Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Are you Listening?

Are You Listening?

One of the most frequent complaints from children today is that their parents simply do not really listen to their ideas, accept their opinions as relevant, or try to understand their feelings and points of view. Children want parents to listen to them in a sympathetic way. An old Indian proverb says, "Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf."

Most of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt no one was listening. There aren't too many things that make people feel as frustrated as to have someone walk away in the middle of a sentence, or read a newspaper while they are talking, or start talking about another subject immediately following a comment without acknowledgment. It shouldn't be hard to imagine the same frustration and perplexity our children must feel when we fail to listen carefully to their messages. How often I have heard teenagers I have worked with say, "My parents never really listen to what I have to say." Or, "I can't talk to my parents. They just won't listen to me." The psalmist described these parents: "They have ears, but they hear not." (Psalms 135:17)

Communication means to impart, to convey, to make known. It involves an interchange of thoughts, opinions, facts, and feelings. Too often conversations between parent and child are not communication at all, but one way directions or commands. Yelling "How many times have I told you to clean your room," is not considered a healthy interchange of thoughts.

All children have questions, and they need to go somewhere for answers or to just talk. They need to know that someone will carefully listen to them. If parents respond with a "go away, don't bother me now" attitude, they will go elsewhere, or they will quit sharing their feelings.

Many may not even be aware that they are sending off the "go away" signals to family members. As powerful as verbal language is, there is another type called body language. It can also be very forceful in getting a message across. Lionel Kendrick said, "Our communications reflect in our countenance. Therefore, we must be careful not only what we communicate, but also how we do so. Souls can be strengthened or shattered by the message and the manner in which we communicate." (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 23)

There is much we tell our children by body posture, eye contact (or lack of), tone of voice and expressions. Without saying a word we can let people know we are interested in what they say and want to listen to them, or that we'd rather be doing something else. How many times have you observed someone looking at their watch or taking steps backwards as you are talking to them? The message is "I need to be going."

A wise man by the name of Epictetus observed that "nature has given man one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak." But, hearing is not the problem most of us have. It is estimated that we hear a thousand times more words than we read, and that we spend almost as much time hearing messages as we do reading, writing and speaking combined. You would think with all this practice in hearing that all of us would be great listeners.

Failure to listen with understanding and proper attention is probably the biggest roadblock to communication of all. For children who grow up in homes where parents do not know how to effectively listen, most would probably have similar feelings as Lord Chesterfield who said: "I would rather be in company with a dead man, than with an absent one; for if the dead man gives me no pleasure, at least he shows me no contempt; whereas, the absent man, silently indeed, but very plainly, tells me that he does not think me worth his attention." (Letters, Sept. 22, 1749)

How often are we absent in conversations with our family? Do we ever read the newspaper or a magazine while our children are talking? Do we daydream about things we need to do, change the subject, or start a counter argument while someone is talking? Good listeners are a rare breed indeed. When we find one, they are usually very popular and respected. Most people want attention from others but fail to realize that to get attention, we must give attention.

Our family happiness is very closely related to our ability to effectively hear family members as they attempt to communicate their thoughts, desires, wishes and feelings. Listening is not a passive exercise, but a concentrated effort. Listening skills bring security to family members so they will not be tempted to look outside the family for understanding.

Many may think: Why should I listen intently to this? It is so trivial and meaningless. Why? Karl A. Menninger tells us why with this wise counsel:

"...I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk, to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject. My attitude is: 'Tell me more!' This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk, just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive." (Love Against Hate, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1956, pg. 276)

While practicing this skill, do not use mind reading, jumping to conclusions or switching the subject. Let him tell his story without interruption and allow pauses to permit thinking. Too frequently one is inclined to be thinking how to respond next, instead of listening attentively to what the other person is really saying.

There is also a distinction between listening intently and prying. Prying will be met with resistance and resentment, while true listening will assist the person to tell what he wants to. When an interruption needs to occur, focus on what the child has said last, say excuse me, touching him, if possible, during the interruption and then ask him to pick up where he left off.
Good listening is hard work, but the benefits are well worth the effort. If we become good listeners, our youth will confide in us rather than others, self-esteem will increase and friction will reduce drastically.

It is not a coincidence that talk is widely used as a treatment by social workers, psychiatrists, counselors and other family specialists in helping to solve personal and family problems. Talk is a major treatment to relieve tension, emotional and mental conflicts and a host of major and minor problems in human relations. We can provide the opportunities for our children to communicate in our own homes and enjoy the love and security that comes with it. A friend shared this experience that he had with his son:

"In the early 1970's my occupation caused me to travel a great deal. In order to continue building relationships with my children, I would often take one of them with me in my travels. On one such occasion my six-year-old, Mike, and I traveled from Springfield, Missouri to Fort Smith, Arkansas. We talked about school and related topics as we drove along the Interstate. I decided it would be a good time to teach my son about the creation of life. I wondered what understanding he had at this point in life about this sacred subject.

I decided to test his knowledge and try to teach him some valuable lessons of life. "Mike," I said, "Have you noticed there is a difference between boys and girls?" After thinking about it for awhile, he said, "Yes, Dad. Girls are pretty and boys are ugly!" Though I was tempted to chuckle, I remained serious, and tended to agree somewhat with him. I asked him if he realized what it meant for his mother to be pregnant. "Yes, Dad. It means she is going to have another baby!" "Well, son, do you have any questions about that?" He thought for a moment then said, "Does everything Mom eats go down and hit the baby on top of the head?" Again, I had to restrain my feelings to laugh. I explained that the baby was carried in a special place so that the food did not hit him in the head.

For the next 45 minutes we had a most interesting talk as we traveled toward our destination. Finally as the conversation waned, I told my son how much I had enjoyed our talk together. Then being desirous to recap this experience, I said, "Mike, what did you learn from our discussion today?" I was anxious to hear him repeat some of the great knowledge I had imparted to him. He pondered for some time and then stood up in the seat of our old Volkswagen. He stepped over the console, put his arms around my neck and said, "I learned I love my Dad!"

It wasn't what they had talked about that day that really impressed this six-year-old. It was the talk. He felt the love of his father and responded to that love. Parents who have good listening skills are more likely to have confident well adjusted children who do not go seeking a listening ear outside the home. Are you listening?

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