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Communication 101: Active listening

‘Listen’ and ‘silent’ are spelled with the same letters.

Communication is the most critical factor in facilitating a child’s life journey. As parents, we need to take responsibility for the parent-child dialogue. But this does not mean we should dominate the conversation.

One of the criteria of good leadership is being a good listener.

Sometimes it is much less important what you tell others than what they tell you, especially when it comes to our kids.

Actions speak louder than words. We often communicate more with our vocal pitch and tone, our body language and our eye contact than we do with our words. It is important to be aware of these non-verbal cues. As research in non-verbal communication tells us, we can stop consciously giving messages, but we can never stop “giving them off.”

Listening is not the same as hearing. True listening means giving our full attention to someone. Sometimes we do this instinctively, but much of the time, we listen half-heartedly, semi-distracted by other people and a barrage of environmental stimuli.

This is why it is also important to schedule regular sessions for meaningful face-to-face discussions, when we can give our undivided attention. Touching base with our kids in a private oneto- one can help us keep a “finger on the pulse” of what is going on in their lives. It can then be a useful tool that is already in place for when times of crisis arise.

In active listening, we consciously work at the idea of paying close attention to what is being said, screening out background noise and other distractions. Sometimes called reflective or empathetic listening, active listening may also involve mirroring back to our kids what we have just heard them say, in order to confirm that we are listening with our full attention and that we truly understand what has been expressed. For instance: “I hear you saying that it is important to you to be allowed to stay out later in the evening like your friend Maya.”

This does not imply that we necessarily agree with what they say, but rather that we are acknowledging our kids’ feelings and opinions, which is central to helping build their self-esteem and their readiness to share. It demonstrates our concern and respect.

It is especially important to pay attention to opening remarks.

When we start a conversation with “You do...” or “When you do...,” they understandably turn off to us. Even worse is chronic labeling: “You are....”

Another mistake is the tendency to over-generalize: “You always...” or “You never....” The most effective way to open dialogue is by speaking in the first person, so that we take responsibility for our own feelings: “I feel scared when you come home late without calling. I wish you would call if you are running late,” or, “I feel sad when you are not honest with me.”

It is critical to refrain from accusing and judging our kids.

Accusatory tones do not foster self-esteem or trust and definitely do not facilitate contact and self-expression.

There are several obstacles to good listening.

The first is stress. It is important to avoid intense dialogues in the heat of the moment, such as pouncing on our kids when they walk in the door at the end of the day. As parents, we want to be as relaxed as possible before starting a serious conversation. Initiating important conversations when we are angry or exhausted is worse than fruitless. It escalates bad feelings all around. Besides, it is hard to give focused attention when we are stressed or distracted.

SEecond. It is crucial that we learn to shut down our own inner dialogue. Often we are so involved in planning our response that in the middle of hearing what our kids are sharing with us, we have already tuned out because we are too preoccupied with how we are going to respond.

Authentic dialogue is not a competition. Let your child finish an entire train of thought, then allow yourself a moment to digest what has been said before responding.

Another risk to successful parent-child dialogue is the parental tendency to give advice. We should never assume that our children are looking for advice or problem-solving unless they say so. It is better to ask them if they want our feedback or if they need anything specific from us.

There are a vast number of articles and podcasts on the Internet dealing with active listening, especially in relation to parenting skills. Just type “parenting” and “active listening” into your browser, and you can hone your skills quickly and easily.


Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.