A concept that comes up a lot on this blog and in our dealings with children and parents is the importance of listening.
Really listening to your children is an integral way to build or maintain a healthy and mutually respectful relationship.
And especially for adolescents, having someone to talk to openly and honestly about the challenges you are facing can make all the difference…
And this can help you to make better choices in your interactions with them going forward.
But how do we know if we’re being good listeners?
And how can we become better listeners?
Moya Sarner is a volunteer at The listening Place, which provides face-to-face support for people with chronic suicidal feelings.
She had always considered herself a good listener until undertaking her training for the role.
‘All the habits I thought made me good at it, all that advice… was just getting in the way.’
And while Moya has developed a new approach to listening, it has also strengthened her appreciation of just how much good being a good listener can do.
Offering suggestions and advice is a natural instinct when listening to people in need, especially for parents, who are eager to fix the challenges their children are facing as soon as possible.
But Moya’s training showed her an important rule to being a good listener:
Say less than the person you’re listening to.
For people in distress, ‘verbalising their emotions helps them see things more clearly. Being listened to makes us feel valued.’
So by simply letting them speak openly without too much interruption, you are helping them to help themselves, and in turn fostering their development of positive life skills for coping with challenges.
This concept is a part of why ‘talking therapy’ such as CBT has proven to be so effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Here are some more top tips for becoming a better listener.
Be interested and engaged.
Do this through your body language, rather than your words.
‘Just being a calm presence can give someone the trust and confidence to open up to you’, says Pam, Moya’s trainer at The Listening Place.
She says you can show that you’re engaged by leaning forward, making eye contact and adopting a soft and caring voice.
Don’t insist on finding the positives.
This is a common approach when speaking with someone who is upset or disappointed.
But this can come off as trivialising or diminishing of their feelings.
‘If a person trusts you enough to talk about their distress, trying to cheer them up is like shutting them up’, says Pam.
‘Give them the space to say how bad they feel and stay with it. Swerving away from it, talking about a silver lining, can signal you don’t want to hear it.’
Pam says this is your most important tool when listening to someone in need.
‘Although it may be uncomfortable to you, it won’t to them. They’re working through painful thoughts and feelings, so don’t rush them. People will start opening up if you don’t interrupt.’
Don’t go straight into comforting mode.
‘The impulse to explain things away and deny our children’s feelings are very powerful’, says Adele Faber, author of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.
Instead of trying to convince your children that their problems aren’t that bad, empathise and give their feelings full value.
In particular, avoid the word ‘but’.
‘Parents often begin with an empathetic statement, then add that little poison pill’, explains Faber.
‘The word “but” tends to diminish or erase what went before.’
Faber says to try replacing ‘but’ by prefacing your statement with ‘even though’…
For example, instead of saying ‘that is a bad result for your exam but you will do better next time’, try saying ‘even though you can improve your marks in the future, this still must be very disappointing for you.’
This way, ‘you credit your child’s intelligence and make your own point without dismissing theirs.
Let them be angry.
Allowing someone to express their emotions helps them to come to terms with them.
So give them the time and space and a platform to do so, and start asking questions and engaging once they’ve calmed down.
Try employing these techniques next time your child, or anyone in need, is reaching out to you for help.
You may find that sometimes an open ear can be the best medicine.
And if you think your child may benefit from talking with a professional, call us for an initial consult.