Listening Practices: Tips and Traps

attentive father--PAIDHave you ever noticed how GOOD it feels to be really listened to? It’s impactful, validating and gives us a sense that we’re significant, we matter. There’s an art to listening and, like any art, it takes practice.

According to statistics by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, known for his pioneering work in nonverbal communication, only 7% of communication happens through your actual words (38% comes across through tone and 55% through body language). That’s why it’s important to hone our skills to listen at deeper levels. To listen not only with our ears, but also with our heart. When we can listen to our children at these deeper levels we ingrain in them a sense of significance and self-worth.

A good place to start is by understanding the three listening levels described in the book Co-Active Coaching, by Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House and Phil Sandahl.

Listening Levels

Level 1—Internal: We hear the other person’s words, but our focus is on what it means to us—our thoughts, feelings, judgments and conclusions.  I dare say most of our day-to-day listening is at this level.

Level 2—Laser-Focused: Our attention is focused like a laser beam on the other person, with little awareness of anything else. With such strong focus, we are curious, open and have little time to pay attention to our own feelings or worry about how we are being received. Our own mind chatter disappears with such a sharp focus on the other person.

Level 3—Global: Our attention is spread out like an antenna with a 360-degree range. It allows us to pick up emotions, energy, body language and the environment itself. Intuition heightens as we tune into the deeper layers of what is going on.

All three levels are necessary. However, when we spend too much time in self-focused Level 1 listening, our communication with our child can seriously suffer. Engaging in Levels 2 and 3 can improve how we listen—and highly impact the connection and the relationship with our child.

Listening Blocks

It’s also important to be aware of these traps we can fall into even when we have set an intention to deeply listen.  These come from Richard Anstruther at HighGain, Inc who trains business people in listening skills…but I think they’re just as relevant for parents who are intent on listening to their children in a more deeply satisfying way.

  • Tune Out—Listeners are not paying attention to the speaker due to disinterest in the speaker or subject, thinking about other things or multitasking.
  • Detach—Listeners are emotionally detached from the speaker, concerned with content only, not the feelings behind it. They may be only half listening, not really interacting, and miss the message’s underlying meaning.
  • Rehearse—Listeners are concentrating on what to say or do next, rather than focusing on the speaker’s message.
  • Judge—Listeners have a different opinion that causes them to block out new ideas and information or lose track of the conversation. They analyze and interpret the speaker’s delivery or message, missing the point. They criticize, give advice and make assumptions.
  • Control—Listeners don’t allow the speaker to talk at his or her own pace. They constantly interrupt with comments or questions, and don’t allow the speaker to finish a point.

The first step to developing artful listening is to choose to truly listen. As you continue to develop your listening skills, your communication and your relationship with your child are likely to become increasingly satisfying and rich!

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

  1. Experiment with Levels 1, 2 and 3 listening, one at a time, to fully understand the dynamics at each level. This was eye-opening for me! I learned that the level at which I listen is a moment-by-moment choice.
  1. Spend some time noticing how often you fall into tuning out, detaching, rehearsing, judging or controlling. What can you do to keep from falling into these common listening traps?

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications

What I would ask Nancy Lanza

Memorial for Sandy Hook victims

Even as the New Year dawns and I’m teased with new beginnings and bright possibilities, I’m also still mourning how the Old Year concluded with the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I find that I keep vacillating between tears and numbness; I can only hold so much sorrow and despair before I have to shut down for a while and not feel. Then slowly, the sadness and grief return.

What has touched me most in this ordeal is reading about Adam’s mom, Nancy, and how it appears she was so isolated while dealing with her son’s increasingly extreme social withdrawal. Aside from a few conversations with casual friends, it appears that she faced her uncertainties, worries, and hard choices alone.  Her acquaintances are quick to describe her as happy and cheerful, but I imagine a different Nancy Lanza living behind the closed doors of her big beautiful home in Newtown.  I imagine a mom who desperately wanted her son to “fit in” and who was sick with worry about how to reach him as he slipped away, receding further and further into his own world.

This breaks my heart because it hits close to home for me. When my son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and we were dealing with some pretty severe behaviors day in and day out and I, too, felt he was slipping away, there were times when I thought I would lose my mind.  If I hadn’t had a couple good friends around me to hear my painful stories, to witness my struggles and to just be there to love me through it, I don’t know how it would have turned out. (Thank you Faye and Donna!) What I learned from that experience is it’s easy to become isolated when you have a “problem” child.  It’s hard to find sitters and play dates and friends who will go the distance with you.

I see this isolation often as I work with parents who have children with challenging behaviors, whether it’s violent outbursts or extreme social withdrawal.  It’s easy to wag a finger at the parent and find fault with their parenting.  It’s easy to give well-meaning advice of just do this, and that should solve the problem.  But unless you’ve ever lived with a child who doesn’t respond the same way as a “normal” child to “traditional” parenting techniques, then I’m here to tell you, “You don’t have a clue!”  What these parents need is not finger-wagging and advice, but compassion and acceptance, so that they feel like part of the human family again.

We can second-guess Nancy and think, “if only she had done this, that, or the other,” and we can blame her for taking Adam to shooting ranges and teaching him to fire a gun—just like we can judge the actions or inactions of other parents who have “weird” or “unruly” or “bully” kids.   But I don’t think fault-finding helps anyone.  I think it fuels the shame and fear of judgment that parents of children who are “different” often feel.  And shame and fear is what keeps these parents and families isolated.  What I would like to see is for us to love and support the Nancy Lanzas in our communities–the parents who are struggling with family life, often very much alone.

If only I could get in a time machine and reach out to Nancy before this awful tragedy, I would ask her, “You seem worried.  What’s going on?  How can I help?  What do you need?”  I would listen with my whole heart and I would hold a safe non-judgmental space for her to share her struggles, and to begin to heal.  Because I know when parents heal their own pain, they can help their children to heal too.  When parents receive compassion and acceptance themselves, they can extend the same to their children…and there’s a lot of children out there starving for compassion and acceptance.

As a parenting educator/coach, I’ve seen the power of a group of parents who come together to support each other.  A foundation of my classes is developing empathic listening, so parents are paired up and spend time outside of class just listening to each other.  Not giving advice, not trying to fix or console, but just listening. The parents are always astounded at how much this simple practice supports them.  As one mom recently said, “My friends and I talk all the time about parenting stuff, but this is a different quality of listening.  The word that comes to mind is transformative.”

Who knows what kind of ripple effect a supportive listening ear would have made for Nancy and possibly many other lives?  Would it have been enough to change the trajectory of what was to come?  It’s too late to know the answer in regards to Nancy Lanza, but there are many struggling, exhausted parents out there right now who need our support—perhaps it’s your neighbor, perhaps it’s your sister-in-law, perhaps it’s you.

My vision is a world where we create emotionally-safe, judgment-free communities where parents can come together,  share their struggles, be accepted no matter what is happening or how they are handling it, and be supported and nurtured by each other.  If this sounds like the kind of community you would like to be a part of, I invite you to join me in this quest and reach out to a parent who is struggling in your community today.
Rest in peace…Nancy, Allison, Ana Grace, Anne Marie, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Chase, Daniel, Dawn, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Lauren, Madeleine, Mary, Noah, Olivia Rose, Rachel, Victoria, and Adam.