Mastering the Art of Listening: Essential Steps for Parents and Everyone Else

by LukeAdmin

By Alexandra Wilson (AMHSW; CSW; MAASW; BSW Usyd)

Knowing how to be a good listener is a skill many people struggle with. Being a good listener requires practice and an ability to be present to someone else’s experience.

As a therapist, listening is literally my job. I do plenty of talking too, but I can’t say anything helpful if I don’t listen well first!

Good listening can be especially helpful if you’re a parent of a child or teenager. Kids and teens really need to feel heard and understood, and this comes down to being able to listen well to what they are saying, and also what is being implied.

Here are some steps to becoming a better listener:

  • Get out of your own head: Focus on what the other person is saying, not what you are thinking. Don’t let your own thoughts distract you
  • Realise you don’t know how it is for someone else: Even if you have experienced something similar, don’t automatically assume you know how the other person feels. Even if you do understand, keep listening and reflect back that you are hearing them. Say things such as, ‘That sounds really stressful/ difficult’; or ‘Sounds like that’s been really hard’. These reflect back understanding without making it about you.

Consider the following example:
‘School sucked today. That stupid kid was picking on me again. He’s such a pain. I hate him so much!’
Parent: ‘You just have to ignore bullies. Don’t let them get to you.’

This parent is well meaning, but you can see that there is an assumption of authority and an ignoring of listening. It makes their teen feel dismissed and misunderstood.

Here’s a better option:
‘That sounds super stressful, tell me more. Who is this kid and what’s his deal? No wonder it’s stressing you out. Is there anything we can do to fix the situation, or help in some way?’

Here, the parent does a better job of reflecting back what they’ve heard and validating their teens feelings. They are focusing on their teens feelings, whilst offering support.

Not everything is about you: Many people struggle to see outside of their own experiences.

For example:
‘School sucked today. That stupid kid was picking on me again. He’s such a pain. I hate him so much!’

Parent: ‘I got bullied in school. This kid used to throw my lunch away every day. One day I went up to him and punched him. He didn’t do it after that. You just have to stand up for yourself’.

This may seem like helpful advice to some, but this parent is just talking about themselves! This sends the message to their teen that they are not listening to how it is for THEM. Plus, it may not be the best advice in this day and age to threaten violence, things have changed in regards to tolerance in schools for those kind of threats. This teen may end up in more trouble than the bully if they follow this advice!

Don’t change the subject: Sometimes when people feel unsure of what to say, they will change the subject, thinking that’s helpful to reducing the other person’s distress.

Teen: ‘School sucked today. That stupid kid was picking on me again. He’s such a pain. I hate him so much!’
Parent: ‘Don’t let it bother you – it’s not worth it. You know I talked to Grandma today and she told me the Robinsons’ got a new dog’.

Their teen is left feeling unheard and at worse, unloved. Validation means reflecting back that we have heard the other person and that we care about what they are saying.

You don’t have to solve the problem: Listening, validating and supporting someone to solve the problem often works better than simply telling them what they should do. Ask them what they think might be helpful and listen to what they say. Only give your opinion if they ask for it!

Becoming a good listener has a lot of benefits. It means people will feel comfortable talking to you and this allows for increased closeness in relationships. For parents, being a good listener provides a safe place for children to share their feelings. This is a highly protective factor for them as they tackle the world.

Alexandra (Alex) Wilson holds a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Sydney (2003) and is the owner of Mindful Recovery Services. Mindful Recovery Services is a private practice providing psychological treatment and support for adolescents and adults. Alex is passionate about dispelling myths about mental illness and is highly skilled in dialectical behavioural therapy. She is an experienced public speaker and provides consultation to other professionals on managing difficult behaviours in teens. Alex lives on the NSW Central Coast with her partner, 2 young boys, and a cheeky puppy named Axel.

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