Active Listening: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Eating family dinner
Eating family dinner

Dear Dr. Debbie,

How can I get my family to engage in civil conversation? Mostly it’s a lot of demands and complaints. I’m also guilty of not really listening when one of the children or even my husband has news of their day, or wants me to do something “right now” for them.

All Noise and No Talk

Dear A.N. & N. T.,

There are three primary reasons we talk to one another:

1) As a request for action to be taken

2) To have our feelings acknowledged and validated

3) For deepening the bond between us

The technique of “Active Listening” can enhance your family members’ ability to do all three.

Just Say It Back

Start using Active Listening yourself. Say back what someone has said to you to confirm that you heard correctly and to show your interest in hearing more. For example, if your child says, “I have to bring this paper back to school tomorrow,” you simply say, “You have to bring this paper back to school tomorrow.”

It may feel awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll see how it works. (Please note, this is not the same as mimicking, which is something one child might do to annoy another.) The Active Listening technique forces you to actively and accurately participate in a conversation. Rather than taking the paper and putting it aside, perhaps to be forgotten, you bite into the very words your child has used in order to fully absorb what he has said, and to move the conversation toward why he started it in the first place.

Taking Action

The reason for his telling you about the paper may be because he needs you to take an action. Maybe the paper is about an upcoming event and he needs you to check the calendar to see if he can attend and claim a space for him by sending it back with your signature. The first action you might take, of course, is to read or at least skim the paper.

One reason that people whine and fuss is that they don’t trust that the action they need will be forthcoming. Even if you can’t complete the requested action immediately – for example your husband requests that the two of you trim the household budget to start saving for a vacation. The action you can take is to plan tonight’s dinner (out loud) around leftovers and to announce that you will postpone grocery shopping for another day.

Sharing Feelings

Your husband’s comment about budgeting now for a future family trip could have a few different feelings behind it. Reply with the gist of his own words, “That vacation will be great but we have to start saving up for it.” Hearing that you agree (because you’re repeating the message back) he can further express his feelings on the subject. He may be worried that the cost of the trip is unaffordable. Or he may be anxiously anticipating this trip as a well-deserved reward for good budget management. Or he may be looking forward to fulfilling a dream to take his children to see Old Faithful, the geyser at Yellowstone Park, as an important investment in family memories. The words that you repeat are merely the confirmation that you are open to the topic. Talking about his feelings will be easier once he knows you are listening.

A little more exploration should reveal the emotions behind his words. You might offer: “It feels risky to be planning this trip, especially with food costs higher than ever.” Once he confirms that, yes, that is what he’s feeling, the two of you can explore what it might look like to make adjustments to current spending.

I Love Being Here With You

The third possible reason for one person to speak to another is to go beyond recognizing each other’s humanity (which is a basic starting point between two people) to affirming that this is a person whose company you enjoy keeping. Again, if you model this, your family members will feel loved. A person who feels loved can more easily be loving toward others.

The Active Listening technique works here, too. The words aren’t what matter. In fact when two people are just glad to be together they may use nonsense words they don’t use with anyone else. So-called “baby talk” is an example. Certain words are only used between parent and child. You wouldn’t say “tum tum” when placing an order in a restaurant, but that’s exactly how you and your little one refer to the place his dinner is going when he eats it.  

Couples can likewise foster the bond between them by using each other’s words when the only message behind the exchange is, “I’m glad you’re here.” This could be as simple as, “What a day!”  Research on communication suggests that matching each other’s inflection and mirroring facial gestures and body posture enhance empathy and attraction.

Sometimes it’s good for the relationship to just copy each other.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents on Mondays 7-9 pm, April 24: Good-for-You Food Fun, May 8: Dinosaurs Divorce, May 22: The Skin You Live In.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993. Each Thursday there is a guided nature walk at 10:30 am.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.