Today’s topic: Lend them your ears (Your children, that is!)
Becoming an active (reflective) listener.
In our busy and sometimes stressful days, it’s tempting to respond to our children’s comments and queries with impatience, “fix-it” rejoinders, or “closed” responses. Take for instance a child’s complaint about an assignment, a schoolmate, or an incident from the school day.
Being “fixers’, we naturally jump to advice, a lecture, our opinions, or even warnings. We may play policeman, judge, or critic; if we are feeling kindly rather than annoyed, maybe we’re a counselour, psychologist, or moralist. (“What did you do THIS time?”; Now , now—calm down. You can’t think when you’re angry.”; or maybe “How can you complain? You should be grateful for what you have!”).
Unfortunately, all of the above responses fall into the “closed” category. If you pause and observe, you may notice that these types of responses tend to have the effect of stopping communication, adding further frustration to the encounter—especially when our brilliant advice is ignored.
The STEP approach is to use a technique called “reflective listening”, meaning we reflect back to our child what we think we understand them to be saying. For ex.: “You seem worried about the exam tomorrow”; “It must be hard to see friends having fun without you”; “You seem very upset about not making the school play”.
In this way we demonstrate our real interest in our child’s feelings, and our sincere attempt to understand them. Even if we get it wrong (“I’m not worried about the test—I’m mad about all the stupid homework!”) we’re letting our kids know that it matters to us-- whatever they are feeling, no matter what they are feeling.
This technique has multiple benefits: It models empathy in action; it teaches our kids how to recognize and articulate their feelings; and it positively opens the flow of communication between parents and children. Which may not seem so important when it’s a grade-schooler’s concern about a spelling test—but certainly will be critical when a teenager is feeling depressed and isolated, in desperate need of a parent’s support.
It also clears the child’s mind of that “fog of emotion”, so that with your encouragement, they can begin to see the problem more clearly and explore alternatives to solving it. And putting the focus on problem-solving is exactly what STEP wants us to do.
So give this method a try. It might seem a bit awkward at first, but when you get comfortable with the language, you’ll see how powerful it is at opening up communication. Even better, it works on everyone in your life, from friends to co-workers to yes, even spouses.