying, “So you’re sad because you thinkthat your friends are saying bad things about you.” It’s a subtle difference, but one that allows him to consider alternatives. Imelda Bickham created a great chart that she posted on Wikipedia: We’ll be talking about active listening on next week’s episode of the podcast.
Active Listening Chart by Imelda Bickham

Active Listening Chart by Imelda Bickham

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.