3 Listening Skills
There are many goals for listening to a child, including: 1) to understand the child’s motivating thoughts and feelings; 2) to convey your empathy (understanding); 3) To create trust by creating a safe space; 4) to invite the child to say more; 5) to teach the child how to listen by modeling it; 6) to initiate and encourage dialogue.
These techniques, practiced as often as your child speaks, will become skills after a while. They are the most important relationship skills you can use with your child–or anyone. Listening cannot be done when you are talking, so it goes without saying that in order to listen while your child speaks, you must keep your mouth shut and pay full attention. The three listening skills (techniques) are as follows.
Acknowledging validates the child’s ideas or feelings as legitimate, even though these might be different from your own. It means you are listening without judging or criticizing. Thus, it encourages them to say more, which is what you want, since you are listening to understand. This is a great way to lay groundwork for offering support, help, or a suggestion. Acknowledging does NOT mean you agree with what they said, but rather you heard what they said, and you accept it as their own truth for them at the moment.
Examples: “Oh.” “Uh-huh.” “I see.” “Wow!” “Really!” “Holy smokes!” “Hmm.” “Okay.” Also non-verbal acknowledging: eye contact, nodding, and silence.
This listening technique is completely natural. We ask questions all the time. The real challenge to asking our child questions as a means of inviting her to talk more is that, in-between the questions, we listen intently to what the child is saying, and think of another question to ask her that addresses what her response to the first question was, instead of coming out with our own response or asking a pre-planned question that has nothing to do with what she said. The only purpose here is to better understand where our child is coming from, and we are trying to encourage her to say more.
The “5-Question Technique”: ASK FIVE QUESTIONS IN A ROW–without expressing a single idea of your own. No objections, no explanations, no criticisms. If you don’t understand what was said, ask “What do you mean?” All this will help you know what to say when you finally do offer the child your ideas. If you can’t do five questions, do three. If you can’t do three, do two. Practice building up to five.For more detail on how to ask questions, please see my book 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony.
3. Reflecting (This is called “Active Listening” by Thomas Gordon in Parent Effectiveness Training and in Discipline That Works).
Reflecting is the most unusual technique and therefore perhaps the most difficult of the listening skills. At first, it seems like a very UN-natural way to respond to somebody, but the effect it often has is to encourage the child to say more about what they just said. These are always statements, not questions.
Reflecting statements always mirror, or reflect, back to the child what they said or seem to be communicating non-verbally. Reflecting statements are not opinions of your own. They are you, mirroring what you think the child is communicating, verbally or non-verbally. They do not mean you agree with what the child said! They only mirror back what you think the child communicated.
Examples of Reflecting
Level 1: Parroting. You say what the child said, using the same words. He says, “I hate you!” You parrot back, “You hate me.” Your intention is to encourage the child to say more so you can learn what is making him angry.
Level 2: Paraphrasing. You summarize what the child said, in your own words after a long winded statement. “Oh, so you hate me because I don’t let you do what you want, and I treat your sister better than you.”
Level 3: Interpreting. You interpret the child’s emotions or the meaning of their words. “So I take it you are really angry at me.” “Gee, you look sad, honey.” “It sounds like you mean you want to run away.”
Remember, you are condoning or agreeing with the child’s ideas here. You are simply mirroring back what he said. This has the effect of inviting him to say more.