Listening With Intention As Well As Attention

Most of us like to think we’re good at listening, especially to the children we live and work with.
But really tuning in can be much harder in practice than in reality; my son frequently tells me at great length all about his progress on Roblox, and it not only makes no sense to me, but doesn’t interest me, and I confess that sometimes I notice myself making a half-hearted attempt to engage, while thinking about something else entirely.

But listening well – with intention, as well as attention – is important, especially at this time of year, when so many children and young people have some kind of change or transition on the horizon. Staying connected – emotionally, if not physically – to our kids during vulnerable or turbulent times is enormously protective of their mental health, even if they don’t appear to have much of an appetite for it.

How can we zoom in on the art of ‘attunement’? Here are three ways:

Practice ‘Active Listening’
“Listen, not with the intent to reply, but to understand”…

It’s more challenging than merely ‘listening’, because active listening requires us to steer away from and silence the internal chatter and stream of thoughts that usually come up for us: the need to reply, share what we might do, and the very common human urge to give advice.

Active listening between adult and child is a special kind of communication; it starts with the shared understanding that you, as the listener, are fully engaged.
We validate their experience, instead of defaulting to ‘everything’s fine’, ‘don’t worry’, ‘you’re being silly ’etc.
It means we pay close attention – to their non-verbal cues as much as their words – and feed those back to them in ways which affirm that we’re truly present.

Slowing down enough to listen deeply when most of us are conditioned to maximise our productivity 24/7 is no easy task.
But with practice, this way of connecting and communicating with the young people in our lives can be transformational – for us, as well as them.

Be ‘Person-Centred’
What this means when we’re listening to kids is that our energies remain focused on them.
We often feel assured that we’re already doing this, but if we look closer, we’re actually focused on what our own role is in the situation; How do I make this child feel better? How do I solve their problem?

It so instinctive to move into well-intentioned ‘fix-it’ mode when they present us with their discomfort or pain. And sometimes that may be necessary.
But not always, and while it can make for a short-term solution, it doesn’t build their capacity to become their own problem-solvers.
Person-centredness in action means connecting with the child in ways which focus on them, e.g. learning to understand their problem better, so they are better equipped to unlock the solution within themselves.
Our role is to support them through that process but, not be leading with our adult lens and imprinting that on them, but enabling the child to sharpen their own.

So catch yourself if you start administering advice or becoming ‘rescuer’.  
Instead, reflect what they’re sharing or what you’re observing back to them. Giving voice to that expresses that you’ve seen them, heard them, and want to understand them; that in itself can be enough.

But if they need more, invite them to reflect with you…W hat do they think is causing the problem? What does their idea of a solution look like to? What can they do to action that? Then, are they going to need your help?

Can you hear what ISN’T being said?
When young people don’t talk, does it automatically mean they don’t want to?
Not always, or at all, which is why it matters – especially as kids approach and progress through adolescence – that we notice what isn’t been said, not just what is.

Of course, they may simply have nothing they want to share with you in that moment.
But at other times, there are valid reasons they don’t talk; they may not expect to be taken seriously (the world is, after all, generally terrible at listening to children).
Or they won’t talk; they’re short on courage, or energy, or think it’s not the ‘right’ time.

Or they can’t talk; they’re struggling to find the words to articulate themselves. Recognising their feelings takes a level of self-awareness that is just not available at that time. Having the language to verbalise them in a meaningful way is a different skill entirely.
Chronic distress or trauma, experiences at any point in a young person’s life – can affect the brain in such a way that it can immobilise their capacity to speak at all. 

Young humans don’t always know that sharing what’s going on in their head with somebody else is a useful way to make sense of it.
But all humans, according to the science, subconsciously interpret far more meaning through non-verbal communication than we do from a person’s words…
So what changes when we really pay close attention to that?
What can you detect from the tone, pitch, or speed of your child’s voice?
What non-verbal cues do you notice? Do you become aware of slight shift in behaviours?

“LISTEN and SILENT are spelled with the same letters”.
I don’t know whose words they are, but when I stumbled across them recently, they silenced me for a moment 💚