My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:
Everyone should be quick to listen… James 1:19
A couple of years ago, my little friend Ainsley came down on her elbow and–snap! Over the next couple months she needed two surgeries and there was no way she could volunteer at the horse camp where she’d been volunteering.
When I asked Ainsley what helped her most when she felt discouraged she said, “It helps when my mom just sits on my bed and talks things through. Sometimes my dad comes and just listens.”
One of our deepest desires is to be known and understood (the topic on last week’s blog). One of the ways that happens is through listening. I wish I could say that I was a great listening parent. I got it right some of the time. But I kept learning and improving. Here’s some advice that I learned along the way.
“Good, sensitive listening,” says counselor James Sullivan, “comes across to my feelings as praise! Very special praise! And therefore it makes me feel affirmed and worthwhile.”
When we really listen to our kids, they feel affirmed and valued. That said, howwe listen makes a huge difference. Some listening cracks open the door to more conversation. Other listening slams the door shut and seals their lips right along with it.
Here are a few good ways to listening, listening that encourages kids to talk.
Step out of fix-it mode
The overeager, let-me-give-you-some-advice approach will dry up a conversation in a hurry. You know as well as I do that half the time we (and I’m talking about women here) don’t want our problems solved.We just want someone to listen; Listening is solution enough.
Every once in awhile my husband will look at me and say, “So is this one of the times when I’m supposed to just listen?” Yep.
Kids aren’t any different. Sometimes they want our advice, but more times than not they just want to be heard. Talking it over is therapy enough. Resist the temptation to make things better and just be.
Be still on the outside.
Set your cell phone down. Mute the latest episode of Downtown Abbey. Stop typing on your laptop. Real listening is resisting the urge to get up and be “productive.” When you do you’re saying to your child, “you’re more important than what I’m doing right now. I’m 100% here.”
Be still on the inside.
This, for me at least, comes a little harder. Quiet your heart and settle in to listen for as long as it lasts, even if for a few seconds. Resist the temptation to follow your thoughts to the grocery run you’ve got to make or the lawn you have to mow before your in-laws visit. Trust me, if half your thoughts are running down your to-do list, your daughter will pick up on it ever so subtly.
Open yourself up to feel.
Empathy is perspective taking, stepping out of my own world into someone else’s world. To do that, I have to let myself feel. As an adult, I know that stubbing my toe isn’t a medical emergency or that missing out on making the traveling baseball team won’t ruin my life forever, but that’s how my son feels when it does. And it’s okay to feel that along with them for awhile.
I love what well-known preacher Charles Spurgeon says,
What is very important to a child may be very small to his parent, and yet the parent measures the thing not from his own point of view but from the child’s. You heard your little boy the other day crying bitterly. The cause of the pain was a splinter in his finger. While you did not call in three surgeons to extract it, the splinter was a great thing to that little sufferer. Standing there with eyes all wet through tears of anguish, it never occurred to that boy that his pain was too small a thing for you to care about. What were mothers and fathers made for but to look after the small concerns of little children?
God is a good parent who loves and feels with us, even though in his big worldview our concerns are pretty minor. We can follow his lead and do the same for our son or daughter?
Non-verbal cues are the single most important cues to communicate that you’re listening. Turn your body toward your son or daughter, away from the chicken you’re marinading, away from the computer you’re working on. Uncross your arms. Listen with your eyes.
If you do say something, ask open-ended questions, ones that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. “How did that make you feel?” “What happened next?” Or, ask clarifying questions.
If you find words like this threaten to spill out, wait!
“It could’ve been worse.”
“When you get older, you’ll look back and it won’t seem like a big deal.”
“You’ll have a chance to try out next year”
All of these downplay how your child feels now.
Honestly, I did not do well in this parent-listening category. My son would say something and I’d react. “You did what?!” “Why on earth?!” My reactions confirmed his suspicions that mom was going to freak out if he starting talking about his day, much less spilling his guts.
Don’t give your kids a reason to get defensive, angry or feel small.
One time I did get it right. My son shared some pretty tough stuff. I didn’t say a thing. I just hugged him and told him I loved him. In that moment, I showed he could trust me and that I was a safe place to open up.
Good listening may be hard to do. It doesn’t always come naturally. But it’s totally worth it.
What good listening suggestions have you found helpful?
James Sullivan, The Good Listener, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2000.
Charles Spurgeon, The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life, edited by Lance Wubbels, Emerald Books, WA, 1993.
2019 @ Carol Garborg