Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Gift of Listening

Quite often when I'm working with parents as they learn to co-parent effectively, I discover that a good many folks don't know the basics of listening.

Listening with your heart and your energy is a gift you give to someone else. It entails putting your own needs "on-hold". This not only includes the need to speak (that's the obvious one, since you cannot listen and speak at the same time), it also includes the need to "be right", the need to judge, the need to defend yourself or your image, the need to feel better about yourself or the situation, the need to be heard, and the need to correct or persuade the other person to agree with your point of view.

Listening with your whole self also includes paying attention to the non-verbal cues the other person is sending. It means engaging at a level where you can really understand them. Its objective is to fully connect with the other person, right where they are.

So, getting straight from theory, see if you can spot how the following statements put listening into a whole new realm:

"Wow! That seems really huge to you - will you tell me more?"

"What happened?"

"How did that make you feel?"

"What would you like instead?"

"Help me understand how this would make a difference for you"

"You seem really worked up over this - can you let me see why this is important to you?"

"What do you need from me?"

Remember, the gift is not in merely asking the question. The gift is in putting your own needs on hold and truly staying in the question with the other person, until you have connected on a heart level. This is not the same thing as merely allowing them to speak until they have to take a breath... and then jumping in with your own defense. If you are truly listening with your heart, you will suppress the urge to defend yourself. The gift is to make it about THEM, not about YOU.

This is more difficult than you may believe, and it takes a lot of practice.

One thing that helps during practice is quickly admitting when you didn't get it on that particular attempt.

Try this: "Oops - you started talking about something you needed, and I accidentally went to a place where I was getting defensive and wanting to point out times when I already gave you what you needed. That's not what I wanted to do here. I wanted to listen to you and hear what you really need. Can we please try that conversation again?"

Or: "Oh I apologize - I started thinking about how that particular thing made ME feel, and I really didn't want to focus on that. I would rather focus on how YOU felt. Will you please tell me that again?"

The gift of listening is especially powerful when we are with our children. Too often, we think we are in a "teaching moment" when we actually are not. Or, what we end up "teaching" our children is that we are more inclined to pontificate than to listen to their hearts. Too often, what our children learn in those "teaching moments" is that they cannot approach their parent and share. Other times, we believe it's more important to convince our children that they must behave a certain way - not for their sakes, but because we as parents fear for our images. Guilt-ridden post-divorce parents are especially vulnerable to this particular temptation.

Imagine what it might be like for your child to speak with you, knowing full well that you were NOT going to respond with a lecture, a sweeping solution, a judgment of them or their idea or their friends, or some re-write of their perception that protects your image. Imagine how it feels to a kid to be validated and valued for their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

Divorce often exposes poor parenting habits that became entrenched during marriage. What was "good enough" when there were two parents in the same home is now not enough when parents are trying to re-build their own lives and help their children recover from a shattered family as well. You may desperately want to hear that your children are "doing fine", that they are "adjusting", that they are "happy". (And, if you are still carrying around bitterness and acrimony toward your children's other parent, you may also enjoy hearing that your children are "miserable" whenever they are with that other parent - and believe me, your children will pick up on that desire, and very likely oblige it.) It may feel temporarily good to have your children validate your needs... but it isn't very mature, and it certainly damages your children.

Better to get your emotional energy from grown-ups... and then use that energy to give your children the greatest gift: the gift of listening.


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