Listening To Your Kids

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By Dan Coulter

How are you listening to your kids?

If you're one of those rare "born listeners" who can get almost anyone to open up, you're lucky. If you're like the rest of us, you can probably improve your listening skills.

Maybe you're frustrated that your kids don't give you a chance to listen. Do you get a one-word response when you ask how the day went at school? "Fine." And don't your instincts often tell you that "fine" is a wildly inaccurate description of the day?

You might be making one of the mistakes I made for years. I used to interrupt. A lot. And I didn't realize what I was doing. It's also easy to lecture - and to have an answer for everything.

But look at this from your son or daughter's perspective. Sometimes it's hard to describe a situation in words. Things are often more complicated than you can convey in a couple of sentences. If a person you talk to routinely interrupts you or criticizes you or tells you what to do, you may feel he's making pronouncements on a situation he doesn't fully understand.

And that can train you not to confide in that person.

So, you might be unintentionally training your child not to share things with you.

Attentive listening generates respect. Several years ago, I interviewed a number of successful public relations people for a documentary on PR counseling. Hal Burson -- founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest PR firm -- told an interesting story, "I have had any number of experiences throughout my own work where I would go visit a CEO, spend 30, 40 minutes, an hour with that CEO, and he would do all of the talking. And I would ask a question every now and then, and then two days later the reports would get back to me, 'that guy Burson's a really smart guy'."

Maybe we should counsel our kids more like CEOs and pay attention in a way that gains their "listening respect" before we offer advice or direction.

Think of it as taking the long road and not the short cut. In the short cut, we listen just enough to get a picture of the situation and then jump in to make our comments and provide our brilliant guidance.

When we take the long road, we may ask questions to draw out the speaker or guide the conversation, but we hold off on conclusions. Even when we feel a burning desire, we bite back interjections such as, "What did you do that for?" or "You should have..." or "Next time you need to..."

This can be hard. We're the adults. But maybe that's part of the problem. As long as we treat our kids like - well, kids - it's tempting to just tell them what to do. We've got the experience! If they'd just listen to us!

But even good advice can roll off kids like a quick shower runs off a lawn. When we really listen and ask questions that can help our kids come up with solutions on their own, it's more like a long shower that soaks in and reaches the roots.

When I was growing up, some friends of mine had parents who were good listeners. They'd hear me out without assuming they knew the end of the story. It felt like they were listening to me as they'd listen to another adult. It made me want to act more like an adult in my conversation - and really think things through.

There's tremendous power in listening. Sometimes we just need to talk something through to understand it better ourselves. What a gift it is to find someone who doesn't automatically start offering solutions as though our problems have easy answers that we just aren't smart enough to think of ourselves.

And after we've been fully attentive, we'll probably find our children are more willing to listen to the subtle guidance we're bursting to offer. We could even (GASP) ask if they would like to hear our thoughts. Of course, for serious issues where we feel it's required, we can always lay down the law. And maybe even that will work better when our kids think they've had a fair hearing and that we understand what we're talking about.

The sooner we start - and the younger our kids - the better. It can be hard to regain the "listening trust" of a teenager who's learned to be very careful responding to parental inquiries. (Mom's asking a question! SHIELDS UP!) But it can be done.

That's my 2 cents worth.

Hey, thanks for listening. And for not interrupting. You know, after this little talk, I realize - you're a really smart parent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the video "MANNERS FOR THE REAL WORLD: Basic Social Skills" and a series of videos on Asperger Syndrome. You can find more articles on his website at:

Copyright Dan Coulter 2004 Used by Permission All Rights Reserve

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