In the relentless stream of daily activities, it is easy to slip into ‘auto pilot’ and miss the nuances that make for a rich experience of life – especially when it comes to our children. We talk to our kids every day, and they talk to us, but do we really hear what they’re saying? And do they do the same for us?
One practical tool for creating an environment that encourages this receptivity is called active listening. In surprisingly simple ways, it creates the mutual respect that makes true communication possible. By modeling it in our daily interactions with our children, we make it available for them to use as well. Active listening is a game changer for parents, teachers and children alike.
Active listening has three parts. The first is eye contact. When your child talks to you, look into her eyes. This is something we don’t do often enough in our culture, but it’s a great way of taking a moment to make a real connection, soul to soul. Looking your child in the eye says, I’m here. I’m present. I hear you. I may agree or disagree with what you’re saying, but at this moment, you have my full attention.
The second part of active listening is to hear the child out, and then pause before you respond. Many times when our kids start telling us something, we anticipate what they’re going to say and cut them off in mid-sentence. “Okay, I know what you’re going to ask for, and the answer is no.” It’s important to let them finish the sentence, even if it’s likely to be something we’ve heard 1,000 times before, or if we’re sure we know what’s coming. If we don’t listen and take a moment to respond thoughtfully, it should come as no surprise when our kids treat us the same way—by tuning us out.
The third aspect of active listening involves asking open-ended questions. There are two ways to pose a question. You could ask your child, “So, did you have a good day at school today?” This sets the stage for a yes or no answer. The alternative is to phrase the question in a way that creates room for your child to provide some additional information, and possibly stimulate a conversation, where you will get to really know what is happening with your child. “So, what kind of day did you have at school today?” And if the answer is “Okay,” you can follow up with more specific open-ended questions. “What was the most interesting thing that happened? What was the most boring? What was the most annoying?” Or, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?”
Active listening is a way of letting our kids know that we care enough about them to pay attention to what they have to say. And when they observe that we’re taking the time to listen to them in a focused, receptive, and respectful way, they’re far more likely to return the favor.