An important element of helping others feel understood is letting them know that they’ve been heard.
As a child and family psychologist, my superpower is active listening. Paraphrasing my patients’ key words, reflecting their feeling, and giving interpretations are just a few skills that I emplore to let them know that I heard the essence of what they’re communicating.
Besides attending to what’s been verbally communicated to me, I also make sure that my non-verbal communication lets them know that I’m paying attention. That means my eyes face my patients, my body is slightly leaned forward toward my patients, and my hands, feet, and mouth are quiet. This concept is known as “whole body listening” (Truesdale, 1990).
Whether I’m at work, at home, or with my friends, I have confidence in my abilities to make others feel that they’ve heard and understood.
In short, the art of active listening IS my superpower. So when I’m told that I’m not a good listener, I get curious.
A Humbling Moment
I can be hyper-focused on what needs to get done so that everyone in the family can get their much-needed rest to be ready for the responsibilities of tomorrow.
After a long day at work, I do what I can to help once I get home. Cleaning-up the dinner table, putting our little one to sleep, and getting the older daughters to start their nighttime routine are just some of the things I do to help around the house.
My eldest daughter was trying to tell me about her day, but I was so focused in getting her to nighttime routine started that I wasn’t listening to anything that she was trying to say. My wife pulled me aside and said, “Right now, you’re a terrible listener.”
A button was pushed, and my insecurities flooded my mind in that instant moment.
Within 30 seconds of my wife’s comment, I went through the stages of grief:
- Denial: There’s no way I’m a poor listener. I make others feel heard.
- Anger: You gotta be kidding me?! I’m not a good listener?! Look in the mirror, love, look in the mirror!
- Bargain: If only I had just stopped and listened to what my daughter was trying to tell me instead of just trying to get her to go to bed on time.
- Depression: What kind of a father am I? Where did I go wrong? I’m never gonna be the father I want to be.
- Acceptance: Maybe there’s some truth to what my wife is saying. I need to do better and become the active listener that my daughter needs in this moment.
I put my ego aside and thought to myself: what if there’s truth to what my wife is telling me?
Instead of defensiveness, I approached the unsolicited feedback with intrigue and curiosity. And that has made all the difference.
Ask, Listen & Respond
There are many ways on what to do whenever you receive constructive feedback from someone you respect. My favorite reply in this circumstance involves three steps: (1) Ask, (2) Listen, and (3) Respond.
On the surface, asking questions about the feedback is a no-brainer; however, many people tend to ask the wrong type of questions.
Questions that start with Why tends to only make everyone defensive. Yet, when we’re too emotionally triggered, our headspace goes to that place of Why because we want to know the reasons for the comment or feedback.
Resist the urge to ask Why questions given how emotionally dysregulated we feel in that moment. Asking How and What questions activates our logic, which helps naturally regulate our mood.
I recommend to parents that they must ask How and What questions and stick to only those types of questioning. I encourage parents to focus solely on those types of questions for three main reasons:
(a) it lets your children children know that you’re curious;
(b) How and What questions gets you and your child out of your respective emotional mind and into the logical mind; and
(c) in doing so, you both naturally self-regulate your emotions.
Pivot your lines of questioning to How and What questions an see what transpires. When done authentically and consistently, I predict that your children will more likely open up to you and share their perspective. Doing so is the start of deepening your relationship with your child.
To truly understand the power of feeling heard, we need to remember what it’s like NOT to be heard.
Let’s do a quick thought experiment: I want you to think back and recall the last interaction when you didn’t feel heard. What was the situation? Where did you go? Who were you speaking to? Try to recall as much detail as possible. The more detailed you are in this thought experiment, the more you can immerse yourself in that moment.
How do you feel recalling the moment you didn’t feel heard?
Too often, our thoughts and words get in the way of truly listening to the person we’re talking to. Our minds are flooded with the demands of work, with our personal financial struggle, or with our past trauma.
Irrespective of what floods our cognition, these thoughts hinder our ability to fully listen. Instead of being mindful, our mind is FULL (insert photo/diagram here; ask permission?). This is why being present with what the person is trying to say to us is an incredible gift we can give to one another, especially our children. They watch us more than we think.
The act of listening and not talking comes naturally to me. In fact, my default system tends to have the other person talk more than me because I’m just simply curious about that person and how s/he came about.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to teach beginning and advanced courses in counseling to graduate students. The core skills taught in these classes mostly getting the client through the therapeutic process by utilizing active listening skills. in doing so, they help clients engage in self-exploration that lead to insight, and hopefully, behavioral changes for the better.
In these classes, I emphasize to my students the idea of listening with the 3rd ear. That is, as therapists, we need to attend to the verbal and non-verbal communication to uncover the problem behind the problem.
What exactly is the problem behind the problem? It’s the underlying problem that represents the core issue. Once the core issue is resolved, then the manifestation of that problem no longer exists because the core problem no longer exists.
To illustrate, let’s give an example. Your child over-reacts to forgetting to charge her Chromebook for school at night. Afterward, the child blames you for making her forget to recharge her device considering how you asked her to throw away her trash before she went to bed. When you find yourself feeling annoyed, exhausted and/or resentful, then the child’s misbehavior (the surface problem) might be related to an unmet desired need. In this case, it’s attention.
My favorite active listening skills are as follows:
- Paraphrase/ Pro tip: use the patients’ key words
- Reflect feeling/ Pro tip: accurately reflect the feeling
- Summarize/ Pro tip: Give interpretation and check for accuracy
Before discussing what it means to respond, let’s first talk about what it means to react.
Reaction is a behavior that’s been performed as a direct result of an emotional response to a stimulus or event. On the other hand, respond is to the ability to attend to the present moment, have a non-judgmental stance on what happened, and say something with intention. While both reaction and response are almost identical, the difference between the two is relatively stark: one is grounded in emotions; the other is grounded in the principles of mindfulness—awareness, non-judgmental attitude, and intention.
How do we mindfully respond in a way that we don’t allow our emotionality get the best of us?
Practice, practice, and practice some more.
Knowing how to respond starts with awareness. Being aware of what’s happening inside your thoughts and in your body goes a long way in sharpening your ability to become more self-aware. Part of self-awareness is not only knowing about your personal triggers or buttons, but also being attuned to your thoughts and bodily reactions. The more you’re aware, the better you are at responding in a way that’s helpful.
In addition to awareness, the next phase is to practice being non-judgmental or critical. How does one do this? Become more curious. When we do this, we naturally refrain from being critical, judgmental, or negative. Part of being curious means that slowing down and talking your time enough to thoroughly and objectively examine what had happened. Being curious is something Albert Einstein valued. He wrote, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Lastly, there’s intention, doing what is intended for a purpose or a reason. What is your particular goal? What do you hope to achieve? Too often, I notice parents in my practice merely respond emotionally, without any real intention of other than getting their children to be compliant. To help children grow to learn to be independent, my intention when intervening with them is not compliance; rather, I aim for cooperation. When you start to practice being intentional with your time and with your interactions with your children, you’ll be surprised what you just might accomplish.
Trust the Process
What does that mean exactly? Well, it means that things tend to work out as long as you consistently practice. When practicing these skills, accept the fact that you’re going to stumble, take a few steps back, and make some mistakes. The goal is to grow and become better, not perfect.
Always remember you can use your Kuloko kit to practice these skills with each activity.
Truesdale, S.P. (1990). “Whole-Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills.” Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, Volume 21, 183-184.