Active Listening

Active listening is a term originally coined by Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology. My interpretation of it is, to participate in what parents say by listening, understanding, acknowledging, clarifying, and questioning. It means saying enough to help parents say what they want to say, but not too much so that you are intruding on their conversation. Not saying too much is probably the toughest part of active listening. I think most people find it harder to say nothing than to say something.

Below is an overview of the important ingredients in active listening.

  1. Listening–not only to what parents say, but also to what they are not saying. As A. Benjamin put it, “We hear with our ears, but we listen with our eyes and mind and heart and skin and guts as well” (1969, p. 47). By listening to and acknowledging what parents say, you are telling them that you accept what they are saying, and you accept them. You give parents a sense that you want to help them and to work together with them toward the same goal.
  2. Understanding and empathizing–putting yourself into the parent’s shoes. The closer you come to knowing what parents experience and feel, the better your understanding will be of what they are going through. In some cases, true understanding can only come with experience. For instance, how can you really know what it is like to have a baby unless you have had one? As my girlfriend put it, “There’s nothing anyone can ever tell you, or you can find out from a book that will prepare you for this experience.” The same is true for raising a hyperactive or problem child–you will never know what it’s like unless you have one yourself. For this reason you may find it difficult to match your feelings of empathy with the parent’s experiences–you may minimize or blow things out of proportion. In communicating with parents it may be helpful to think of your role as a good actor or actress: you live and feel the parent’s life for a short time, but always come back to your own life.
  3. Acknowledging–what you say to let parents know you are listening. Often you don’t have to say much: “Uh huh,” “I see,” or simply a nod are enough. Sometimes all parents want is to get things off their mind, not necessarily for you to give them an answer.
  4. Repeating–one step beyond acknowledging what parents say is repeating their comments in one of three ways: (a) using the same words as the parent, (b) using your own words in clarifying or interpreting what the parent is saying, or (c) identifying the parent’s underlying feelings or attitudes.

For example, a mother might say to you, “I’m fed up. I’ve tried everything and Jeremy still refuses to do his homework.” Using the first approach, you simply would repeat what she says–“You’re fed up,” or, “Jeremy refuses to do his homework.” The second style goes a little deeper by interpreting what she is trying to say–“You’re really frustrated.” Lastly, you could reflect back to her how she feels about her child’s problems–“You feel like giving up.”

  1. Questioning–allows you to delve further into particular matters or find out specific pieces of information from parents. As much as possible, use questions which invite parents to talk more, and keep to a minimum questions which end in one-word answers. For instance, “Tell me about your weekend with Cecilia,” will open up more discussion than, “Did you and Cecilia get along this weekend?” Also try not to start questions with the word “why.” “Why was Cecilia in such a bad mood this morning?” may put parents on the defensive, because if gives the impression you’re blaming them for their child’s behavior.

In addition, questions are an excellent way of helping parents discover the solutions to their own questions. As an example, parents may ask you for advice on how they can stop their son from hitting his younger sister. Instead of listing off alternatives, start by asking, “What have you tried already?” followed by, “What do you think went wrong?” and “Do you have any other ideas you think might work?” These kinds of questions let parents know you believe their ideas are worthwhile, and you have faith in their abilities to reach their own solutions.

I believe people gain greater satisfaction and are more willing to try out an idea they think of themselves: they have gone through some trouble in discovering it, they own it, they have more at stake if it fails. You may, in the process, have to guide them into the right avenues, or away from the dead-ends; but in the end parents should feel responsible for finding their own way.

  1. Body Language–many people believe that what you don’t say speaks louder about what you mean than what you do say. Usually we don’t make conscious decisions about the expressions we wear, how we sit, or how fast we talk–we just do them. These nonverbal cues, however, make a difference as to how effectively you communicate with parents. One way of bringing them into conscious awareness is by asking a colleague to come in and observe or make a video of your interactions with parents.