Listening for Understanding

By Kelly Bartlett, author of Encouraging Words for Kids, certified positive discipline educator and Attachment Parenting leader (API of Portland,Oregon USA),

Parents spend a significant amount of time talking to kids. We have a lifetime of information and lessons to share with them, and we’re constantly searching for the most effective ways to talk to our kids so they will listen to all we have to say. But in parent-child relationships, it’s listening that begets listening. Kelly Bartlett

Listening nonjudgmentally to children allows them to feel accepted. When parents listen for a sense of understanding—that is, recognizing who our children are and what they are communicating beyond the presence of any adversarial words or behaviors—children feel understood and secure in the relationship. When we take the time to listen to children, our relationships deepen.

How can you communicate to kids that you hear and accept them? Here are a few tips for strengthening your relationships with your children through improved listening skills.

Don’t solve. Don’t tell your child what she should do. This takes away from her ability to figure something out for herself. When children come to a parent to talk, they’re looking more for validation and support than answers and directions. No matter a child’s age, when she decides for herself what to do, she assumes responsibility and gains confidence.

Don’t judge. Refrain from imparting any evaluations (positive or negative) of what your children tell you. Instead, help identify feelings and ask questions to help him arrive at his own assessment of the situation. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, says, “When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism.” When kids are worried about receiving criticism from parents, they are less likely to come to us to share problems or difficulties—which is exactly the kind of thing we do want from them!

Don’t assume. Give your child the benefit of the doubt. When your child is telling you about a fight she got into, don’t wonder what she did to start it. Start each conversation fresh, with no assumptions based on past behavior. Listening with an open mind gives a child the chance to see her own situation objectively, arrive at her own solutions, and make her own decisions.

Do summarize. Repeat back what you have heard and what you understand. The first step in effective listening is simply to understand. This part is just about proving that your child has your full attention and about getting the facts straight. “So when you asked your friend if you could borrow a toy, she said no.”

Do empathize. Identify your child’s feelings for him. Put his emotions into words. This will not only help him feel validated, it will also help him gain clarity for himself. “Hmm, you must have felt very unsafe…Sounds like your feelings were hurt…That probably made you very angry.” These kinds of empathic responses communicate understanding and acceptance.

Do ask. Rather than provide a solution to the problem, ask questions about it. This lets a child know that you seek to understand her perspective and that you have faith in her ability to figure things out. “What was that like?” “What happened next?” “What did you decide to do?”

There are a few books that thoroughly cover both sides of parent-child communication. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg are two helpful resources that emphasize listening skills as a cornerstone of strong relationships. Both books teach parents how to listen for understanding, which is the root of effective communication and the foundation for a strong relationship.

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