How to Become a Better Listener Through Active Listening

If you’ve lamented the loss of real conversation in your life, you wouldn’t be alone. Sherry Turkle, MIT communications professor and noted author, reminds us: “The world is more talkative now, but it’s at the expense of real conversation.”

Cultivating real conversations within your family is essential for everyone’s happiness and for your children’s development. Some studies have found that young adults attending college today are 40 percent less empathetic than the generations before, with researchers blaming the time spent communicating online rather than face-to-face for an inability to evaluate facial expressions to detect another person’s emotions.

A lack of good conversation has more immediate effects as well. Conversations between kids and their parents is critical for development of language skills, emotional intelligence, self-esteem and the ability to manage conflict. Research shows that a child’s well-being is directly related to how often they talk with their parents about meaningful topics. Having real conversations leads to better outcomes for kids in all ages and stages, from baby through teenager-hood and on to their adult lives where they’ll use those skills to navigate their personal and work relationships.

So that’s the problem. Luckily, there is a solution. It doesn’t cost any money and it’s time well-spent: simply have meaningful conversations with your family every day. This means distraction-free discussions. Take advantage of your commute, pre-bedtime or a family walk to ensure that you are talking with, and more importantly listening to, your child.

And if you’re thinking that asking your kid, “How was school?” as you hustle them off the bus is going to open them up, think again. It’s important to ask targeted questions to elicit specific information. “What was the best part of your day?” or “What was the most unexpected thing that happened today?” give kids a specific question to answer. Asking them for their opinions and input on your own life or decisions makes them feel proud and honored.

One essential element to a good conversation is being an active listener. By incorporating these active listening techniques, you’re able to model good conversation for your child while also engaging in a better talk with them. Here’s how to do it: 

Give your undivided attention.

Put down devices or other distractions when talking with your family. This is why going for a walk, talking at bedtime or having discussions while in the car can be really beneficial–they’re less likely to be interrupted. But even if you are at home with your phone out, if you are having a real conversation, ;put it down and focus.

Stop talking.

We all have the desire to interrupt when someone’s talking, especially when we’re speaking with our kids, but resist the temptation. Give the other person plenty of time to express his or her thoughts before sharing your own.

Sit through silence.

Especially in a world where background noise seems constant, it can feel hard to sit through silence. But children (and some adults) need time to formulate their thoughts. Waiting in silence may feel uncomfortable, but for kids especially, it creates space to raise challenging topics.

Resist solutions.

Unsolicited advice. It can feel nearly impossible to hold it back, but when someone shares a personal story or challenge with you, wait for him or her to ask for input before you offer it. Especially for children, this can often lead to them solving the situation on their own as they have the time and space to express their own feelings.

Commiserate and validate

Verbally acknowledging another person’s feelings shows them that you accept his or her emotions and behaviors, and makes him or her feel valued. This can lead to a deepend connection.

For more ideas on having deeper conversations with your family,  check out my new book 52 Small Changes for the Family. 

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