Being an effective listener is important not only to your spousal relationship, but to your role as an effective parent as well. If you really hear what they are saying you are in a much better position to respond in an accurate and meaningful way.
But…“I listen. I always listen!”
It’s not unusual to feel this way about our listening skills, especially in defense of the accusation “you weren’t listening to me!” We are convinced we heard what was spoken, but did we? According to experts in the field of conflict resolution, all listening is filtered in some way.
How We Filter:Three Ways
Influence of Past Experience. Sometimes, we filter what we hear based on past experience more than words. If a parent yells when he/she is frustrated, the children will begin to feel that they are hearing accusations whenever anyone yells at them. As they grow up and even later when they get married, they will react and become defensive at almost all yelling, whether it is directed at them or not. The filter of experience can hinder our ability to communicate or hear what is being communicated in a clear and concise way.
Pre-Occupied Preparation. When two people are in the middle of a conflicted conversation, their brains are each constantly preparing to defend their positions. Think about how often you only partially listen because you are mentally preparing what your next comment or defense will be. What did you miss? Sometimes the most important message in a conflict comes wrapped in another meaning. A child who screams, “I HATE YOU!” may really mean, “I’m afraid you hate me when you talk to me that way.” We have to try to take as much interest in the other person’s position as we have in our own in order to enhance our ability to listen and prevent this from happening. Remember, asking clarifying questions – what did you mean by that? – is always helpful in getting two people in synch conversationally.
Emotions and Excitement. It is rare that a conflicted conversation does not include positions based on unacknowledged emotional needs on both sides of the conflict. We sometimes overshadow our logical thoughts with our motivations or convictions (our views of the situation) whether they are correct or not. This is why the most commonly needed tools to resolve or make progress within a family conflict are a sincere apology and quick forgiveness. They help us get past the emotion and to the real heart of the situation or discussion. So, when conflicts happen, look for an early opportunity to put one or both of these tools to work for the two of you.
The “Flat Brain Tango”
According to James Petersen, author of Why Don’t We Listen Better, when our feelings get hurt, our ears become blocked from hearing and we usually respond in anger. However, Petersen contends that in most instances there is caring beneath our anger, which is why we can’t easily walk away from family conflict.
Establishing the premise that we communicate out of three internal sources – head (judgment/thought), heart (compassion), and gut (emotion) – in all of our interpersonal interactions – Petersen offers a simple description of how these parts change under the pressure of miscommunication. When the gut feelings (you hurt me) expand, they harden the heart (I’ll hurt you back), and flatten the brain (I’m not listening). What happens next is a power struggle that leads to the “flat-brain tango” where participants go in circles, damaging each other in defense of themselves. Both parties lose this struggle no matter who thinks they walked away the victor. Just imagine the last conflict you had with your child. Did anyone win?
He offers a method of listening that helps people step back from emotions, preparation, and even experience. Anyone, in any situation can do it. All that is required is some space and a little self-control. Petersen outlines the way a potential conflict can be averted by a fair hearing from both parties.
The person who owns the problem—that is most invested with his/her feelings—gets to talk first because the person with the strongest feelings also has the flattest brain, according to Petersen. Often this is the child in parent/child conflict, because the person with less power tends to be more invested in being heard.
The listener’s job is to respond in productive ways that decompress the gut (feelings) so that the talker can eventually listen and the listener can talk. By choosing to listen first, the parent also models proper listener/reflective behavior for the child.
There are also rules for both effective talking and listening, according to Petersen. The talker has to own and articulate his/her feelings without accusing, judging, labeling or attacking. Conversely, to be effective, the listener must listen without advising, defending, agreeing or disagreeing. As the talker decompresses, she/he can then give the listener a chance to express her/his view of the problem and disentangle any misconceptions held by the talker.
Finally, Petersen’s book outlines twenty different listening techniques so that readers can design a listening strategy of their own based on given circumstances, relationships, and types of confrontations. Look for Petersen’s book online, it’s an easy read and very helpful in brushing up on listening skills.
There are two particularly effective techniques to help parents become better listeners.
The first is labeled…Numbering Feelings. By far the trickiest illusion about communication is that we all feel the same level of emotion about a subject and know how to articulate it. You can help your children identify their feelings by attaching a number to the feeling. “On a scale of one to ten, rank your feeling of anger…” is both non-threatening and also practical, which are both keys to safe interaction. When they engage their judgment by ranking their feelings they step away from the emotion enough to re-inflate the brain.
The second technique…“Ring the Pebble.” This one involves returning to an earlier part of the conversation. What can happen in unequally powered relationships like those between parents and children is that when the weaker person articulates a concern, the other stronger party ingests it but never returns to the subject again. It’s as if the pebble is swallowed without a ripple. To ring the pebble, the listener returns to the concern and validates it. For instance a child may need to have some alone time with a parent after a new sibling has been born. Afraid or unable to articulate this, he/she might say, “I don’t like new baby, Sarah!” Parents often fail to respond to this kind of statement believing that the child doesn’t really mean it and just let it drop. But, to ring the pebble the parent should return to the subject by asking the child what they dislike most about the new baby. By returning to the subject and focusing on the actual issue that might be bothering the older child, the door is opened for the parent to understand the child, and, in this example, plan some additional one-on-one time with them.
One clue to whether you get the listening step right is that the emotions dissipate. People repeat themselves often when they don’t feel that they are being heard. Often you can see that children’s feelings have been validated because they stop repeating the problem and take a deep breath of relief. It feels good to be understood. Modeling these skills can also give children tools to use at school, with friends, and with siblings. Conflict is normal; how we choose to address it can promote peace. Good listening gives us an important start.
"The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said"
Written by Heidi Densmore
Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved
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