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7 essential steps to listening between the lines

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Teenagers often feel unheard and misunderstood by their parents. That’s pretty much general knowledge, right? But what doesn’t seem to be as widely known, is that the number one thing most teens wish their parents did differently is listen to them more often (Doe, 2004). And the main reason teens don’t like talking to parents is because their “parents will not shut up.”

Most parents think they listen, but very few actually do—at least well. Instead, we often put more emphasis on being heard and understood ourselves, rather than on hearing and understanding our teen. We may only give half our attention; spend more time lecturing, rebutting and offering our own opinions; pretend to listen so our child will finish and leave us in peace, or worse; turn what our teen says against him with criticism and punishment.

To be a truly effective parent, your teen should want to talk to you, which means making her feel comfortable, safe, and heard when she opens up to you. If not, she’ll turn to someone else who may not have her best interest in mind. Active listening is the best way to show your child that you’ve heard what she’s said and that you really want to understand. Also, when you listen more than you talk, you allow your teen to consider all sides of an issue, sort through her emotions, and reach her own conclusions—skills that are critical to life success.

How can you become a skillful listener? If you learn, practice and use the following steps, which spell out L-I-S-T-E-N-UP, you’ll be listening between the lines like a pro in no time:

1. Lean in.

Show your teen you are giving him 100% of your attention by keeping an open and relaxed posture and turning your body in his direction. Turn off and put down all gadgets (yes, even your phone), and keep your eyes focused on your teen. Don’t stare, but look him directly in the eye from time to time. Eye contact shows your child you are interested in what he is saying, which encourages more communication. Focus on what he is saying: don’t doodle, shuffle papers, look out the window, pick your fingernails or anything else that conveys that he does not have your undivided attention. Then occasionally nod and use active expressions to show you're interested.

2. Identify emotions.

Even if your teen feels comfortable opening up to you, she may not be able to express everything she’s feeling. And what your teen is feeling can completely change the meaning or context of what she is telling you. Fortunately, you can glean a lot of critical information by “listening” with your eyes, as well as your ears. Closely observe your teen’s body language and try to identify the emotions behind her words through nonverbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye-movements. One of the most powerful ways to identify what she is feeling is by mirroring her expression and body language and taking note of what emotion it manifests in you. More than likely, your teen is feeling the same thing. You can also encourage her to share and name her feelings by coaching her with remarks like:

  • It sounds to me like you're feeling _____. Is that true?
  • I wonder if you're feeling_____. Am I right?

3. Seek understanding.

Listen to understand, not challenge. Leave your assumptions about what you think he’s going to say at the door. And, most importantly, be silent. Good listening must start with silence before it can move to understanding. Interrupting is a waste of time. It’ll only frustrate your teen and prevent you from fully understanding what he is trying to tell you. However, being silent doesn’t necessarily mean you’re paying attention. Many of us only listen partially and dedicate the rest of our attention to preparing a rebuttal. Don’t! Instead, focus on trying to form a mental picture of what your teen is telling you. If your image is full of gaps, ask questions like, “what do you mean when you say___?” to try to fill them in. It’s also useful to use short phrases like, “Uh-huh” and “I see,” to show you’re listening and encourage your teen to keep talking. And when you feel the urge to say something that is neither clarifying nor encouraging, ask yourself: Does it really need to be said? If no, keep it to yourself. If yes, wait until you’ve heard your teen out before speaking.

4. Test your understanding.

After (and only after) your teen is finished speaking, it’s your turn to jump in. Use this time to reflect back, or paraphrase, what you believe your teen said. Paraphrasing not only ensures that you understand the gist of what she said correctly, but proves to your teen that you listened to her. “Okay, I think you are saying ______,” "What I'm hearing is ________," and, "Sounds like you are saying ________," are great ways to reflect back. You can also re-phrase your teen’s statements in the form of a question to make sure nothing was lost in translation. After you reflect back, wait a bit so your teen can confirm or correct your perception of her words. Only after you are sure you have heard your teen accurately, know the core issues and facts, and understand how your teen feels about it, can you give a rational answer or provide constructive feedback. Even if you disagree with her opinion or plans, you can keep communication open by acknowledging and paraphrasing what your teen said without having to agree with her point of view. For example, you could say, “I understand what you’re saying, I just disagree with it, and I believe it’s in your best interest if _____ because ______.” The best part, the longer you listen attentively, the more likely your answer or feedback will carry more weight and authority, which means less push back from your teen.

5. Empathize.

Many parents can get so focused on solving the issue that we miss the fact that just giving our teenager the space to vent his emotions is part of the process of feeling better. Rather than trying to provide a solution, simply acknowledge your teen’s feelings. Even if the situation seems silly or his emotional reaction seems dramatic, realize that it is important and serious to him. You don’t want to devalue or invalidate them. If you have trouble empathizing with his situation, try to put yourself in his shoes or imagine a similar situation at the office and think about how it would make you feel. Validating how he feels will help him calm down and feel better faster than if you tell him that he’s overreacting or needs to chill out.

6. Neutralize your response.

You want to encourage your teen to continue coming to you when she needs help or guidance. The best way to do this is by being an askable parent, which means providing your teenager a safe place to talk about what is going on. You must put your emotions aside so you can listen objectively and react calmly without bias, judgment or negativity—which requires resisting that strong parent pull to lecture or yell. Think about it, if someone always cut you off or turned what you said against you, would you ever feel comfortable talking to them again? Doubtfully. So why would your teen? If you find yourself taking what your teen says personally or responding emotionally, say so, and ask for more information: "I find myself taking what you said personally, so I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly. What I thought you just said is _____; is that what you meant?" Then give him a chance to explain.

7. Up lift.

No matter how the conversation ends, go out of your way to let her know you still love her and think she’s a likeable person. You can do this with a hug, a pat on the back, a shoulder or arm squeeze, some words of encouragement, or a simple “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.” Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a warm fuzzy response. Your teen may act like she doesn’t like it or want it – but she does!

Overall, the best rule of thumb is to listen more than you talk, because the less you say, the more your teen will listen to you and respect what you say. Realizing your teen will respond to you better if you just listen to him rather then dish out pearls of wisdom and worldly advice, also removes the pressure of always having to have the right answer. So the next time your teen gets upset and starts to argue with you, change your reaction. Step back for a minute, take a deep breath, and try to listen. It may be one of the best lessons you teach your child.

About the author

Dr. Cameron Caswell is a family coach and founder of the Fuel Center, which specializes in helping parents and their teens redefine their relationship, rebuild mutual respect and trust, and learn to live together in harmony. Learn more at www.theFuelCenter.com.

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