What a difference it makes when – or if - we learn active listening!
When CEOs really listen to their employees as well as their shareholders, customers or clients.
When doctors actively listen to their patients as well as to nurses and other stakeholders in their patients’ health and wellbeing.
When teachers (principals and education administrators) really listen to their students, as well as to parents.
And when parents start to actively listen to their children!
Listening - really paying attention - is the first step in bridging the illusory gaps between us and solving our problems. Often it’s the only step required, because once we listen to someone and bridge that space between us, the perceived problems disappear like a puff of smoke.
Other times, active listening is the first in a number of steps to problem solving.
So what is active listening and how is it different to just 'normal' listening?
Consider how we listen to things that we hear all day long. We live in an environment – many of us – where there is almost constant noise/sound/music and talk. Our ears take all this in while our brain does the immense job of filtering what’s relevant, what’s important, what’s interesting and what can be ignored.
It seems that our concentration levels have shrunk to a few seconds, but I doubt this is really the case. I see kids today playing a computer game while listening to music, keeping up with text chat on Facebook, texting and still getting their homework done. That’s concentration! And multi-tasking.
But when it comes to face to face conversation, many of us find communicating difficult, especially if it’s between parents and their kids.
First, the why:
Really listening to a person shows you care; that you're interested in them and willing to learn.
This is especially important in challenging or difficult conversations.
Let’s say you’re a parent listening to your child.
First, ACKNOWLEDGE your child.
You might be busy preparing dinner or engaged in your computer or TV, but your child wants to talk. She has something bothering her and needs you. Now!
Stop what you’re doing for a moment. Give her your attention with eye contact. Show that you’re ready to listen. Nod your head if you understand what she’s saying, rather than saying anything yourself at this stage.
Here body language is important. Active listening requires your whole participation, so as well as eye contact, you need to face your child and maybe get down on her level.
Having listened to her initial question or problem, instead of rushing in with an answer or solution, you have to realize that she may well be able to solve this one herself.
So ask a clarifying, non-judgmental question, by rephrasing what your child has told you so far, trying to also get to the underlying emotion. Ask "Have I got this right?"
Let’s demonstrate this with some examples.
Mary, aged 5, to her mum:
Mum, Billy won’t share the game!
Mum: You’re annoyed with Billy?
Mary: It’s not fair! He always gets to have more turns than me.
Mum: You’re feeling cheated and that it’s about time you had a go.
Mary: Yeah. I’ll go tell Billy I feel cheated!
Dave, aged 12 and his dad.
Dave: I hate school lately, it really sucks!
Dad: That’s strong words! You’re really feeling bad about school these days?
Dave: Yeah. Well not everything at school, it’s these tests mostly.
Dad: So you’re worried about the tests?
Dave then has a chance to go into why he’s hating the tests so much, what he’s worried about and, with dad’s supportive, active listening, he might come up with his own strategy to get through.
Imagine what other outcome might have transpired if dad had reacted differently:
Dave: I hate school lately, it really sucks!
Dad: Hey, you don’t hate school! You’re a winner, remember! Everyone hates their school or job sometime; you’ll get over it…my advice is…
Obviously dad hasn’t listened to his son’s emotional message and has missed the opportunity to understand his actual problem and support him in solving it himself.
Changing any habit feels awkward at first and active listening shouldn’t be overused or you’ll end up sounding fake – and kids will pick up on that very quickly.
But once you make it your own, to suit your own language and parenting style , you’ve enabled an upgrade in your family communication that will pay dividends for life, because your children will grow up knowing they are accepted and valued, all because you consciously listened to them.
Active listening helps your child grow in confidence while feeling valued and supported towards independence.
From Active Listening you can go on to learn to listen to your self on our "how to meditate" page
You might also enjoy the page on problem ownership.
Thanks to Psychologist Tim Sanderson who inspired me to edit this page with his talk at Live Clear Health Centre titled "Speak Your Mind and Talk Yourself Sane!" Meet Tim on Facebook.