Communication Skills That Improve Connection With Your Kids

Building and practicing these skills will make a massive positive difference.

Posted Sep 24, 2018

     "If you light a lantern for another, it will also brighten your own way."  —Nichiren

Although most of us are born with the ability to hear, listening is a process that requires our conscious attention and active participation, beginning with honoring the preconditions for listening. The preconditions for listening consist of setting an intention to listen, making a commitment to listen, being mentally and physically ready to listen, and being willing to allow your children to complete their message. Being mindful of your thoughts and emotions helps lay the foundation for attuned active listening. 

Ingredients for Active Listening

Active listening has several component parts, beginning with making the commitment to listen. The commitment to listen involves making yourself emotionally, as well as physically available by investing the time and energy needed to listen attentively. 

This commitment is evidenced by such actions as turning toward your child and making eye contact, turning off the TV, putting down the smartphone, letting incoming calls go to voicemail, turning away from the computer, temporarily discontinuing whatever else consumes your attention, and keeping other distractions at bay. 

  • Being consciously present—physically and emotionally. There are myriad ways to demonstrate being present: physically orienting toward and giving your children your undivided attention in a nonjudgmental way, holding their hand or placing your hand gently on their shoulder or knee as they relate a painful experience, neither being overwhelmed by nor needing to shrink from their pain, and listening with your heart when your child describes their day at school or with extracurricular activities.
  • Quieting the mind. Part of being consciously present, quieting the mind involves the application of basic mindfulness practice to simply notice and observe your thoughts and feelings, acknowledging them without becoming attached to them or striving to avoid them. When we quiet our mind, our listening becomes sharper and clearer, deeper and more perceptive. This facilitates the ability to listen with the heart as well as the ears. 
  • Acknowledging. Providing feedback in the form of words (verbal) and/or gestures (nonverbal) indicates an accurate reception of the messages your kids send.
  • Encouraging. Using verbal and nonverbal cues invites your children to continue speaking.
  • Clarifying. Using questions to request more information reduces potential confusion.

The following communications skills are actually basic counseling skills. However, anyone can learn and practice them to improve their ability to communicate with others, including their children. 

Encouraging

In the context of active listening, encouraging has nothing to do with giving pep talks or patting your kids on the back, but rather prompting them to continue talking. Encouraging takes several verbal and nonverbal forms: 

  • Nonverbal minimal responses, such as a nod of the head or engaged facial expressions
  • Verbal minimal responses, such as “Uh-huh” and “I see” 
  • Repeating back the last two or three words your child says
  • Brief invitations to continue, such as “Go on” and “Tell me more” 

By encouraging your children to keep talking, you indicate your continuing interest in what they have to say (and underneath that, your continuing interest in them—period). This strengthens the communication process and the connection between you.

Asking Questions with Intention

Asking questions in response to what your children tell you demonstrates that you are paying attention and are interested. Moreover, the strategic use of questions (and the answers they elicit) can help provide important clarification and increased understanding for both you and your children. However, be mindful not to barrage your kids with or overuse questions. It’s a conversation, not an interrogation. 

Use questions to: 

  • Move from the general to the specific: “Your visit to the museum was ‘good’? What in particular was good about it?”
  • Gather additional information and separate essential facts and feelings from side issues: “What was it about how your friend acted that you feel sad about?”
  • Ask for clarification when you are unclear about what your child said: “I’m not sure I understand. Can you please tell me more about what your teacher said?”

There are three fundamental types of questions:

  1. Closed questions usually yield limited responses confined to “yes” or “no” answers and are the least helpful: “Was your day at school good or bad?”
  2. Leading questions are implicitly directive, leaning toward a particular answer or outcome: “Did you have a good day at school?”
  3. Open questions invite a more complete and detailed response, encourage the speaker to continue talking, and are the most helpful: “How was your day at school?”

What if questions are a type of open question that can help your kids look at possibilities, including the potential results of alternative actions. “What do you think would happen if the next time you play basketball you wear sneakers instead of the hiking boots you wore today?” or “How do you think things might have been different if instead of continuing to argue with your cousin, you said, ‘Let’s just agree to disagree’?”

It’s always more helpful to ask questions that begin with how or what rather than why. How and what focus on the process related to the other person’s experience, whereas why often feels accusatory and leads to defensiveness. Posing the question “Why didn’t you clean up after yourself in the kitchen?” invites evasiveness, excuses, defensiveness, and the always popular (and for parents, exasperating) “I don’t know,” when what you’re really interested in is getting the kitchen clean. It also tends to generate antagonism.

Much more helpful questions for this situation would be “What kept you from being able to clean up after yourself in the kitchen?” or “How can we make sure this gets done?” or “What can I do to help?” These are much more likely to create connection and lead to the desired behavior.

Active listening facilitates the experience of truly being “heard.” When you listen to another person with present-centered attention without judging him or her, it also communicates acceptance. This is among the most validating and, in turn, self-acceptance-enhancing experiences a person can have. From the standpoint of promoting self-acceptance and self-esteem in your children, attuned listening—as simple as it may seem—is one of the most beneficial things you can do with and for them.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery