Last week I wrote about the need for parents to spend time talking to their child. But this is often easier said than done – sometimes we don’t do this because we don’t know how. Talking to them isn’t the same as talking at them – it involves listening.
Teachers know that active listening improves communication. Active listening involves deeper listening and an appreciation that there is often more to a message than the surface words that we hear. Actively listening to your child is a very powerful way of showing them that they are valued and cared for.
Active listening involves attending, following and reflecting.
Attending means making sure we’re in comfortable space, that I can make eye contact, that my body language is positive and that my mind is focused on the person and their message. I want the person I’m with to know that they are important and I’m interested in them and what they have to say. I’m not doing something else while I listen but I’m fully focussed on my child and what he/she is saying.
Following is about staying engaged with the conversation and helping it to develop. This can be very important when dealing with teenagers. I might ask open-ended questions which encourage elaboration; a closed question such as ‘are you enjoying school?’ – invites a ‘yes or no’ or one word answer and tends to limit the conversation. Instead, asking ‘What are you enjoying most at school?’ leads to follow-up questions like why? or why not?
Silence (or what teachers call ‘wait time’) can also be important, especially when it conveys understanding, patience and attention. It may also be appropriate to end the silence with an empathetic, open question such as, ‘That must have been very difficult for you; tell me some more about how it made you feel?’ or ‘Can you tell me a little more about the incident at the water cooler?’
Reflecting or reflective responses convey empathy, respect and acceptance. A reflective response might be, ‘It sounds like you had a really tough day’ or ‘How did that leave you feeling?’
Reflecting is also a way of being more certain that you understand what the person has said and/or how it made them feel, e.g. ‘Here’s what I thought you just said… Is that what you said?’
Attempting to summarise key parts of the conversation can also be helpful, e.g. ‘When we first started talking you told me that you were worried about… I think we’ve now agreed on… ; have I got this right / is that how you see it?’ Try to withhold judgment in any reflective comments.
Parents who want to read more about this topic can find material on the Australian Parenting website.
Dr Thelma Perso