Over the last year, I’ve had the beautiful experience of being part of a listening circle. As myself and my fellow circle members became more adept in the art of active listening, the experience of both talking into the circle and listening to the speaker took on a power that I’ve rarely experienced in daily life. I realise that we seldom really listen to each other, and I also realise that we’re missing out.
Communication is a major part of life without school. Given that there is no pre-scripted approach and that life rolls along according to people’s changing desires and needs, the freedom for everyone to express themselves honestly, and to be heard, is pretty much essential. It’s also likely that as a family you simply spend a lot of time together, meaning that how effectively the family communicates will dictate how healthy and harmonious life is.
And so to listening. It sounds easy. But having experienced the art of true listening, I’ve become aware of how, often when I listen to my children, I’m either distracted by my own head noise or hearing through the filter of my own agenda. But for my children to be able to express themselves fully and freely, I need to provide a safe space into which they can speak. So that means leaving my agenda, distractions, and ego at the door.
There are lots of articles out there about how to actively listen to your children. These have advice such as coming to their level, asking questions to make sure you understand, and repeating back to the child. Some of this may work for smaller children, but I think it’s good to leave formulas aside and look instead to a deeper intuition. Listening to a child is no different from listening to an adult. Our response can’t tick boxes: it needs to come from our full, open-hearted presence. Sometimes, there aren’t any questions to be asked. Often there isn’t an answer.
Just like us, children don’t have the words to express everything. Think of when you feel upset but don’t understand why something has affected you so deeply. Our words are just a part of what is going on and often can’t do justice to our well of feelings. Who do you know who you can really talk to? Not the person who jumps in with their own experience as soon as you’ve spoken your first sentence, nor the person who gives unwanted advice. You’ll find that the people who are best to talk to are generally the best listeners. And, when we talk to people who aren’t listening, we are often left feeling frustrated and undervalued.
So, how can we tell when we need to brush up on our listening skills with our children?
We jump in to offer advice. Coming up with a solution may sometimes be appropriate, but often we do this too quickly. It’s a natural reaction to want to put something right, but not if we’re hijacking the conversation. It may also be that we’re uncomfortable with what is being said and coming up with a solution is an easy way out.
We feel frustrated by what the child is saying. You might disagree with what your child is saying, or just wish they didn’t feel this way. These thoughts will make it much harder for you to listen with clarity and compassion. Try to dissipate them by taking a deep breath and focusing on your child.
We finish their sentences. We think we’ve heard it a hundred times and we know exactly what they’ll say, so we speed things up a little. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know how downright annoying it is. Don’t assume you know what’s coming next.
We have a desired outcome. When we are attached to the outcome of a conversation, we’re not fully listening. Why not? Because we have one ear out for how we can steer the conversation the way we want it. You’ll know that you’re attached to the outcome because you’ll feel some frustration when it doesn’t go the way you expected. Remind yourself that the outcome doesn’t matter at this moment in time. Right now you are holding a safe space in which your child can express him/herself.
We get into our own interior dialogues. It’s right to be touched by what our children say. But beware of getting too caught up in your own emotions. That can easily lead to chasing thoughts down rabbit holes and the distraction that comes from that. If you find yourself triggered by something, just accept that feeling and keep your mind and your ears on your child.
We’re distracted. Who hasn’t been guilty of this? You’re trying to send an email or make dinner, so you carry on with what you’re doing and listen with the other ear. If the conversation doesn’t run deep then you might get away with it, but otherwise, either stop the other activity, or arrange with the child that you can sit and talk in x minutes. Equally, you may not actually be doing anything, but could be distracted by your own thoughts. Again, try to put these aside before engaging with your child.
We take the words at face value. Just like us, oftentimes, a child simply won’t know how to express what they’re feeling. A small event may have triggered a huge response and it’s as much a mystery to them as it is to us. The words may just be a clue.
So, how do we really listen? Our first stop is to check ourselves for triggers. Take a couple of deep breaths and try to let any brain noise quieten. Breathe into your body. Feel into your deeper connection with your child. Adjust your body posture so you both look and feel relaxed. Keep watching out for triggers while your child talks. You’ll notice a trigger by the tension in your body. Breathe down into it.
Be genuine in your response. It may be that you don’t know what to say. You may be used to trying to make your child feel better. It may be that you need to ask some gentle questions to understand more fully. Sometimes it may lead to more, or a big hug might be the thing that works best. The single most important thing is that the child knows they were heard. Not having a solution just doesn’t matter. You may even want to let them know that you’re going to think their words over and that you’d like to sit and chat with them again later.
If you do want to bring your perspective in, make sure you’re doing that for good reasons. Check in with yourself. If you have any sense that you’re trying to win an argument, solve something, or just show your wisdom, hold back!
I remember when I was running my business. If I came home from the office stressed about something in particular, I didn’t actually want a solution for anything. I just wanted someone to recognise that I’d had a tough day. I wanted a listening ear, and someone to offer me a cup of tea or a glass of wine. My partner’s way of responding would be to offer advice. Since I was absolutely not in the mood for advice, I would disagree vehemently with his advice. The result would be me feeling even worse. It took many years to understand that I needed to actually say ‘Don’t give me advice, I just need a hug’.
To choose to talk to someone is an act of trust, and to listen without ego is also an act of trust. It can be challenging to get out of your own stories and thoughts and really be present with someone else, but when you do it’s rewarding to everyone.
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