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Listening to Our Adult Children

RECONCILIATION PRAYER GROUP--only you can see this page.  Although this chapter was originally written for parents of teens, many of the principles of listening might apply to our adult children.  




              The biggest mistake parents make is that they

              do not listen to your whole argument.  They

              always have an answer before you're done.

                                             --Carl, 14


              Everyone should be quick to listen, slow

              to speak....

                                           --James 1:19


An Irish proverb states, "God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak."  Our teenagers' greatest need is for parents to listen to them, not as children, but as human beings.  Teenagers need to tell parents their doubts, their dreams, and their bewilderment as they try to discover why they were born, how they must live, and where their future lies.

            How well do we listen?  One junior high respondent in our survey summarized the thoughts of many when she said,

                        Parents are wise and understand everything because they were teenagers.  But they are also human...and not good listeners.

Other studies have come to the same conclusion.  Even though listening is the part of the communication process that we learn first and use most, we catch ourselves saying, "Would you repeat that?"  "What did you say your name is?"  "Did you say I should turn right or left?"  "Huh?"

            In my first book, The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen, I ask, “Can you name ten people who listen intently to you...people who can think your thoughts after you, empathize with you, and know what you're trying to say before you put it all into words?”1 

Few people can name five.  The great majority of people suffer the loneliness of not being able to share their true inner selves with persons who will hear them out and take time to understand.

            Perhaps you would like someone to listen deeply to you...and you can sense how your own teen would like to have the same experience.  You can begin that process.  Learning how to listening well is no big secret.  Anyone can become an expert listener when they are willing to take an honest look at their present level of skill and take the steps necessary for improvement.


How Do You Rate As A Listener?

    Here is a listening inventory that will give you a rough estimate of how well you listen and will highlight areas in which improvement might be you and your teen.

    1.  On a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent), how would you rate yourself as a listener?  _____

    2.  Using the same scale, how do you think the following people would rate you?

            Your Boss                _____

            Friends                     _____

            Your Spouse           _____

            Your Teenager       _____

    3.  On a scale of 1 (low frequency) to 5 (high frequency), rate yourself on the frequency of the following good listening habits by circling the appropriate number.

      Low       High

        1 2 3 4 5           I maintain direct eye contact.

        1 2 3 4 5           I focus my attention on what my teen is saying rather than what I am going to say next.

        1 2 3 4 5           I listen for feelings as well as facts.

        1 2 3 4 5           I avoid letting my mind wander.

        1 2 3 4 5           I tune in instead of tune out on difficult or controversial issues.

        1 2 3 4 5           I think first, then respond.

        1 2 3 4 5           I think of questions to ask and ask them.

    To find your score for this quiz, add each of the numbers you circled.  Then check your total points with the following:

        33‑35  Excellent

        28‑32  Good

        13‑27  Fair

        7 ‑12  Poor

    Most of us rate ourselves far below our potential for effective listening, which means we realize the need for improvement.  That awareness is the first step toward increasing listening skills.  In this chapter we will discover why we don't listen as well as we could. Then we will focus on how to make the slight adjustments that produce significant improvements.


"My Teen Won't Talk To Me!"

            Sometimes teens will talk for hours to their friends, but hardly at all to their parents.  The disparity hurts.  We may begin to resent our teens' friends, complain that our teens care more about their friends than they do us, and in various ways try to force them to notice us and pay attention to us.  Of course it only makes matters


            Teens cannot always make sense of what they are thinking and feeling.  Sometimes they fear that if they try to express themselves, it will come out all wrong.  They are overly sensitive to being criticized or laughed at.  Not talking then becomes a defensive pattern designed to avoid confrontation and embarrassment.

            We may be part of the problem.  From our survey of over 800 teenagers, I compiled a list of their common complaints.  According to them, we commonly

            ‑jump to conclusions

            ‑get angry when they don't immediately comply with our wishes

            ‑interrupt (an interruption can feel like a slap in the face or that what the speaker is saying is not important)

            ‑give the impression we are too busy to be bothered

            ‑talk too long without giving them a chance to speak

            ‑become preoccupied with our own thoughts and feelings

            ‑never ask questions

            ‑never seem to want to know what they think

            ‑don't understand how they feel.

One teen summarized the thoughts of others:  "If my parents would only stop talking and listen to me for a change, we would get along much better." 

            You may find it interesting to ask your teen to be very candid and rate you on these complaints by putting a check in front of the ones that apply to you.  Try not to be defensive or contradict what your teen says.  Just listen.  Ask questions to clarify.  Perhaps this exercise could begin a new effort to understand yourself and your teen.  You may not pull it off perfectly or immediately, because listening well takes practice and time.  Be patient with yourself.

            One of the values of this exercise is that your teenager will know that you are interested and trying to build a better relationship.


Listening Vs. Hearing

            One teen said:  "My parents hear me; my friends listen to me." Another young person said: “My parents say they want me to come to them with problems, but when I do they're busy or they only half listen and keep on doing what they were doing‑‑like shaving or making a grocery list.  If a friend of theirs came over to talk, they'd stop, be polite, and listen.”

These comments point to an important difference between hearing and listening. 

Hearing is a physical and mental process for the purpose of getting information.  At this level we often think only about what we're going to say next.  It's only half‑listening. 

Listening is not only a physical and mental process, it's also a psychological process.  It operates at a deeper level and is designed to understand the thoughts and feelings of the person talking.  Listening requires empathy, a psychological capacity to put one's self into the situation of the other.  It requires full attention.

            When we listen well, we don't concentrate on what we are going to say next or criticize what is said or how it is said.  We don't let our teens' tone of voice or appearance block out what they are saying. Instead of merely reacting, which is mindless, we respond, which is mindful.

            Listening is the ability to hear another person so well that we are able not only to repeat what the person said, but also the feeling behind what was that person's satisfaction.  Can you remember how good it felt when someone listened to you that way?

Imagine how effective listening would benefit your relationship to your teenager.  Such listening almost always

         ‑conveys genuine interest in what is being said

         ‑avoids making wrong assumptions

         ‑abstains from making judgmental statements

         ‑helps our teens clarify their own thinking

         ‑leads to solving problems

         ‑builds self‑esteem

         ‑enhances a relationship

         ‑increases mutual understanding.


ACE Listening Skills

            Since listening, in contrast to hearing, can become a complex process, we are helped if we can follow a model or simple guide for increasing our skills.  Here, then, is what I call the ACE Model for achieving expertise in listening:  Attending, Clarifying, Evaluating.

            Attending (paying attention) is making sure we are getting the message our teens are communicating.  That message includes body signals (facial expression, gestures) and voice signals (tone, volume, inflection), as well as the words spoken.  To  sense the message correctly, we need to:

       ‑calmly look in the eyes of our teens (but don't stare)

       ‑hear the actual words being said

       ‑pay attention to body signals, such as sad eyes, nervous hands, and tense lips

       ‑eliminate distractions whenever possible (e.g., turn off the TV or shut a door)

       ‑listen to the tone of voice.

            Clarifying gets at the meaning of the message.  It is normal for us to interpret messages according to our experience, our mental frame of reference, but it is detrimental since our experiences are likely to be vastly different from that of our teens.  This may result in a limited match of meanings or no match at all.  To me, homework includes studying for a test.  But when I asked Jud, "Do you have any homework?", he said "No" even though he had three tests the next day because, to Jud, studying for a test is not the same as homework that is assigned.

            To clarify whether our teens mean what we think their messages mean, we can paraphrase what we heard them say ("So what you're saying is _________.  Right?").  Here are some additional clarifying responses:

       ‑Can you give me an example of what you mean?

       ‑How do you feel about what happened?

       ‑What do you mean by __________?  How would you define that word?

       ‑If you take this action, what might be the consequences?

       ‑Is this idea consistent with what you said before?

       ‑What is the purpose of this activity?

       ‑On a scale of 1 (least) to 10 (most), how important is this to you?

       ‑What is your reason for saying (or doing) this?

       ‑Do you think this is the right thing to do?

       ‑What else can you tell me about this that will help me understand?

The beauty of sincerely asking questions like these is that we not only increase our understanding, but we also help our teens to clarify their own messages, hear their implications, and perhaps come to a wiser conclusion.

            Evaluating is the stage where we mentally reflect on the information we have gathered and decide how we will respond.  Here it is important to consider our several options. For example:

         ‑asking for more information

         ‑remaining silent

         ‑expressing our feelings

         ‑stating our opinions.

We need to ask ourselves, "Which of the several options I have for responding to my teen will produce the most effective communication?"

            The ACE Model for listening effectiveness may seem to require a great deal of time to work through, but with a little practice, it saves time by increasing understanding.

            At best, this is how the ACE Model for listening works.  Can you sense its value?  Imagine how it helps to avoid serious misunderstanding.  And it really is not difficult.   Once we get the basics fixed in our minds, we will find that the whole thinking process needed to apply the ACE model can happen in a second or two.

            The model is built on the attitude that our teens are worth the effort necessary to get to know them, that their feelings and experiences are important to us, that we care about their well‑being.


Qualities of Effective Listeners

            Behind any strategy for good listening is the listener.  In other words, who we are as persons is more important than any technique, however useful it might be.  If we want to listen to our teens in such a way that our teens will talk to us, we will need to demonstrate the following qualities.

            * Desire.  Effective listeners want to listen.  Most parents do not want to hear hassle, argument, impudence, or noise‑‑the common opponents that block our best shots at listening effectively.  When I face them, my preference is to give up and blame my son or daughter for the communication breakdown, but the desire to listen keeps me going.  Desire causes me to keep trying to get around the opponent:  "Jud, I find it hard to listen when you argue with everything I say.  I want to listen to what you are saying, but you need to hear me too."  "Jessica, I feel we are not communicating well.  Please take a short break from what you are doing and look at me.  I want to understand."

            * Timing.  Effective listeners know when to listen.  Sometimes that means knowing when the listening task is over.  One night as I was working on this manuscript, Jud came bounding downstairs and said: "Dad, I'm reading a book that could have a profound influence on the course of my life....  It's kind of scary."  I was so glad that my son wanted to share this big moment in his life with me that I stopped everything, asked some questions, and waited for him to expand on his thinking.  But there wasn't any more to be said right then.  I think he felt he had been heard and his mind raced to a different task.  I had to wait until later for extended listening.

            * Empathy.  Effective listeners can listen with the heart. Empathy is putting ourselves in the situation of our teens and understanding what they are feeling.  Empathy requires thinking first and then responding instead of reacting.  Reacting is saying the first thing that comes to mind.  Responding considers how what we say will affect our teens.

            * Self‑Control.  Effective listeners remember that feelings come and go, that what is said by a teen in a fit of anger probably is not a true representation of the teen's real thoughts and feelings.  One mother told me that her teen yelled at her, "I hate you!"  The mother felt like crying and yelling back something about her daughter's ingratitude.  Instead of reacting, she chose to respond by staying in control of herself and the situation.  She said, Sue, I realize you are very angry at me right now, but it's not OK for you to say that you hate me.  I want you to know that when you are ready to talk, I will be ready to listen.  Even though I may not agree with you, I care very much about you and how you feel.

Keeping the channels of communication open is the best way to achieve reconciliation.   It's not easy, especially when our teens' language or actions seem calculated to make us angry, hurt, or upset.  It requires a commitment to keep our emotions in check.

            * Skill.  Effective listeners make the ACE Model for listening a habit.  They are fun to talk to, a delight to be around.  Even if they are not brilliantly articulate, they know how to bring out the best in the one talking to them.  I like the way someone once described this kind of listening ace:

              His thoughts were slow,

              His words were few, and never formed to glisten.

               But he was a joy to all his friends‑‑

              You should have heard him listen.

When we listen that way, our teens will likely want to talk.


When Teens Still Won't Talk

             It may be that reading this chapter has made you feel guilty for not listening better.  When you compare your performance to the qualities and techniques suggested here, perhaps you realize you don't measure up very well.  None of us do without constantly working at it. We all can improve.

            Admitting our mistakes not only to ourselves, but also to our teens can break down listening barriers.  For example, we can say to our teens:

"In the past I have tuned you out.  I'm really sorry.  Will you forgive me?  I want to do much better.  If there are times when you feel that I'm not     listening,   please let me know.  I won't hold what you say against you.  I really want to know."

Suppose after trying all this your teen still doesn't talk to you.  Parents can do only so much.  Teens must take responsibility too.

            Teenagers seem to go through a stage when the answer to every question is a grunt.  It's well to keep in mind that this stage is likely as unhappy and frustrating a time for our teens as it is for us.  Usually it's intermittent and doesn't last.  During this time, nothing seems to work.  Even an expert communicator can't get them to talk.  If we have taken the steps toward effective listening recommended in this chapter and we get no response, we must not give up.  If we persevere, hopefully our teens will not only talk to us, but will want to learn to listen as well.  One sixteen‑year‑old in Florida wrote to us,

         "The one message I want to tell my mother is that I love her and that I'm here too if she needs to talk to someone."

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