Listening is 90% of Communication. Why?

Listening is 90% of Communication. Why?

What is said here about a parent listening to a child
applies equally to an adult listening to another adult.

To me the evidence is overwhelming. The importance of listening far outweighs the importance of speaking in creating and maintaining good communication. I go so far as to say that it counts for 90% of the communication process–and particularly of good communication. This is especially true of parents listening to children.

The Value, Power, and Results of Listening

Here’s a simplistic way to look at this. We have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Four out of five of those organs are for taking information in, and only one is for speaking it out. That’s 80% right there! Beyond that, though, listening has such incredible value and power in any  relationship, and it is difficult to do well, that it counts for a full 90% of what constitutes good communication. Consider the following.

1. Listening is the one and only thing I have ever found that one person can do for another that is never wrong! Any other kind or loving gesture can, given the person and the circumstances, be wrong, offensive, or unwelcome. Not so with listening. Who does not want to be heard?

2. One of the goals of listening is to understand where another is coming from, to understand what he is trying to convey, or his thoughts and feelings. This is what constitutes empathy. Now, who doesn’t want to be understood? Who does not want to be listened to? The biggest complaint people have about each other is, “S/he doesn’t listen to me.” So when I listen, I communicate “I’m here; I care; I acknowledge you and respect you.” When I listen, I communicate, “I care enough about you to empathize and to understand where you are coming from.” Who does not want to be understood?

3. And guess what! Listening actually does create understanding–understanding of where the child is coming from, how they feel, why they say what they say, why they do what they do, even if I might not like it. It means I want to empathize with their plight. This is all the more difficult when they think and feel differently from me. So it’s not necessarily easy.

4. Listening is harder work than speaking. It’s much easier for me to shoot my mouth off than listen to someone else shoot their mouth off. It takes real  mental work to follow what they say, put myself in their place, and  not interrupt, especially if I disagree with what I’m hearing, or if I think I know what they’re going to say. I might feel I’m right, and they’re wrong. I might think I must defend myself. When I listen, I let go of defending. I’ll get my chance to talk later.

5. Listening means I will be changed. This can be threatening. If I truly hear and empathize with another, I will have my own views about him changed by new information.  And I don’t know how I will be changed. It means letting go of what I think in order to tune in to the other. It’s like being in a rowboat and leaving my safe and familiar little mooring in the fog, knowing I won’t get back to that same safe and familiar place, and yet not knowing exactly where I’ll end up. This can be scary.

6. I will hear things I don’t want to hear. My ego (my “little me”) might say, “This hurts,” or “That’s not true.” Listening might make me feel like I’m giving up, or giving in, or paying attention to nonsense, or being insulted. It takes courage. It’s easier to defend my own position than to be influenced enough by another that I must now integrate a new perspective into how I see him or her. Ego says, “she should be listening to me,” especially if she is my child. Listening requires ignoring all of this, and putting my ego in its place.

7. Listening takes time that I might not have. So ego pipes up with things like, “I’m too busy and he talks too much. And he’s not saying anything worthwhile anyway. I don’t need or want to hear it. I know what he’s going to say anyway, so it’s easier to interrupt and get the whole thing over with. Why should I waste my time?”

8. Listening is what enables you to say what needs to be said. You obviously want your child to hear the important things you have to say. But how do you know what those things are? Obviously, you have some, and perhaps many, ideas in any given situation about what your child needs to hear. But exactly which of those ideas is most likely to be received, to be heard, and to have the impact you want? You really learn what to say by listening to what is being said. Furthermore, your listening not only helps you determine what to say, but it helps you determine how to say it. Without listening to hear what is most important on the child’s mind at that moment, you might be just babbling, running off at the mouth, with your words  running “like water off a duck’s back.”

9. Then there is that critical issue of you being heard. When you speak to your child, and have something important to say, you naturally want to be heard. The best possible way to guarantee (or at least encourage) that you will be heard, listened to, is to listen first. Yelling, screaming, threatening, lecturing, and all the other invitations to trouble that parents so often use while trying to communicate something important to their child, are powerful invitations to the child to not listen. Have you ever screamed at your child, “Shut up and listen to me”? What good does it do?  When you’re in a shouting match with someone, what do you think are the chances that you will be heard–even if you are the one who is able to yell louder? What do you think it will take to bring about a willingness in the child to hear you? The most powerful way, by far, to encourage that to happen is to keep your mouth shut…and listen. Hence, my number one rule of thumb–listen first, talk second.

10. Listening builds trust like nothing else can. If I can listen to you without judging, criticizing, interrupting, defending, or belittling, you will learn to trust me with your innermost truths. Isn’t this what best friends do? Isn’t this what companionship, and even more, deep friendship, is all about? Someone you trust with your dirtiest little secrets is someone who knows you, accepts you, and loves you regardless of how imperfect you might be. That’s the person you truly trust, the one you can really turn to when you need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to share your pain with, or tell your troubles to. If you want to be that person for your child, then there is no better way–and perhaps no other way–to earn that trust than by becoming a consistent, one hundred percent trustworthy and non-judgmental listener.

11. This issue of being non-judgmental is a real challenge. How can you not disapprove of your child’s violent actions or abusive language toward her younger sibling? How can you not be judgmental about your child’s wrong-doing (say, morally wrong, ethically wrong, or legally wrong)? After all, your values are challenged and offended by such behavior, and when it’s your child who is betraying the values you’ve been trying to inculcate, it’s a lot more personal. What’s important here is that you do not convey your disapproval for the thoughts and feelings that motivated what the child has done or said. You obviously disapprove of the wrong doing (behavior), but your non-judgmental attitude toward the motivations for it is what you strive to understand and accept. You may not like the way the child feels, or agree with how she thinks, but your effort to listen to and empathize with the cognitive distortions or emotional pain behind the behavior will make it possible for her to trust you. On the other hand, if you don’t work at achieving this understanding (empathy), your response to her might very well be motivated by your own anger and/or fear, and ultimately be misguided, if not downright dangerous or harmful. So a non-judgmental attitude, one of empathy and a desire to understand, is what will ultimately make you a trustworthy listener, and maybe even a valued confidant, for your child.

12. Your listening is that of a parent, not of a friend. Of the various parent leadership roles you can play at any given moment with your child, you do not want to try to be a friend. You are the parent, not a buddy. But you can certainly be friendly, supportive, and empathic with your listening and non-judgmental attitude. This is what it means to be able to effectively play the role of guide with your younger child, and consultant, with your teenager.

My Own Origins of Listening

As I reflect on what I have written here, I think about where I learned these things. The truth is, I did not learn them from my parents. I was blessed to have wonderful, loving parents, both now deceased. I am truly grateful, because they gave me so much. However, I really cannot recall many times that they actively listened to me the way I am describing here. While they were always available and caring and willing to listen, they did not often go out of their way to seek my opinions or inquire about how felt about things the way I am recommending that you do by using the three listening techniques I teach in my classes and coaching. They were, like most parents, of the Old School when it came to how to be a parent.  They were the ones who had the important things to say, not me. My role was to do the listening. It was less so theirs.

Where I learned the value, power, and results of listening was when I first started practicing as a psychotherapist. I found very early on that my great insights, my valuable suggestions and advice, were generally, almost universally, dismissed or not followed by my clients. This was puzzling, until it started to dawn on me that I was talking too much. So I made a conscious shift to talk less and listen more–a shift any parent can make if they so choose. I learned how to listen more closely and to convey empathy and an understanding of my clients’ thoughts and feelings. (The great psychologist Carl Rogers had a profound impact on me.) And I started to see that my clients seemed to do much better in understanding things about themselves and their self-defeating behaviors when I kept my mouth shut. Except to use the listening techniques, which soon started becoming skills.

Not only did clients do better, but my relationships with other adults seemed to start going better as well when I started to be more skilled (though certainly not perfect!) at listening to them. I found that not only did I enjoy hearing what other people had to say about themselves when I concentrated on listening better, but they really enjoyed talking about themselves. I had friends spontaneously tell me that they always felt good about themselves after having lunch with me. Or they would say they really enjoyed our conversations. Or they would spontaneously say that I am a good listener. Some even told me that I was a great conversationalist, something I never considered myself to be (and still wonder about). I am very clear, however, that what makes me a good conversationalist (if indeed I am one) is that I enjoy listening to what they have to say about themselves, their lives, their adventures, their relationships, and the technical things they know a lot about. So, most of the time I just as questions about those things, and every now and then I’ll throw in my two cents worth with a little story or observation about what something they said reminds me of.

What I am trying to get at here is that learning to be a good listener did not happen naturally, and I did not learn it from my parents. Nor did I learn it in my training to be a therapist. I learned it from my  practice as a therapist, where listening became a professional skill that required a great deal of reading, dialogue, practice, and ego-shrinking. (It wasn’t always easy, learning that I was more helpful when I kept my mouth shut, especially when I had such great ideas about what someone else ought to do!

The Uses of Listening

Okay, so you as a parent want to listen more to your child. Now what? What are you going to do with what you hear? It won’t be easy at first. As you start listening more, and more intently, your ego may feel that you are being “beaten” in some sort of contest, or that you are “giving in” to your child, which is clearly not the case (though your ego will certainly be humbled). It also won’t be easy for many of the reasons I listed above under “the value, power, and results of listening”–perhaps the most difficult one being that you are going to start hearing things you don’t want to hear. So it will help if you have an idea of where you’re trying to go with all this. Here’s a game plan, or several ways to use these powerful skills that you and your child will both find extremely beneficial.

1. Understanding, empathy, joy. The first thing is that you will use the listening techniques to understand your child, and the invisible things that motivate and determine all of his behavior, including the behaviors you can’t accept or tolerate. That is, you’ll start to understand his thoughts and feelings, and you’ll be able to relate to them and accept them because you’ll see that you yourself from time to time experience those same thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings are not bad. They just are. You’ll be able to accept them in your child if you can see similarities in your own private self. As this happens more, your angry responses to unacceptable behavior will noticeably subside, and may even disappear!  Beyond these signs of personal growth in yourself, you will most likely start seeing (and experiencing the joy of)  personal growth in your child as well, as he shares his inner thoughts, feelings, and personal struggles with you that he had previously kept to himself or tried to deceive you about.

2. Empathic responses. Empathic understanding isn’t enough. It’s important that you verbalize your understanding, express your empathy in words, or in non-verbal behavior (a hug, a kiss, a gentle touch, a softer voice, a caring expression). With a little practice (it’s not that hard You will start to feel comfortable responding to your child’s thoughts and feelings more, and less to her unacceptable behaviors, which are simply the expression in word and deed of those thoughts and feelings. You’ll be able to use first and third of my three listening techniques (acknowledging and reflecting), which specifically aim at conveying your acceptance and understanding of your child’s thoughts and feelings. This is what is meant by “relating to your child on an emotional level.” The result will be a noticeable increase in your child’s willingness to open up to you because she won’t be afraid of your harsh or critical response.

3. Relinquishing the need to control. As you practice the listening skills you will feel less need to use power and control tactics to try to “get” (i.e., force or pressure) your child to do the right thing behaviorally. You’ll find that it is not necessary to try to take away her pain, correct her childish thinking, or protect her from life’s bumps and bruises. You’ll learn to allow her to experience herself as valuable, lovable, and competent (even if she’s not perfect) because you are now accepting her for who she truly is, and you understand her struggles. You’ll learn to offer help and support in new ways.

4. Reaching agreements. As you listen more, and give up efforts at control, you’ll start developing more common understandings and  reaching more agreements with your child. You’ll find he is more willing to cooperate with you than you may have ever realized. You’ll just naturally be developing the skills of dialogue, because you’ll be becoming a good listener. And not surprisingly, with a good listener, people like to talk about themselves. The surprise here is that you’ll find out that your child really has been absorbing the values you’ve been trying so hard to “beat into his head” with repeated criticisms and lectures. You’ll find that he’s going to be telling you (at times) exactly what you were about to tell him. He already knows it–he’s heard it a thousand times!

5. Guidance in solving problems. You’ll also find it easier to hold back your suggestions on how she should solve her problems. You’ll be able to guide her in solving her own problems by asking questions. This is where the stress of parenting will turn into  joy, conflict into harmony.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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