Covering parenting and child development issues
"The first duty of love is to listen." (Paul Tillich)
As parents (and spouses), we often feel that we're hearing the same stories over and over - and sometimes we are. The friend who won't play nicely. The teacher who's too demanding. The coach who plays favorites.
The first time we hear the stories, we listen dutifully, and, if the timing is right, with interest. We may even dispense advice, hoping not only to make ourselves useful and heroic in our children's eyes, but also to make the problem go away, both for their sake and for ours.
But with each successive telling, our interest wanes. We squelch a yawn and fight the urge to roll our eyes as the teller launches into the latest rendition of the same old song.
Sometimes, these stories resurface because a problem is persistent. But sometimes, they resurface because the teller feels we weren't listening in the first place. In other words, when we hear the same story over and over, we may have only ourselves to blame.
Psychologists practice (and teach) a technique called active listening.Grounded in respect, active listening requires that we don't just hear what someone is telling us, but that we listen and observe the speaker's tone and non-verbal language so that we understand the feelings behind the message. We make eye contact. We ask relevant questions. We reflect the speaker's words back to him. We say "mmm hmm" not mindlessly, but to encourage the speaker to continue.
Really? We want them to keep talking?
Uh huh. But mostly, we want them to feel heard.
Several years back, I led conflict resolution training for elementary school students who'd expressed an interest in being conflict managers at recess. There were many reasons the kids wanted to do this job - boredom with recess, desire to help and desire to boss people around topped the list, not necessarily in that order. During the training, the kids were always surprised when I told them that their job was not to tell their peers what to do, but to simply listen to both sides of the story and help the disputants come up with their own solutions.
A pretty tall order for nine, ten and eleven-year-olds - but many pulled it off. The process they learned gave them a security blanket out on the playground, one that freed them from the responsibility of having to have an answer for every possible problem their peers could cook up.
As parents, we want to make everything all better. We want to equip our kids with solutions for every problem imaginable and so we become experts at telling them what to do. Sometimes, that's just what they need.
Other times, they simply need to be heard. To have their feelings validated. To be reassured that someone understands.
So the next time you find yourself listening to the same old story, take a step back, figuratively speaking. Make eye contact (provided you aren't driving a vehicle at the time). Don't worry about what to say next or how to solve the problem. Just listen. And if you're feeling really brave, reflect your child's (or spouse's) words or feelings back to them. If you're off the mark, they'll tell you so. And if they want advice, they'll probably tell you that, too.
Otherwise, just listen. Empathize. You may hear more than you ever expected to.