The Art of Listening to Teens

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What Makes it Hard to Listen?

Strong Emotions. This is especially true for parents. When conflict arises, a parent’s emotions are more likely to get intensified because of their deep love for their child. And while these feelings are normal, they can interfere with your ability to be present and effectively listen to your teen. Take a time out, make it a point to reschedule the conversation once you’re out of “fight-flight” mode and can be truly present.

Time Crunched and Busy. Listening, effective listening, takes time. When we’re rushed trying to “get things done”, whether at home, in the classroom, at church, we can unconsciously rush our conversations with teens. Effective listening takes time. It’s hard to pay attention to teens and pay attention to the clock at the same time.

Projection Bias. This is an unconscious way we expect teens to listen, think and dialogue at the exact same (if not higher) level than adults. In every conversation with a teen remind yourself that they are not an adult, and do not, nor should they, possess the same abstract levels of thought and self awareness as adults.

We think we know more than them. Again, this is often outside of our awareness, but it happens often. As adults we understand we have decades more experience in this life than do our teens and we unconsciously think “We know more than you.” I’ve been astounded over the years, in certain areas,, how much more teens “know” than I do. It’s hard to connect with teens when we secretly think “I’m better or smarter than you.”

The Need to Be Right. This more than anything else can sink a conversation with teens. Our goal should be to connect. Yet too often our ego interferes and we forsake our goal of connection with our ego’s need to not feel “one upped”, “stupid” or weak. The ego will always strive to be right, whether it serves our relationships or not. Being aware of this unconscious and insidious ego drive can help us keep it under control.

Tips and Tools

Sit up straight. If I offered you a check for $5million, I bet I’d have your attention. And if I said, before I give you this money I need to give you specific directions about how to cash it. What would you do? You’d sit up straight. You’d be hanging on to my every syllable not wanting to miss any piece of information needed to cash in your $5 million. Sitting up straight sends a signal to our brains to pay attention and not drift off. It also communicates respect for the speaker.  

Make and keep eye contact. It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. By facing one another, maintaining and keeping eye contact we communicate that we really do want to understand. It signals that we care so much about what is being said that we want to see what we cannot hear with our ears. Only a small portion of what we communicate to others happens through our words.

Ask clarifying questions. This serves two purposes: one, it assures accuracy of understanding and two, it tells the listener that you really are trying to understand.

Nod or make a vocal noise like “uh-huh” to communicate that you are following what they are saying. These let the speaker know you are listening and understand what they are saying without interrupting them.

Don’t Interrupt. Don’t interrupt unless it’s to gain clarity. Effective listening will do more for the communication process than any argument you may fail to introduce, because you couldn’t remember to bring it up when it was your turn.

Reflect back your understanding of what is being said. This is when you communicate back to the listener what you believe they are saying. You may say, “Let’s see if I understand the points you are making…” and then either list or paraphrase what you heard them say.  

Ask “Do you feel heard”. Once we’ve said what we think is being said we give the speaker the opportunity to acknowledge our efforts and effectiveness at listening and comprehension. If they say yes, at the beginning you may want to ask “In what ways specifically do you feel deeply heard?” If they say no, then you can ask “What am I missing?”

Close with “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” This says, “ I’m with you so far, but since its your turn to talk, you get to make as many points as you need.” This can go a long way to bridging the communication divide.

December 15, 2016