A good listening to

October 03, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Kathy Thompson has held on to a greeting card she received from a friend a couple of years ago.

It features a picture of a pretty black cat and the following statement:

"What people really need is a good listening to."

The message is a clever play on the traditional expression, "What you need is a good talking to" - most likely uttered with a wagging finger in a scolding tone.

The cat on the card is just an illustration. The message is not.

Listening is important to Thompson, associate professor of professional communication at Alverno College in Milwaukee.

Although largely taken for granted, listening is one of the most important tools people have for connecting "authentically," she says.

She's not talking about a casual, "Hi, How are you? ... Fine," and then moving on. Listening is about really wanting to hear the answer, wanting to know how the person is, she adds.


You have to listen if you want to understand what someone is saying - not how you interpret what they are saying, says Judith McLean, a licensed, clinical professional counselor in practice in Hagerstown.

Andrew Wolvin, professor in the Department of Communication at University of Maryland, says he thinks listening is critical to healthy, happy families. Communication is overlooked. Parents don't always listen to their kids. Parents own their children's problems and tend to want a quick fix for them, he explains.

"Listening is not valued," he says, citing antidrug public service campaigns that direct parents to "talk to kids."

The focus is misplaced. It should be, "Listen to your kids," Wolvin says.

What are the components of good listening? How should we listen?

The experts have some suggestions.

The first Wolvin mentions is a willingness to listen. You have to want to do it; you have to be willing to engage.

That's hard to do in today's family setting, where there are so many stimuli competing for everyone's attention, Wolvin says.

"We're all so busy," Thompson says.

"We think we can do many things at once, but we can't pay full attention to more than one thing at a time," she says. Even if only for a brief moment, people desire undivided attention, she adds.

Find a good time for the conversation, McLean recommends. Don't set yourself up for failure by trying to talk as you rush in the door tired after a long day's work when you have to fix and eat supper and run out to the neighborhood watch meeting.

Eliminate distractions: no television, no telephone, McLean advises.

Set aside a time to focus and concentrate on what a family member is saying, Wolvin advises. "Be there" as a listener.

McLean recommends a technique called "reflective listening" as a tool that can stop arguments from getting started. She acknowledges that the process initially may seem mechanical, but so does learning any new skill - typing, tying shoes.

Several steps are involved:

  • Listen and repeat the speaker's words. Don't offer a rebuttal or defense.

    Everyone has a right to think and feel the way they want - and to express his thoughts and feelings - without judgment, McLean says.

  • Next comes the listener's turn to speak.

    First, validate the feelings of the person you're listening to. In parent-child discussions, parents have to be careful about moralizing, McLean says.

    For example, the child is upset that she has to clean her room.

    "I understand that you feel upset," the parent might say.

    Then the listener gets to state his or her position: "In order to make a family work, we all have to take responsibility and help."

  • Appropriate use of "you" and "I" are important. "Don't point fingers," McLean says.

    Stating how you feel is indisputable, she says. "I feel angry when you are talking and you raise your voice," for example.

    The practice is something McLean says she uses in her counseling work all the time. Thompson says she uses reflective listening techniques in weekly telephone conversations with a daughter who lives far away.

    You miss important stuff when you can't see the person to whom you're listening, she adds.

Be aware of your "hot buttons" - words trigger intense reactions - and be conscious of your responses, Wolvin advises. Learn to be able to set aside your reaction and listen through.

McLean recommends not trying to reason with a child who's upset or having an emotional tantrum. Validate feelings; solve problems later.

And if any conversation becomes volatile, walk away, she says.

You can try again later.

McLean says experts used to cite finances and sex as the top reasons marriages fail.

Communication - lack of or problems with - holds the No. 1 spot now, she says.

Communication is at the core of relationships. Listening is a big part of it.

So listen. Be quiet enough to hear. Be present to the person at that moment, Thompson says.

Setting aside time to listen to someone is one of the most affirming and trust-building things you can do, she adds.

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