The Secret To Raising Good Listeners

*On a post I wrote about listening a few weeks ago, Lexie commented:

"Listening is not only important with our spouse and co-workers, but especially with our children. How can we teach our children to be better listeners?"

It was a great question and I started to answer in the comments. I wrote a post about how to help you kids become better communicators but never addressed listening specifically. 

After quickly reaching 500 words in the comments, I thought it might be a great follow up post. Thanks Lexie for the question and the topic idea.

The secret to raising good listeners:

  1. Listen to them
  2. Teach them
  3. Practice

Listen to them

Think about it. Do you listen to your kids or just talk at them? Do you listen or do judge every word out of their mouths? Do you listen or do you constantly correct? I grew up in a loving home, but listening to kids was not a priority. The norm was power. Parents had the power. Kids did not. Power exerted power. Kids had to wait to be adults before they had any power. The fight for power is what keeps parents from actually listening to their kids. Erroneously we think that listening equals agreement. It doesn't. Listening equals understanding. And for kids, trying to understand, and actually understanding is what translates as love.

Teach Them

There are different types of listening, pick one (as a family) the has measurable steps and learn it together. The one I find that brings the deepest connection is empathetic listening. Empathetic listening is when you try to understand not only what a person said, but the feel or emotion behind what they said.

Teach them the steps of empathetic listening:

  • Identify the thoughts
  • Identify the feelings
  • Put it together in a statement/question.

Example Scenario: Tommy came home 20 minutes past his curfew. You ask him why was he late. He says, "It's not fair. None of the other kids have 10pm curfews. I would have looked like a dork leaving so soon."

Possible empathetic listening response:

"Sounds like being the first one to leave the party would have been embarrassing for you?"

Tommy will say either yes or no. If he says no, he'll further explain. You repeat the steps until he says yes. That says to him, you are listening. Listening in this way deepens a relationship. The goal in listening is to understand. When you understand what you are dealing with, you can better plan on how to deal with it. 

I know what you are probably thinking..."If my kid ever came in late or spoke to me that way listening would NOT be my first response." 

I responded the same way when I first heard about the skill. I didn't think I had time for it. I didn't think it would work. I thought it sounded condescending and even a little cheesy. And most importantly, it didn't address the problem...or so I thought.

But as I started practicing the skill, refining my tone of voice, choosing words that sounded more like my vernacular, it became easier. Here is the other thing that happened. As I listened this way, it anchored me, emotionally, to the people to whom I'd listened. They knew I cared even though they couldn't explain why. After listening to them, my advice, counsel, and yes even lecture was better received.

I am a huge advocate of teaching kids feeling words, especially boys. Having two boys myself, it is imperative that our kids learn how to express themselves with their vocabulary. Feeling word charts, like the ones found here, help them choose what they (or others) might be feeling.

I use feeling word charts with my adult clients too. Not because adults don't know what feeling words are but because we all need help identifying the right word sometimes. 

Mad, sad, and happy aren't enough sometimes. Sometimes we need a word like dejected instead of sad. Or bouyant instead of happy. Or livid instead of mad. A feeling word chart provides options. 

It also keeps you from "parrot-phrasing". Parrot phrasing looks like this:

John: I'm upset she didn't return my call

Dad: So, you are upset she didn't return your call?

Technically, Dad has all of the steps of empathetic listening covered. The feeling word is there. The thought content is there. It is wrapped up in a statement/question.

However, his word choice undercuts his intention. By choosing  a new feeling word and paraphrasing the thought content, his intentions, as well as proof that he is really listening, can come shining through. You don't have to be right, just show you are trying.

Dad: Sounds like not knowing whether she is interested is what's most unnerving?

If you have younger kids, Ni Hao Kai Lan on Nick Jr that literally teaches younger kids emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive, evaluate, and control one's emotions. Knowing feeling words is a key step in empathetic listening.

When it comes to listening, empathetic listening looks for the facts (you were late for curfew or she didn't call) AND the emotional content behind the why (embarrassed about being the first one to leave the party or unnerving ).


Ways to Practice:

Role play: In a game night, role play listening scenarios (like the one I gave you about Tommy). Make them up, or choose one that actually happened in your family, in a TV show, or from someone you know.

Teach to learn: they say the best way to learn something is to teach it. Have kids teach you or demonstrate the proper way to listen. Have a older sibling teach a younger. Or vice versa.

Create a safe word: parents we want to listen but sometimes other things (fear, instinct to protect, even anger) get in the way. So we need to know when we are not listening. Choose a random/silly word or phrase like "Pokemon" or  "string cheese" or "hippopotamus". That word becomes the your family's universal "I don't feel like I am being listened too" red flag. 

When someone says that word or phrase, all parties stop and refocus on the steps of the listening skill. Come up with the rules of how and when together as a family.

Critically watch TV: TV has tons of bad (and a few good )listening examples. A TV show is a great way to see the consequences  of choices. The  next time you come across one, record it and discuss the scene or show.

The real secret to teaching your kids to be better listeners is that there is no secret! Just focus and consistency.  Listen to them, teach them (or have them teach you), and most importantly practice. Involve them. Practice what you preach and preach what you practice!

Thanks Lexie for inspiring this post. If any of you want me to address a certain communication topic, leave a comment or email me with your ideas or your suggestions.

How do you teach your kids good listening skills? Are you intentional about it?

*I wrote this post and it first appeared on asmithblog.com

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