Communicating is listening (with empathy)


A while ago I published a post about how to make our children listen to us.

I just read an interesting article on iamexpat.nl “It is all about resiliency: Communication” by Mary Jane Roy, about how conflicts are caused by ineffective communication. This ineffective communication “leads to stress, usually for both sides (…) and they often lead to long term grudges as well which are hugely toxic to us physically, mentally and emotionally”. This article is about communication among adults, but I think the tips given are universal and can be applied also for communications among parents and their children, teachers and children etc.

A good communication is always the result of a good balance between communicating what we want to say and listening, hearing what the other person needs.

We probably all assume that we know how to communicate: “we know how to speak, write and read. But do we really know how to listen?”

With this question, Mary Jane Roy made me think about me and my children during those moments when we’re in a hurry or all talking together during meals and we adults try to give everyone a fair chance to speak. With three very chatty children I often wonder if they really did say all they wanted to say, and if we did really listen carefully.

In her article, Mary Jane Roy says that all is related to how our brains function:

“We carry our own baggage into conversations. Our past experiences, needs, values, language, self-image, beliefs, prejudices, attitudes, wants, fears, mind-sets all influence what we hear and how we interpret what we hear. It’s a long list. Our brain filters the information it receives based on all of these factors. We think we know what the other person says and means but we can never, ever truly stand in their shoes. Your reality won’t be, can’t be, their reality.”

We all had probably this experience with our children or during meetings at work, when we tend to formulate the answers in our head while the other person is still speaking: “there are constant barrage of thoughts or judgments. We can’t wait for the other person to stop talking so we can make our point.”

Personally, I call this the “stress-to-answer-straightaway-syndrome”. I observed it many times during meetings and realize that I do this with my children too. We often don’t take the time to listen carefully and to wait until the other one finished to speak. Especially when the conversation is among more than one person and we know that we have a very short time to answer, or we absolutely want to tell our point of view etc.

During conversations with children there are some more factors to consider: children expect to be heard and often need to tell straightaway what they think, otherwise they forget what they wanted to say or ask and get upset.

Mary Jane Roy uses a very nice metaphore to describe how to communicate effectively:

“Really effective communication is like a couple dancing in total harmony with each other. It can be learned. But it takes a lot of practice. And we’ll make a lot of mistakes before we master it.”

And then she gives a great advice: breathing. Yes, breathing. When in the middle of a conversation we feel the urge to find an answer, we should slow down, take a deep breath. This is supposed to “open up a gap between a stimulus (what someone said or did) and our response”.

Why we should do this? In order to give our brain the possibility to think logically and creatively. I know that many mum’s and dad’s have to think and take (action!) in highly emotional moments (and moments of fear and anger). How could we possibly apply this in our daily life with children? We can’t just avoid conflicts. They are there, every day. With our collegues, friends, children, partners.

Mary Jane Roy suggests Marshall Rosenberg’s method called “Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication”. This method teaches to connect compassionately with ourselves and with others. It reminds me the empathy that parents should show to their children in the Love & Logic method.

In my experience, empathy always helps to have good conversations with our children. When we engage a conversation with them, we should forget time and all the other things we’re supposed to do (and say) and just listen. If we manage to put ourselves inside the shoes of our youngsters and see the world through their eyes, our conversation will be much richer and interesting for both parts. We don’t have to agree with everything they say, but we will probably be prone to ask them to explain their point of views. Especially when we disagree, when we are upset (for whatever reason) or disappointed in our children, empathy matters the most.

The communication with our children shouldn’t just be “speaking“ to them, giving them orders, asking them to do something etc. but listening, understanding and validating what they are attempting to say. We shouldn’t interrupt them or tell them how they should be feeling, and avoid words like never and always in a demeaning way.

And quoting some conflicts listed by Mary Jane Roy’s at the beginning of her article, I would recommend to slow down and listen empathetically when:

  • you feel that you’re mind-reading your child, assuming you know what your child means.
  • you create fiction for yourself from something your child said.
  • you jump in, offering your “two cents worth“, not knowing the whole story and ending up with the proverbial foot in mouth…

Summing it up, during our conversation with our children, the aim should be: not to jump to conclusions, not to guess or mind-read what the other person is saying, but to ask for clarity, slow down our own pace and… enjoy the listening!

Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff. (Catherine M. Wallace)

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15 responses to “Communicating is listening (with empathy)

  1. Great article! Listening is really important and many times I have to remind myself of that. We also tend to forget that communication is more than just 2 (or more) people communicating. It is everything from what they’re saying, how they’re saying it , what they’re NOT saying, the medium (in this case, language), the situation (context). To use the dance metaphor: the music is just as part of the dance as the dancer’s move. If it’s too loud/quiet, they won’t dance properly, and it doesn’t help the dancers much when they’re dancing tango and the music is chacha. Also, I would ask: watch your children- not only what they say but also how they say it (much information is not relayed by language at all!). SO many things to consider, and I often find myself wondering how do we even get to communicate at all! BUt somehow, we do. But your tips are spot on and I try to remember this with my own children- and husbands and others! Thank you for another great article.

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    • Yes, Olga, communication is also non-verbal, the body language and the hidden messages that we don’t “see” if we’re not listening carefully. One-to-one conversations are easier, but this is not always possible and we all need to learn how to communicate in a good way even if we’re in groups. At home, we try to take turns while speaking. – Also, every culture has other habits. For some, silence is scaring, for others, not letting people finish a sentence is rude… And with children it’s the same: you can tell from their behaviour during conversations, what they’re used to do at home or in their culture. It’s very interesting!

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      • Yes, it’s such a complex matter, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder how do we even get to communicate effectively! But somehow we do, because our survival and happiness depend on it. And it is really hard because also each of the children requires to be listened to in a different way! So much to learn!

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      • Yes, we learn constantly from each other and personally I’m fascinated about the way children communicate among them. The rules they choose, the way they listen (or don’t listen) to each other and the way they manage to make others listen to what they say. I’m also fascinated by the way children change, learn from their own experience. One day they get upset because you’re interrupting their speech (because another child requires attention…) and the next day they ask to ‘please’ not interrupt or just stop talking until you look at them and they say :’are you done now? Can I finish to tell you my story?’ And the different ways they interact, depending on who they are talking to…

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  2. Thank you for making my article part of your article Ute. Though I can’t share your experiences as mothers I do share your ideas and sentiments. What is evident in what I read here is the awareness and intent you both have ‘to get it right’ for your children’s sake. This is wonderful. And I’ve just posted your article on the Mum knows Mum (knows everything) FB page. If you’d like to be invited to this group do let me know. I’ll need your email address (mine is maryjane@creatingwaves.nu) and then I can forward you an invite. Happy communicating!

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  4. Excellent article! I love the question you ask: we learn to read and write, but do we learn to listen?

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    • Thank you, Maria. I think we’re all so eager to talk, write and read that we’re not focussed anymore on listening to each other. It’s not a modern thing, I think it’s the paste of our lives that gives us constantly the impression that slowing down is not good. We “hear” that others are talking, saying something, but we don’t really listen to what they really mean. I’m actually trying to train myself to be more an active listener. With three chatty children it requires a strategy (I’m still working on it ;-)) – how do you manage with your kids?

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      • Ute, it’s a work in progress! Sometimes listening to my children is painful because they are very slow at expressing themselves (too many seemingly unimportant details, soft voice, uninteresting subject matter for Mama, etc.), but I realize that if I want to help properly build my children, I need to take TIME to sincerely listen. I am working on it, but far from perfect!

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  5. Oh the breathing is such a good tip- it is also something I think is often forgotten but makes such a difference. When I can be really aware of that and take that pause the listening works so much better. Part of this also reminded me of a post I wrote about being aware of words like always and never and how it can impact our communication with our children! Nice post!

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    • I’m really glad, Ariadne, that you liked this post. Yes, we should never forget the power of words… And the effect these words have not only on those who hear them but also on those who use them. It can really be detrimental and cause serious problems especially to children who usually take words from adults very seriously. – Some comments parents or adults in general make, often without thinking that they’re really hurtful, resonate like echos for the kids until they’re grown up (or forever).

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  6. Ohhh words, they are so powerful. I really need to take the time and think about what I say. Sometimes I catch myself and hate what I said… I needed this thanks.

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    • Oh yes, I’m pretty spontaneous and regret words I said many times (well, I’m getting better at it now ;-)) but I still hope that apologies still help to soften my words. I grew up in a family where we would talk, discuss and argue a lot; where it was very normal to raise the voice etc. It’s not only the words we say, but also the way we say them. And how we deal with our reaction (apology or explanation) or the way other respond (empathy can help). – Especially patents have a tough task. We can’t always be calm and see things with that inner distance that a calm reaction would require! It’s not possible, we’re not machines 🙂 But when we realize how hurtful our words were, we have the chance to apologize etc and by doing so, be a good role model for our children. Our kids need to learn how to deal with their own raptures 😉

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  7. This is a comment by Mary Jane Roy about this:

    Dear Ute and your readers – I’m going to promote something here that is a passionate belief of mine. Your focus is on parents being able to regulate their emotions so that there is a more empathetic or compassionate dialogue. Trust is maintained in your relationship with your child. No question that this is mega important!
    Please also consider teaching your children how to emotionally self-regulate. Can you imagine how much better (easier, enjoyable, successful) their lives as adults will be if they learn at a young age to transform their anger, hurt, fears etc. into more supportive emotions and choices? I’m not saying these emotions are bad for us or for them. We need all of our emotions – they signal us that ‘something’ needs to be addressed. However, we often let these emotions hijack us. And as I mention in the IamExpat article, when this happens our creative and logical thinking becomes impaired. We then make choices that aren’t going to benefit ourselves.
    I hope you’ll pass this on. As I read somewhere this week – we learn the 3 R’s at school (for your non-native English speakers these refer to reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic) but the 4th R – and probably the most important one – is relationships. Both with ourselves and with others. Few are learning this at school or what they are learning isn’t going to help them thrive and flourish as adults. I hope we can awaken our school’s administrators to the importance of developing our children’s EQ along with their IQ. Research has proven beyond any doubt that EQ outweighs IQ for success in the workplace.

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