People often ask me, if you could only give parents one piece of advice about helping their children deal with problems, what would it be? My answer is; “Talk less and listen more.”
In all of our relationships we experience conflicts and problems; life can be messy. In spite of our hopes and dreams for a happy, trouble-free family, strong friendships and positive work relationships, real life is not perfect. Communication can be confusing, problems difficult to solve and our thoughts, needs and beliefs different from the people we care about. No matter how close a bond we have, personal and professional relationships require constant attention and an investment of time and energy to keep them strong and mutually rewarding.
As parents we want to help our children when they struggle with problems or experience conflict; we want the best for them. Our natural response is to do all we can, as quickly as we can to protect them and insure that they are safe and happy.
As mentioned in a recent article, the first step is to determine exactly whose problem it is. Is it my child’s problem, is it my problem because of something my child is doing that I don’t like or is it a shared problem we have to tackle together? You need to decide “Who Owns the Problem”? To determine this, figure out who the problem is directly affecting. (And no, if your kid is getting bad grades, the problem isn't yours!)
When you determine that your child, another family member, friend, coworker or other person “owns” a problem then you have a question to ask yourself and a decision to make.
“Do I let him deal with his problem without my involvement or do I take some action to help him solve the problem but without falling into the trap of doing it for him?”
The answer to this question depends on the nature of your relationship with that person and your investment in them. If the person is a family member, friend or work colleague and you have a special interest in the relationship then, in most situations, you will want to help.
Most people - regardless of their cultural background - will wonder: “What can I say that will help?” or “What solution can I provide that will help my child?” But there are usually some pretty undesirable consequences that come with being the parent who always solves their child's problems.
Besides creating dependency, you can fall into the trap of answering a question that may not really be a question at all, or may not even be about the real underlying problem. Questions are often used as an attempt to express feelings or thoughts. Your daughter asks the question “Mom what should I do?” may really be a disguised way of her saying : “I’m confused”, “I feel stuck”, “I want time with you.”, or “I feel scared about making that decision.”
A clear indication of this is when you answer a question and get back the reply: “Yes, but…” or “What if…” Clearly, the other person wasn’t really asking you to solve their problem for them. In fact, talking and providing your opinion or idea is not what is needed to help your child in these situations. What’s called for is listening.
Helping by listening can be broken into two general groups; Basic Listening and Active Listening.
BASIC LISTENING to help others when they have a problem or concern includes giving your child space to talk, devoting your full attention to her and providing a few short signals that you are listening. Basic Listening includes:
• Being Silent: silence can be uncomfortable and the urge to say something to fill the void can be strong. However, silence can give your child or another person space to talk. It puts the ball in their court and lets them share their feelings and thoughts without interruption. Helping by silence is sometimes enough for your child to solve a problem.
A father shared this story with me about using silence. His teenage son came home from school one day and instead of stopping to chat about school; he slammed down his books and went out the back door. Dad went out and sat down beside him on the steps.
The father was taking a P.ET. course but he told me his mind went blank and could only remember “Just be quiet and listen.” so he sat there with his son in complete silence. After 5 minutes of silence his son turned to him and said; “Dad, thanks for listening now I know what I’m going to do.” Then in a good mood he when off to do his homework.
• Show You Are Listening With Your Body Language: often silence by itself is not enough; you need to demonstrate that you are really listening. Comfortable eye contact (not staring), sitting facing the person, smiles, frowns, nods of your head and hand gestures all show your child that you are tuned in and connected and makes it comfortable for them to talk about their upset or problem.
• A Few Simple Statements: “Ah!”, “I see.”, “Wow!”, “Mmmm.” provide some simple verbal signals that you are listening. Just don’t overdo it, keep these few and far between.
• Door Openers: sometimes simple invitations to say more can help your child to get started. “I’m ready to listen if you want to talk.” “I’ve got time to talk right now.” “Seems like something’s bothering you.” “I’m all ears.” are a few examples. Just remember, these are only to open the door to speak so one or two at the beginning are enough.
ACTIVE LISTENING as the name implies is more active and involving than Basic Listening.
Active Listening allows your child or another person to talk about a problem and identify what the real problem, issue or upset is and then come up with his or her own best solution.
Active Listening is not about asking questions; instead it’s about making statements to check out what the other is saying and prove that you heard and understood. Years ago I was taught to ask questions to help someone talk about a problem. What I’ve learned is that questions may instead act as roadblocks. When you ask a question, your child has to stop talking and think; “Do I know the answer to Dad’s question?” or “Do I want to tell Dad?” Maybe a handsome, athletic teenage son is reluctant to admit to his Dad that he is really anxious about asking a girl on a date or a daughter is worried about the bad grade she just got on a test and what Mom will say about it.
A question can also pull your child away from her real problem and focus instead on what you as parent think the problem is. Or, if your daughter is really flooded with emotion, she may not even be able to think about an answer to a question and she may stop talking altogether.
It’s hard to not ask questions; as parents we want to know what our child’s problem is, we want to know all the details and completely understand how they are feeling and what their options are. The relevant word here is “we”, the only person who really needs to know all the details is the one who is going to solve the problem and that’s your child, the one who owns the problem.
Replacing questions with statements is not easy and yet it can make an almost magical difference in how our children respond and deal with their problems. Instead of having to stop and think about answering a question or digesting your advice, listening can create a non-blameful, safe feeling and actually help your child talk more.
QUESTION vs. ACTIVE LISTENING STATEMENT
“What happened?” “Seems like you’re upset.”
“Why are you worried?” “Looks like you are really worried about that.”
“Why can’t you just talk to her?” “Sounds like you’re really anxious about talking to her”
Using statements to reflect back what you hear and what you see in your child’s body language makes it easy for your child to continue to talk. A very comforting thing happens; you don’t need to be perfect! Even if your reflective statement is off the mark, it won’t stop your child from continuing to talk. He will usually just correct you and continue; “No Mom, I’m not frustrated, I’m just confused about what my teacher meant.”
Sometimes only one listening response is needed: “Wow that really hurts!” may be enough to let him know you get it when your three-year-old son comes in crying with a scraped knee. His response may be something like “Yeah Mommy it’s a big ouchy!” and then out the door he goes to play without further crying and dramatics.
Active Listening, however, is more than just letting your child vent and “unflood” feelings, it is also a process that allows your child to first, identify what the real problem or concern is and second, to actually do some simple problem solving and come up with her own best solution.
Many problems are more complicated; in fact, problems are like onions, there are multiple layers of feelings and thoughts that need to be peeled away to get to the heart of the problem. This type of reflective listening allows your child to talk about a problem, peel back the layers of the onion, identify the real issue or feelings and solve the problem.
So, when your child (or partner or other person - it can work wonders even with your own parents!) has a problem, talk less and listen more. In fact, listen most. Let the person who “Owns” the problem be the one to solve it. You daughter’s solution of not talking to her friend for a week may not be a solution you would choose, however, it may be the best one for your daughter given her unique situation.
Active Listening is most often done face to face or on the phone however, there are exciting possibilities using email and even texting.
Of course there will be times when your child’s solution does have a direct negative effect on you. In those situations, it changes to a “Parent Owns” or a "We Own" the problem situation and then it’s time for you to speak up, which we’ll talk about more coming up next...