I come from a family of talkers. Gather our crew in a room, and there’s no chance of an awkward silence falling. That’s a good thing. The bad part? We’re also a family of WORLD CLASS interrupters. If you want to finish your thought, you’d better spit it out fast and get a little loud at the end for insurance because somebody is sure to be responding before you’re even done.
That’s because we lack some serious listening skills. My people tend to listen specifically to formulate a response, rather than to understand what’s being said. And as soon as that response comes together in our brains we get so excited, we have to blurt it out. Immediately.
Kids—fairly or unfairly—often accuse their parents of simply not listening. It’s true that if you’re preparing to give the parental response the entire time your child is trying to explain her feelings, you’re going to miss some important things. So what does listening to understand your child look like?
Maintain eye contact and don’t multitask.
We parents (especially moms) are notorious multi-taskers. But when your child is trying to ask a question, or explain something to you, put down the phone or that stack of bills, look them in the eye, and focus on them alone. It communicates to your child that their thoughts and needs are important enough to merit your full attention. It also models for your child the good communication skills they need to acquire.
Wait for a pause and ask clarifying questions.
One way to improve communication of any type is to clarify unclear ideas or feelings as you go. Wait for a natural pause in conversation and ask questions about details that aren’t clear. If you think you understand, bounce it back to them in the form of, “Okay, so what you’re telling me is…Am I right?” This way, misconceptions can be cleared up before they derail the conversation.
Express empathy for their concerns.
Even if you’re not able to give your child what he or she ultimately desires, expressing an understanding and an empathy for their feelings let’s them know that they have been heard. It might sound like, “I understand that it’s frustrating to you to have to babysit your younger siblings when you’d rather spend time with your friends. I remember how important time with friends was to me when I was your age. But, we all have to pitch in to make our family work and this is an important contribution we need from you right now.”
Don’t set the stage for conflict.
Even in conversations where you know you may have to enforce boundaries or impose discipline, set the tone as one of “Let’s fix what’s broken here” rather than one that feels like “Me vs. You.” And even when the basic facts are clear (for example: you know she broke the rule and that consequences are in order), let your child talk. While it won’t change the thing that needs to happen here and now, it may reveal something about why the problem occurred and enlighten you on how to parent going forward to lead her toward better choices. There’s always something to be learned on both ends.
Dana Hall McCain writes about marriage, parenting, faith and wellness. She is a mom of two, and has been married to a wonderful guy for over 18 years.