By Connie Burk
During a stay at a friends’ home a few years ago, I came across the book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk . Within the first few pages, I was running down the stairs hollering for my partner to ‘come read this!’
The biggest take away for me was that I could listen to and love my kids without trying to solve their problems. “Mama, I’m bored” would normally evoke a response ranging from, “Why don’t you go outside and play? You have an entire playground out there!” to “I’d be bored too if I spent all my time moping around begging to watch t.v.” or “You had a chance to go to Mia’s house today but you refused to finish your chores.”
Not problem solving or pointing out my kids’ many failings or schooling them on the cause and effect of their current condition.
This was news to me. I am an advocate, an activist, a Mid-Westerner: such people are doers. We DO things. When someone I care about is suffering, I shift into high-gear problem solving. But that kind of “doing” is sometimes just anti-listening, protecting me from my own feelings of worry, sadness, defensiveness or anger. I have to ask myself if I am interested in acknowledging someone’s experience or in them simply not having the problem.
Instead of “doing” when my kids said they were bored, the book encouraged me to look at them, take them in and engage with empathy—no problem solving, no minimizing, no lectures. “Oh, you are bored. I know that can be hard, especially half-way through summer!”
It turns out, this is much sweeter than the burden of trying to fix everything or teach the next life lesson. AND more importantly, it opens the way for them to solve their own problems, instead of taking over with my own solutions.
The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, the more I realized this is what I was craving in my own relationships. The minimizing, the fixing, the mini-lectures disguised as helpful tips—all felt like rebukes. What I really wanted was for someone to listen with empathy. As friends and parents, we often say “you can tell me anything.” But in order to make good on that offer, we have to set aside bad habits and actively cultivate the skills to listen well.