Listening is the all-purpose human relations skill.
Specifically (by what it enables) and symbolically (what it signifies), listening cements relationships by allowing an exchange of spoken data that enlightens one person’s understanding about another.
For example, verbal communication allows one person to speak up and be known by another person who shuts up and listens.
In the extreme, possessing only one of these skills can be disabling when a person constantly speaks up but never listens (only an audience is wanted), or when a person always shuts up and never personally shares (only an informant is wanted.) Hopefully, growing up, a young person gets to practice both speaking up and shutting up skills in the normal conduct of family life.
Even among intimates, moment to moment people are to some degree always strangers, constantly gathering data, struggling to keep up with knowing each other in the ever-changing present by listening to the words each other expresses.
Cut off the data sharing, and familiars can become estranged. Now ignorance and fearful imagination can rule. “When you stopped talking to me, I thought you were angry! Until you told me, I didn’t know you were really feeling sad.”
So particularly in caring relationships, like in a family, adequate verbal sharing and listening keep people feeling closely connected, current with what is going on. Maintaining this sense of connection is increasingly important between parent and teenager as the process of adolescence gradually grow them apart for more independence, which it is meant to do.
“You never talk to me anymore!” a worried parent might complain to an adolescent, the adult feeling too ignorant for their own good. “You never listen to me anymore!” a lonely adolescent might complain to a parent, the youngest person feeling not accepted and understood.
These are charges worth attending to.
THE POWER OF LISTENING
Just for a moment, consider a few of the many functions of parental listening.
- Listening is a gift: You offer your attention.
- Listening shows interest: You are curious to know what will be said.
- Listening is availability: You make time to hear what someone has to say.
- Listening is affirming: You treat the speaker as having something worth saying.
- Listening provides companionship: You become a partner in communication.
- Listening helps process experience: You encourage talking out what is going on.
- Listening creates vulnerability: You may feel burdened by what you hear.
- Listening is supportive: You share the impact of what is said.
- Listening makes public: You allow the private to be confided.
- Listening is trusted: The speaker risks being known.
- Listening is uncritical: The speaker feels accepted at the moment.
- Listening enables intimacy: Personal sharing deepens the relationship.
- Listening is educational: Hearing what others say teaches a lot.
Of course, listening isn’t always easy for parents to do. For example, it can be hard to listen to when:
- Your mind is already made up;
- You don’t want to hear what is being told;
- You must interrupt what you’re busily doing.
- You are feeling in a hard emotional place;
- You feel too tired to attend;
- You think you’ve heard this all before;
- You are upset by what is told;
- You are impatient to get action taken;
- You feel offended or accused;
- You feel worried or threatened.
So: important as listening is, particularly in sustaining caring relationships, it is often complicated and challenging to do. And this is true for all four kinds of listening.
Active listening: “I really want to understand.”
Reflective listening: “This is what I heard you say.”
Empathetic listening: “I feel the feelings you describe.”
Interpretative listening: “It sounds like what you experienced long ago.”
Finally, not only is parental-listening an all-purpose human relations skill: with their adolescent; it can also be an act of love. “Even though what I said was not always what my parents wanted to know, they really heard what I had to say.”
Hence that most powerful compliment an adolescent can give to parents: “I can tell my folks anything.”
Listening is being there. Or best said, by deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie: "listening is a form of touch."