In my private practice as a therapist several years ago, I was talking with a Year 8 girl. At some point during the conversation, my client looked confused and asked me, “Are you really interested in what I have to say?”
I reassured her I was absolutely interested in what she had to say, and, over the next few months, this child’s willingness to open up and share her thoughts and feelings increased ten-fold. At the end of each session, she would grin widely and tell me she felt ‘much better’.
Over the years, I’ve encountered many iterations of this scenario. One of the most common ‘issues’ we uncover is that they feel unheard, that their parents don’t listen to them. Even when their parents are present, they are still somehow absent. There’s listening, like hearing and then there is listening, like validation. They’re a world apart, not just in the doing but in the receiving. In therapy, we call it ‘feeling felt’. I love this expression, it really speaks to the profound experience of being reflected by another, a hallmark of true connection.
The prevailing parenting style of previous generations was that children were to be “seen and not heard.” There were a lot of autocratic parents back then, “Because I said so” ring a bell? But the jury is back, the research is done, this is not what our children need. They need to feel reflected, acknowledged and heard.
Does this all sound like you need a degree in counselling? Try active listening. This is the simple art of showing up and using non-verbal gestures to show empathy and give the gift of…you. There’s no greater gift after all.
Firstly, pay attention. Try to put aside any distracting thoughts or thinking about what you’re going to say next. (That’s a hard one!)
Secondly, use your body language to demonstrate you’re really listening. Nodding, reflective utterances like ‘I see’ or ‘uh huh’. Reflective comments are also great, “I see what you mean’ or summarise your child’s comments to ensure you’ve understood correctly.
Finally, don’t judge. This is not true listening and flies in the face of empathy. In therapy, we call it ‘unconditional positive regard’. How awesome is that phrase? It’s the attitude of complete acceptance and love. When you have unconditional positive regard for someone, nothing they can do could give you a reason to stop seeing them as inherently human and inherently lovable. It doesn’t mean you accept poor behaviour but simply that you are able to look beyond that. All behaviour is communication and we’re not ever going to find out what’s trying to be communicated if we’re not listening.