We hear our young adults say we are not listening, or you don’t understand when the issue may be that we disagree with them. We have likely used this same statement ourselves. Where else would they have learned it? Getting to understanding and, ultimately, agreement starts with listening. I like to brag that I am a black belt in listening. I have taught two different parenting courses that emphasized listening and often, in my work at 3M introduced managers to practical listening skills.
A Proactive Approach to Listening
Parents and young adults often talk past or over each other to get the point across or default to complaining or counter complaining when conversations revolve around contentious topics. Listening requires us to be conscious of the value of listening and intentional in executing. If we make unchecked assumptions about what the other person is saying or become defensive, we shut down communication. Listening in a particular way is the basic formula for building a relationship with our young adults. Without a proactive approach to listening to connect to our young adult children, we are not going to establish the platform or springboard for their launch into the world.
Our kids don’t leave homes well if they don’t feel connected and heard.
Listening in “Color”
We have to listen to our kids in “color!” What do I mean by this? Listening starts with hearing. It’s essential to create a quiet space and available time to hear what the other person is saying. Beyond this, the young adult will not know that you understand what they are saying unless you reflect back to them or summarize what they said to the point where they agree we understand them. Just nodding or saying we know what they mean isn’t enough. We could be hearing them through one of our filters, such as – we know better than they do – and not really understand what they are saying. It’s critical to check out what you have heard by reflecting or summarizing what we have heard until they are satisfied, we understand.
In this illustration above, just stating what we heard without establishing eye contact or leaning in to show interest is the fundamental level of listening. A deeper level of listening is when we stop what we are doing, establish eye contact and lean in or show body language that indicates we are tuned in to them. A third level now reflects their feelings around a particular message they are trying to get across. This is what I call listening with the heart. Finally, high definition listening involves reflecting content, demonstrating non-verbal attending, reflecting emotion, and showing empathy.
An Example of Failure to Listen
Let me share a real failure in listening to my oldest daughter when she approached me at the beginning of her senior year in high school. Here’s the failed listening version followed by the “if I could do it redo my response with good listening skills” version.
My daughter, who had been active in drama in high school, approached me with excitement and said – “Dad, I want to go to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City after I graduate from high school.”
My response without hesitation while I was looking elsewhere – “No way. Not going to happen.”
Here’s how I should have approached this:
- Daughter -“Dad, I want to go to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City after I graduate from high school.”
- Dad – “You seem very excited about pursuing acting and want to do this through a school in New York.” ( hold off my judgment regarding my daughter going to New York City)
- Daughter -“Yes, I want to be an actress, and the best schools are in New York City.”
- Dad – “You have a strong passion for acting and want to improve your skills and believe the best place to do this is in New York City.”
- Daughter – “Yes, can I go?” (this comment indicates that I have heard and understood her)
- Dad – Since I listened attentively, now would be the time I would say – “Hell no!” No, that would not be good.
Since I want to honor or respect her passion for studying drama, I might say something like – “Have you looked into drama schools closer to home? The Twin Cities have more theaters per capita than any other city in the United States.”
Sometimes it is hard to hold back our response when our young adult says they want to do something that may be risky or unsafe. What immediately flashed through my brain when my daughter approached me was my naïve, suburban daughter being dropped off in New York City and the words came out of my mouth almost before she finished the sentence. Sometimes, it’s difficult to listen to our young adults when they explore different options for their lives that don’t fit our vision. In this case, my protective parent antenna picked up a danger signal, which overrode my intent to listen. As it turns out, I think my daughter didn’t really want to do this or had not given much thought to what it might be like to live in New York City, but was sending out a trial balloon to see how I would react. I suspect she got the reaction she thought she would get. We need to listen for trial balloons.
Listening can Build a Strong Relational Foundation
As parents, listening isn’t easy when our young adults share information that is not aligned with our values or expectations. Smoking weed, sexual activity, underachievement in school or work, religion, how they spend money and, travel to strange or dangerous places are some of the hard conversations we may have with our young adults. Keeping in mind, they are “a work in progress,” experimenting and exploring options and experiences in life. We need to take the time to truly listen to the passion that underlies these actions, and we build a strong relational foundation to help them move forward in life.