How to cultivate the art of listening

A friend recently asked me, “When was the last time someone really listened to you?” It was an interesting question and one I pondered for some time. It made me think of how many times a day we say to our kids, “Are your listening ears on? Are you listening to me?” But how often do we truly, whole-heartedly listen to them?

In busy households, it’s really easy for communication to become instructional – with conversations consisting of parents giving ‘to do’ lists, without expecting much of a response. As a result, our kids may ‘switch off’, stop listening and become reluctant to share their experiences with us. In a perfect world we would have hours to sit with our children, one-on-one, to listen to their stories and hear their concerns. Sadly, this is not always possible, and so we have to get creative and intentional about how we connect with our kids.

So, how can we practise the art of listening, and how can we show our kids that we really do want to engage with them, even when we are busy?

  • Be still occasionally – take a break. Create moments to sit and talk with your children.
  • Ask your children when the best time to talk to you is. You may get some interesting answers here! Explain from your point of view when you can do your best listening too.
  • Show you’re listening through both verbal and non-verbal signs. Make eye contact, smile and nod. Good listeners show their engagement by making encouraging sounds or remarks like, “Ah ha” or, “Mmm”.
  • When your child is telling you a story or sharing an experience, try not to interrupt. Instead, ask good, clarifying questions. For example, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?” or, “Can I check with you that I have this right?” You could also summarise what you’ve heard and repeat it back to them.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings when they are telling you a story about their day. For example, “That must have been very scary for you!” or, “I can see that this is really worrying you tonight.” Help your child tell their story.
  • If your children think you haven’t heard them and they have something important to say, encourage them to repeat themselves.
  • Create routines that support active listening for the whole family and make deliberate opportunities for quality conversations.

If you’re short on time for quality chats with your kids, make the most of car trips. Let your kids know that when you’re all in the car together, everyone gets a turn to talk. If time runs out and someone doesn’t get to share, make sure they’re the first one to speak next time. This will also help siblings learn to listen to one another.

To stimulate conversation, ask questions like, “What was the best thing about school today?”, “What was the worst thing about today?” Some context-specific questions could prompt conversation too, such as, “What were you learning about in maths today?” Later on, remember to follow up on your conversation. For example, “Yesterday you mentioned that you were learning about fractions and some of it was really hard. How was it today?” It is always tricky juggling the needs and wants of everyone in the family, but try to ensure that everyone is heard. You may have to encourage a child who is more reticent, whilst at the same time calming an exuberant child and asking them to be a good listener to others in the car.

Another way of maximising great listening opportunities is to utilise a moment in time when you, as a parent, feel really relaxed. Everyone will have different ideas here. Some parents enjoy making a meal and can see real value in encouraging their child to help with the preparation, creating a magic moment for some quality conversation. Other parents might view this time as far too stressful and would rather wait until the meal is prepared before they feel they can focus on being the listener. Others enjoy pottering in the garden and think they could do their best listening in this environment.

Perhaps you have a favourite room, couch, view or piece of music that could help create the right atmosphere to foster better listening. Have a constructive conversation with each of your children, swap stories and find out when they like to ‘really’ talk to you. Make suggestions to them about times that work for you to hear their stories.

A word about teenagers. Adolescents value their privacy and like to know that they are talking to you in confidence. Let your teen know that what they share with you will stay with you. If you need to tell someone else, explain the reason to them. Teenagers are smart and old enough to know when their secrets aren’t safe. They will shut down and only tell you half the story if they have to worry that you will be sharing their private thoughts with your friends and the neighbours. Two clever ways to engage with your teenager are when driving or walking side-by-side. Often they will chat away in a way that they wouldn’t ordinarily.

With technology, social media and the digital world becoming the norm for our kids, communication is certainly evolving and generational differences in how we communicate are sometimes challenging. However, the truth is that we can all make the most of opportunities for better communication and great listening.

When you use the above strategies, they indicate to your child that you are deeply interested in what they have to say and that they are worth listening to. Children don’t just want answers or instructions, they want you and your attention. Allow them the luxury of talking through particular issues or challenges with you. If you model being a good listener, it is likely that your child will, in turn, be a good listener to their siblings, friends and teachers at school too.

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About Author

Juliet Small

Juliet is the Principal of Saint Kentigern Girls’ School in Auckland. She has taught across all age groups from new entrants to intermediate level at schools in London, Hamilton, Invercargill and Auckland. She has 14 years of experience as a principal in Auckland primary schools and holds a Bachelor of Education, Diploma in Teaching and Post-Graduate Diploma in Counselling Theory. Fun fact - Juliet is also an accomplished violinist, playing with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra for eight years.

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