May 19, 2009

Active Listening Guidelines

Active Listening is a powerful tool for helping children express and work through problems and upsets. Active Listening when misused, however, can actually add to a child's problem and undermine the helping relationship. The following guidelines will insure that your use of Active Listening is appropriate and helpful.

When To Use Active Listening

Active Listening requires certain conditions and attitudes to be present before it is an appropriate response to your child's troubled communication. You should Active Listen only when:
  • You get verbal or non-verbal cues that your child may have a problem or an unmet need.
  • You genuinely want to help and the time and place are convenient.
  • You feel accepting of your child; your child's behavior does not cause you a problem.
  • You feel separate enough from your child's problem that his solution to the problem, whatever it is, will be acceptable to you.
  • You are able to attend closely to your child. None of your concerns are so pressing that they will interfere with your concentration on your child's communication.
When NOT To Use Active Listening

There are clearly times when Active Listening should not be used without risking the creation of more problems. These times include when:
  • You get no cues and clues that the child is experiencing a problem. (Don't create them!)
  • You don't want to help in this case. You don't care, you're rushed, you're busy.
  • Your child's behavior is unacceptable to you. You are irritated or hurt by it.
  • You are invested in having your child reach the "right" solution to her problem. (Your Active Listening will then tend to be contaminated by hints in the "right" direction.)
  • Your own problems are too upsetting and immediate to allow you to be intently focused on your child's concerns.
  • Your child simply needs information which you have and he doesn't.
  • Your child states the problem or feelings so clearly and specifically that an attempt to feedback would feel redundant and patronizing. (Silence or acknowledgment is better in such cases.)
It is helpful to use a variety of expressions when you Active Listen. Repetition of one phrase such as "Sounds like..." or "You feel..." rapidly becomes irritating to your child and comes across as a technique rather than a genuine, natural and empathic response.

Practice using different words as you are Active Listening. One way to develop your Active Listening is to think about starting with only one part. This can be either listening to "Facts," thoughts, ideas, information, or listening only to "Feelings."

ACTIVE LISTENING TO FACTS (especially good in the No Problem Area)
  • The fact is...
  • You think...
  • The idea you have is...
  • What you are saying is...
  • Your view is...
  • You believe...
  • You feel...
  • It's really...
  • So you feel...
  • Looks like...
  • Sounds like you are...
  • Seems like your feeling is...
Relax, make your Active Listening as natural as possible. Using analogies that are age and interest appropriate are also good ways to develop a more natural variety of Active Listening responses.

Lead-ins include:

  • You feel...about...
  • It's...when...
  • You can't...and that's...
  • You're really...because...
  • The way you see it is...and that's...
  •'re really...
  • You are...that...
In its complete form Active Listening includes both the "Facts" (content) and the Feelings.
  • It's like being hit by a truck.
  • You feel your teacher really nailed you to the wall
  • You got hung out to dry
  • She really shot you down (military or video gaming)
  • So it's like you really struck out (sports)
As your Active Listening develops, you can refine it to include listening to multiple feelings and to conflicting thoughts and feelings your children and others have.


When your child has conflicting thoughts or feelings, you can begin by Active Listening to just the dilemma, or if the two parts are equally strong, you can include both of them in your Active Listening.

  • "You feel stuck."
  • "You feel torn."
  • "It's hard to decide."
  • You want to stay home and play and you want to go to the store with Mommy.
  • You'd like to buy that new video game today and you also want to save your money for a new bike.
  • You're excited about the idea of trying out for basketball, at the same time you're worried you might not make the team.
  • You feel stuck because you want to keep hanging out with your friends but they've all started smoking and you don't like to be around all their smoke.
  • You feel excited about getting asked to the dance and yet you're not sure you want to go with Mike.
  • It's hard to decide; you like all the resources a big university has to offer, however, the idea of life at a small college really appeals to you.
You don't need to be perfect! It's reassuring to know that, when you are listening with genuine empathy, your attention is on the child and your intention is to help her identify feelings and solve her own problem it can still "work." Imperfect Active Listening, unlike Roadblocks, will usually be accepted by the other and she will continue to talk about her feelings and explore solutions to problems and decisions.

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