4 Biggest Things Parents Get Wrong When Active Listening
Parenting is hard! We know you are trying to listen (hopefully with the help of some of our other lessons) but there are a few key mistakes that even the most well-meaning parents can sometimes fall into. So here are some advanced things to watch out for as you are being the empathetic, listening parent that you are.
This should be the easiest lesson to start watching out for when actively listening, because if you’re reading this, it means you do care. You care a lot. We just want to make sure your teen knows that. Every parent has different styles of parenting, and also different styles of communicating. We’re all different people. So the most important part of talking to your teen is to be yourself.
If something you’ve learned, or a phrase you picked up in the lessons here or elsewhere doesn’t feel true to you, don’t use it! It won’t feel genuine to your teen either. Your interest and concern are the most important, and if you’re using a line from a 10 year old book on counseling, your teen will pick up on it.
The point is to not have an agenda. When you talk (which shouldn’t be going on a lot if you’re really listening), if it sounds like it’s someone else’s words it will make it feel like a tactic, or a trick, or a technique. Teens don’t want to be therapized. That’s the whole reason we created LINK! So just relax, be yourself, and most importantly BE THERE. Your concern and your care will show because you are listening.
1. Be yourself!
2. Adapt anything you learn to your own personal style
3. Practice the phrases a few times until they feel like you
Starting a sentence with “When I was your age,” as you probably know, is not the best way to connect with your teen. The interesting thing is, that same feeling can come up for them, even when it isn’t as blatantly obvious. That’s why self-disclosure in the right way is such an important part of Active Listening. Self-disclosure in this case would be sharing your own thoughts or feelings about a situation or a personal experience.
Listen, we get it. You’ve been through this, you know better, or “if you could just tell them”… we’ve heard it all. And in most instances of self disclosure, it sounds like you want to be heard. So just imagine how your teen feels. This is THEIR time to be heard. That’s not to say, self-disclosure can’t be valuable to teach your teens something or to help them work out a problem by example.
The issue is, not only can it come across as though you’re more focused on your own thoughts than theirs, but sometimes sharing an experience of yours can invalidate theirs. If they’re struggling with something and you tell them how you dealt with the same thing and you turned out fine, how might that make them feel?
Again, it’s not always that obvious, but let me give you two pieces of advice that you can take with you. The first is, only self-disclose if you are specifically asked. If they didn’t ask you, they don’t want to know. But if you are DYING to say something that you KNOW will help them, make sure you bring it up as an exploration, not a solution, and definitely not an agenda. Keep it about THEM!
1. Only share your story or opinions when ASKED
2. Use carefully, if at all, and only when it will really be helpful to your teen
3. Self-disclosure can sometimes invalidate their experience, think before you share!
It may seem counterintuitive, but concreteness is a great way to give your teen the freedom to talk about their issues in a more productive way. Concreteness is a helpful skill for active listening. Have you ever talked to your teen and gotten a barrage of problems hurled at you all at once? Or have you ever been talking with your teen and felt the conversation start to spiral out of your control? Concreteness helps with that.
A lot of times teens can feel overwhelmed by their emotions, and in this case, you as an active listener can try and guide them through what they are feeling. The trick is to take general statements and make them more specific and concrete. This can help your teen get in touch with their feelings, because as you know it’s a lot easier to deal with specifics than to try and take on an abstract feeling.
An example might be if they say “I’m just bored, with school” use your “what” and “how” questions to add specificity. Ask “What kinds of things bore you in particular?” or if they say “I hate my friend,” you can ask “What did they do to make you feel that way?”
This also works when your teen might be stressed about a myriad of issues all at once. When they get into that space of listing out all of the issues until it feels overwhelming, it can be helpful to say “It sounds like you have a lot going on right now. What would you like to focus on first?”
Being concrete brings down all of that anxiety and makes problems easier to handle. So if you’re actively listening, using some concreteness can keep a conversation going in a productive way, just try it out and see!
“You seem like you have a lot going on right now; what would you like to focus on first?”
Get specific by using what and how questions?
“What about the situation makes you feel that way?”
“How do you feel when that happens?”
“What does anxiety feel like for you?”
Finally, and most importantly, we have concentration. Concentration is the active part of active listening. We tell our mentors all the time, it is one of the key tenets for being an effective listener. It is also a valuable skill to learn and practice throughout your life. It is even taught in some countries like Japan and India.
So think about all the different ways you were taught how to concentrate, whether it’s from teachers, by practicing sports or musical instruments, through fear or reward. Now think about your concentration during a conversation. What does it feel like to really listen to what someone is saying? Have you ever felt the power of someone truly listening to you? More importantly, have you ever been in a conversation where someone is not listening to you. Where they are bored, or tired, or thinking about other things? Now focus on that feeling. Not great, right? Well that’s because they aren’t concentrating.
So, a few tips: and these are small and easy, you might not even think they’ll make a difference but subconsciously they do. (And if they’re really that small, why not just do them anyway?) The first is to shut off background noise. Turn the TV off, turn the radio down, even the sound of eating whatever you need to do. Put down the sandwich and concentrate. With that, show them you are listening: face your teen, put down anything in your hands, make eye contact (this is not always possible but minimal encouragement like “mhhm” or “I see” can be substituted on the phone).
Finally, put in the effort to stay focused. It will take energy, but as you feel your mind start to wander over what time it is, what you need to get from the grocery store, etc. pull it back. Hear what they are saying, and there you go. That’s the secret to ACTIVELY listening.
Take things out of your hands
Face your teen
Stop background distractions (music, television, go into a quieter space)
Remember that concentration is a skill and is ACTIVE