The Power of Active Listening in Family Relationships
Want a powerful way to boost your family relationships? Try listening! See what constitutes a good listener and how to foster great communication with your children.
Some of my most treasured memories center around family meals, with my father presiding at the head of the table, my mom to his right and my grandfather, who lived with us, enriching our lives with his gentle humor and wisdom, to his left. The four children brought up the “rear,” doing our share of squabbling, under-the-table kicking, and spilling drinks, yet being honored with the best gift our parents could ever give us: active listening.
Skillfully, my parents would steer the conversation to each person’s activities, asking insightful questions about their day and stimulating discussions. This occasioned much laughter as we tried to outdo each other in making anecdotes of mundane events, soul-searching, when forks in life that required big decisions were reached, and sometimes tears, when emotions knifed their way to our dinner table.
Family meals were not the only time for conversation, but yes, they were a daily event that I took for granted until I had my own family and realized the amount of love and effort it took for my parents to create and sustain that atmosphere in my childhood home. Now it’s my turn to keep up the tradition with my husband and our own four children.
What Constitutes Good Listening?
When I interviewed children for an answer to that question, all agreed on a simple, basic truth: listening is paying attention and not interrupting. Distinguished from the passive activity of hearing, listening involves focusing intent attention on the speaker, and concentrating on correctly interpreting what is being said.
Harvey Mackay, author of Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, in his article “Listening is the Hardest of the ‘Easy’ Tasks,” defines good listening as, “Paying attention to context as well as content. A listener who can paraphrase what you’ve said without changing your meaning is a great listener. A listener who merely can repeat your words is a parrot.”
Family Communication and Relationships
Parents often wonder why their children will not talk to them and what they can do to improve their relationships with their kids. The comment they frequently make to express their bewilderment at a non-communicative relationship is: “But I gave them everything!”
Yet what this often means is: “I bought them everything money could buy…” And the one thing that cannot be bought is time. For parents, time alone with their children means a chance to listen to their needs and concerns, and respond.
Although the best conversations may come about spontaneously, a little careful planning and engineering can create help create opportunities for good conversations.
The casual dinner (or lunch, if that’s when your family eats the main meal of the day) is great, but if you want to start it off with a game to give it a little boost, try writing individual questions on pieces of paper (or draw a picture for little children), folding them up, then passing them around in a plate for each person to pick out a question and take turns answering or discussing. If your kids are old enough, each person can “lead” the family discussion or conversation by taking turns writing the questions. One rule that can be made is to avoid “yes” or “no” questions, focusing instead on ones that will require elaboration.
When I lived in Paradise, California, I tried to take my boys individually on Saturday morning outings, when my husband was available to do something special with the son whose turn it was to stay with him. We’d start out at a coffee shop for doughnuts and a drink, “hang out” and chat for a while about whatever came to mind, then go browsing at the library, used book stores, or garage sale specials. Nothing extraordinary in itself, yet what was truly extraordinary was what those moments alone did for our relationship. I don’t know who treasured those one-on-one moments more, my sons or me.
Bryan Bell, author of Lessons in Lifemanship followed a similar practice of taking one of his five children out to dinner each week on a rotating basis. “It provided a very different kind of relationship than when I was the referee at the dining room table trying to stop the kicking under the table and all those peculiar activities that siblings seem to find necessary.”
Another enjoyable activity Bell engaged in was to use a tape recorder to interview his kids for the “radio audience,” asking his young children for their opinions on a wide range of topics ranging from global warming to world peace prospects. Responding to the delight and amazement that the youngsters’ responses illicited in their parent, the kids said: “Nobody ever asked them for their opinions before on such serious matters.”
As normal as most of the distracting, bickering activities between siblings are, they can effectively inhibit family communication, more so in large families where each child subconsciously vies for the parent’s attention using every gimmick ever invented.
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