“Mommy, Johnny made me eat a worm at rugby today.”
“That’s nice, honey. Have you finished your homework?”
How many times has your child felt the frustration of being unsuccessful in communicating to you important information, because you weren’t really listening? And how many times has your child snapped back at you, talked a mile a minute, or shut down – all acts that may be the equivalent of shouting “Listen up!”?
You won’t hear a client shout “Listen up!” at a coach. “Listening up” is one of the key contexts of coaching; and a coach, if nothing else, is listening. It is too bad then, that this coach (i.e. me) doesn’t always carry the context of listening into her family life. What about you?
Three Levels of Listening
Listening is what allows a client to feel seen by their coach; and this is the first step toward building trust in the relationship. It is the same thing in a family. Parents – like coaches – can learn to distinguish and then practice the three levels of listening.
- Level 1: The parent focuses their listening on their own thoughts.
- Level 2: The parent focuses their listening on what the child is saying/not saying, verbally and nonverbally.
- Level 3: The parent focuses their listening on all that is occurring around them – in the space, with their child, and within themselves.
During one coaching course, I completed an assignment designed to strengthen my listening skills. We were asked to listen to an individual using all three levels of listening and to write about what we learned. I listened to my nine-year-old son. Here’s what happened.
When your child does the equivalent of yelling “Listen Up!” you can be sure that you are not really listening to him.
My listening started in Level 1. We were at the dinner table. I didn’t want to talk – I wanted to finish my dinner, my son to finish his, then get the dishes done, him to bed, and me to my computer to finish work. My son started talking very quickly about Percy Jackson, running on his sentences, like he knew that if he didn’t go fast, I would interrupt. Frankly, I wasn’t really listening to what he had to say since I just wanted him to be quiet and eat. He was jiggling his leg and looking away, and his mix of English and French was poorly enunciated.
Then, light bulb! I thought, “This is a great moment to experiment with my levels of listening.”
I realized that unintentionally I had already moved my listening to Level 2. I put down my fork and turned toward my son and asked him what he liked so much about Poseidon. I looked at him intently, and he stopped jiggling almost immediately – his speech slowed down too. He started taking breaths between his sentences. Then the most interesting thing happened – he established eye contact. So many times I tell him to look at the person he is talking to in the eyes – and it seems he never does. Well, as I listened to him at Level 2, our eyes locked in contact – and I got the most immense pleasure from the incredibly beautiful sparkle in his eyes. Suddenly, I felt a flood of trust in the space. Again, without even trying, I had moved into the next level of listening.
I took Level 3 even further: my intuition was telling me something and I listened to it.
I asked this question: “Do you wish that Mommy had more time to listen to you?”
He looked at me in a way that was obvious that I had hit on something – that I was recognizing something very true for him. He nodded a quick little yes. I said, “When we are done eating, let’s talk.” He quickly finished his meal, and we went over to the couch. He told me so many things – he jumped from the Greek gods, to why he wants to go hunting for wild boar, to his butterfly net – he was resonating with gratefulness and happiness. It was as if I had used a secret power to open wide his stream of consciousness spigot, and he was absolutely thrilled to share it all with me.
After I tucked my son into bed, my thoughts swung between joy and guilt. Joy because of the connection and special moment we shared together, guilt because it was apparent that from his perspective these moments were relatively rare, and he was right. And joy again because it is never too late, and I vowed to make this a regular happening.
When parents take the time to really listen to their children – to listen at Level 2 and 3 – their child feels seen. This is what creates the trust. For the child, it is an invitation to communicate from their heart and soul.
A child who is listened to dares to reveal; they feel interesting and accepted as they truly are. This is precisely the fuel that they need to grow their own authentic identity: to be able to go out in their world and explore it, take risks, fall down, and stand back up, secure in the knowledge that when they come home a parent will listen to them talk about this exploration.
By modelling strong listening skills, your child will both respect and listen to you, and maybe even follow your advice! And there’s more. Listening up is, quite simply, a pleasure.