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How to Practice Active Listening with Your Children

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Man talking to son PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

What is Active Listening?:

Active listening is a little bit like listening on steroids. When we listen passively, we are listening for content - we want to hear and understand the words that are being spoken. Active listening takes listening to a new level where we are trying to understand the complete message. It involves paying attention to what is being said and how it is being said. It involves being aware of body language, voice inflection and overall attitude.

To try to get to the meaning behind the words, active listeners reflect what they are hearing back to the speaker to validate their impressions and the message they are getting.

The Benefits of Active Listening:

Active listeners understand people better and tend to be more productive because they get the full message the first time and don't have to go back for clarification time after time. Because they communicate interest and demonstrate caring for the one sending the message, they tend to build trust and credibility with others. Active listeners also tend to avoid conflict and misunderstanding in their communication with others.
Parents, particularly, can find real positives from being active listeners to their children. When children are little and parents practice active listening, parents can develop good patterns of communication that help their children feel valued and understood. Once children reach the tween and teen stages and they tend to not communicate as openly with parents as Mom and Dad would like, active listening can overcome some of these built-in communication biases in their children.

How to be an Active Listener:

Becoming an active listener as a parent is a matter of learning and practicing the basic skills until these skills become a regular part of life.

1. Listen with all of your senses. So often, we find ourselves listening only to words. But messages are communicated in a variety of ways, not just with the words used. Vocal inflection, body language and other non-verbal communication can often change the meaning of words. For example, the words "Yeah, right" can be positive if spoken with enthusiasm; but if spoken with cynicism, the same words can communicate doubt and lack of trust.

Try these tips to listen with your whole self:
  • Look directly at your child when they are speaking to you
  • Don't allow other things going on to distract you from giving the conversation your full attention
  • Observe body language; notice if they are acting "closed" or "open" as they talk
  • Avoid listening with the goal of preparing a response to the initial communication; listen all the way through your child's comments until he or she is done

2. Communicate with your whole self. When children are communicating with us, they subconsciously observe the clues we give as to whether we are really listening to them. So make sure that you are sending the right signals. One trainer I know uses the acronym "S.O.L.E.R" to remind us of how to be attentive.

  • Squarely face the person
  • Open your posture
  • Lean toward the person speaking
  • Eye contact throughout the message
  • Relax while listening

3. Reflect the message. In this skill set, we are trying to validate what we understand is being said. As you are starting to get the message, check to make sure that you are understanding what is being said. For example, when a child complains about the impact on their social life from being grounded, you might say something like, "What I am hearing is that being with your friends is very important to you. Is that right?"

If the child says "yes," then the discussion can move forward. If he says, "No. Dad, you are not listening," then you can apologize for not getting the message and ask him or her to clarify. Consider using phrases like:

  • "It sounds to me like you are saying...."
  • "What do you mean when you say...?"
  • "What I am hearing you say is...."
  • "I gather than you felt _____ when ...."

Don't just repeat the words they said, but reflect their feelings and the broader message. Parroting back their words will defeat the purpose of reflecting. Try to paraphrase and add in what you have gathered from their feelings.

4. Let the message get all the way out. So often, particularly with our children, we tend to want to jump to the end of the discussion. In the grounding example, we think that the children want us to make a different decision, so we cut them off and let them know we are not changing our mind. They feel devalued when we don't let the conversation get to the end they had in mind. A parent should:

  • Avoid jumping to conclusions
  • Work to not interrupt the flow of thoughts except to reflect and clarify
  • Passing judgment and then tuning out

5. Respond with respect. Acknowledge that your children have real feelings and even if you disagree with their approach or their interpretation of reality, respond to their concerns respectfully. Work hard to not make them feel incapable or to discount their very real feelings.

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