Coming home from college was usually a joyful occasion for Peggy Painter. But this time she felt a stomach-knotting fear, and each step from the bus stop deepened her anxiety.
Peggy's parents were Christians and generally understanding. But the story she had to tell of an unwanted pregnancy, ended by abortion, would both shock and sadden them.
Would they hear the anguish in her voice? Would they recognize all she had gone through? Or would they, in their own pain, lash out and condemn her?
Peggy's story has a happy ending. Her parents listened. They heard; they felt. And their response showed that they understood her feelings and accepted her. For Peggy, it meant the beginning of a new life.
Peggy's parents not only rekindled her smothered life but focused attention on her future opportunities rather than past failures. They exhibited what we call responsive listening--a process of listening with a person, not just to or about him. Responsive listening restrains the temptation to judge or give advice. Responsive listening helps a person clarify and communicate his feelings. It creates a climate of understanding, reduces defensiveness, and clears the way to positive changes in behavior.
"I Want to Understand You"
Responsive listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It takes practice. It means attaining some verbal dexterity. More important, it begins with a caring attitude.
Responsive listening presupposes that parents really want to know what their children have to say. It does not necessarily mean agreeing with them. Rather, it is an attitude in which a parent says, "I want to thoroughly understand--and let you know I understand--what you say before I respond." Once the parent understands the message, he has the option to agree or disagree.
The effectiveness of our hearing apparatus may get us into or out of trouble, but we're not talking about hearing. Listening is something else. Listening is how we comprehend and react to what we hear.
Through extensive research, Xerox Corporation has discovered that most people operate at an efficiency level of only about 25 percent in general listening situations. If similarly low levels of attentiveness are typical of family relations, then many crises may well be traced to poor perceptions of what someone else said.
Usually when our children come to us, we respond with some kind of verbal or nonverbal message, but the messages we send often do not achieve the desired results. As a result of his experience with parent training courses, one researcher found that over 90 percent of parental responses to children fall into one of twelve nonproductive categories:
4. Ordering or commanding
6. Name calling
These twelve response categories often reap undesirable results, although there are always exceptions to this general rule. Children, parents and situations vary and cannot be handled in a "rulebook" fashion. Many times, however, these types of responses not only illustrate parent-child dialogue today but are similar to the responses Job's "comforters" gave him several thousand years ago.
1. Questioning: Bildad answers, "Who are you trying to fool? Speak some sense if you want us to answer!" (Job 18:2). Such unnecessarily aggressive questioning often triggers rebellious thoughts and behavior.
2. Judging: Eliphaz answers Job, "It is because of your wickedness! Your sins are infinite!" (Job 22:5). Such commonplace judgmental statements, if made to our children, can breed exaggerated attitudes of guilt, which can become permanently imbedded in their personalities.
3. Lecturing: Again Bildad tells Job, "Read the history books and see--the wisdom of the past will reach you" (Job 8:8,10). Lecturing often makes the unwilling recipient feel inferior, inadequate, or resentful. The good-old-days syndrome illustrated here is especially destructive to good family communication.
4. Ordering or commanding: Now Zophar replies, "Stem this torrent of words. Is a man proved right by all this talk?" (Job 11:2). Or, "Shut up!" If repeated often enough, this command can destroy mutual respect.
5. Warning: Bildad warns Job, "Your bright flame shall be put out" (Job 18:5). A warning is all too often an invitation for a child to test the firmness of the parent's resolve. Do you really mean it? The child will soon find out.
6. Name calling: Eliphaz taunts Job, "You give us all this foolish talk. You are nothing but a windbag" (Job 15:2). Want to destroy a child's self-image quickly? Start calling him names.
8. Probing: Bildad takes a nasty shot at Job by saying, "How long will you go on like this, Job, blowing words around like wind?" (Job 8:1,2). Job easily saw through this question ... and so do many children. The question is posed to put them down rather than seek needed information.
9. Preaching: Bildad continues in this same fashion, "If you were pure and good, He would hear your prayer, and answer you, and bless you with a happy home" (Job 8:6). Parents themselves are very susceptible to this kind of pseudo-logic from well-meaning friends who unfairly criticize the activities of other people's children. The result is often an unwarranted feeling of parental guilt. "Judge not" is a valuable slogan for all of us to follow.
10. Advising: Eliphaz begins his hypothesis by saying, "You must have refused water to the thirsty, and bread to the starving. But no doubt you gave men of importance anything they wanted, and let the wealthy live wherever they chose" (Job 22:7-9). He goes on to give do-it-this-way advice. Such an approach presupposes that Job had done it all wrong. Children, like adults, often respond to such advice with defensiveness. Therefore, advice should be given in carefully controlled doses.
11. Agreeing: Eliphaz agrees with Job's self-appraisal and says, "You faint and are troubled" (Job 4:5). Empathy is, of course, a very productive part of parent-child relations, but sometimes children feel, as Job must have felt in this instance, that agreement is manipulative--a different way for the parent to get what he wants.
12. Withdrawing: Even when silent, the friends were of no great help to Job, as indicated: "They sat upon the ground with him silently for seven days and nights, no one speaking a word" (Job 2:13). There's a place for silence, but the quiet of withdrawal can be interpreted by a child as disinterest or rejection.
Responsive listening is another way of answering a message. It is often more effective than the twelve typical responses because it directly involves the sender with the receiver. It helps a parent learn and understand the feelings and needs of the child.
The responsive-listening model can best be understood by tuning in on dialogue. "Why do I have to do the dishes? Jim never has to do a thing!" This statement can be responded to in various ways.
Judging: "Don't get smart-alecky with me. It isn't true, and you know it."
Ordering or commanding: "Don't give me a hard time. Just do what you're told."
Warning: "Stop talking like that, or you're grounded for the week."
Name calling: "When you talk like that, you sound like a spoiled little brat."
Sympathizing: "You'll feel good about what you've accomplished when you're finished."
Responsive: (The parent searches for the need and the feeling buried within the words.) "You're upset because you have more to do than Jim."
Instead of responding with a lecture or a command, the responsive-listening approach encourages the parent to send back a message centered on the needs of the child. Such a response may well open the door for a dialogue that will build a bridge of effective communication between parent and child.
Child: "Why do I have to do the dishes? Jim never has to do a thing."
Parent: "You're upset because you have more to do than Jim."
Child: "Yeah, especially since I did most of them every night this week."
Parent: "No one's helped you with the dishes this week?"
Child: "Well, Jim did some yesterday, but tonight I need to study with Mary."
Parent: "It's important that you study with Mary tonight?"
Child: "Yeah. We have an exam tomorrow. I'll ask Jim to help me with the dishes, and I'll help him with his math later on."
The real problem does not always surface as quickly or as easily as in this dialogue, but the essential ingredients are here. Note that each answer by the parent contains the pronoun you. The parent shows a concern for the child's feelings, but equally as important, she doesn't offer a solution. Instead, she gives the child an opportunity to find her own solution to the problem.
This list of tips for responsive listening may help to improve your rate of success:
1. Choose carefully the time for responsive listening. Sometimes children just need information when they ask a question. Responsive answers only confuse them.
2. Listen for the feeling as well as the content of each message.
3. Vary the form of response. Don't always reply, "I hear you saying...."
4. Be aware of nonverbal clues as well as of all verbal ones.
5. Avoid opening the door for communication with your children and then slamming it when you don't like what you hear.
6. Reflect a warm feeling of empathy, along with your response, to the content of the message.
7. Don't try to continue "listening" long after the child is finished sending messages.
To listen responsively is one way of going the extra mile in a relationship and is a tangible means of fulfilling the command to love one another. I can show I care by listening. To love is to care enough to listen.
"He that Hath Ears"
The importance of developing our listening ability is directly affirmed by James, a man who knew Jesus intimately:
"Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak...." (James 1:19).
The two terse commands contained in the beginning of this verse fit nicely together. When we take time to listen responsively--and avoid the error of answering with authoritative pronouncements--the messages given back to us by our children are far less likely to be obnoxiously defensive. This, in turn, reduces the tension and may well help us avoid angry exchanges. Two variations in handling the same situation demonstrate the point.
Teenager (in the summer between high school and college): "I'm not going to the university in September. I'll get a job in a warehouse instead."
Father (with anger): "After all I've done for you!"
Teenager: "I don't need your help. Just leave me alone."
Let's start over, using responsive listening techniques. See how James' command to listen makes it easier to heed his warning against quick anger.
Teenager: "I'm not going to the university in September. I'll get a job in a warehouse instead."
Father: "You're not keen on going away to school."
Teenager: "I'm the youngest kid in my class. If I work a semester, I'll have a better chance in college a year from now."
The situation can now be resolved without conflict. James has laid out for us behavioral patterns that coincide with the command repeated many times by our Lord: "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear." (Matthew 13:43)