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How to Listen Actively Even When You're Tired

Three steps to stop assuming and start relating more deeply.

Key points

  • Especially when rushed or stressed, we tend to assume what kids are thinking or feeling.
  • Assuming we know others' feelings and thoughts stops us from getting to know them.
  • When you learn your listening style, you can match it to a child's needs.

The Risks of "Auto-Fill" Conversations

Why do kids so often say they’re not being heard or understood—even after we do our best to listen and respond? Is there a more effective way to really hear them—and help them really hear us?

Recently, as a mother of two kids and a lecturer in education, I was writing an email using a new email system. The system had “auto-fill” set up, or prediction software, so every time I started a sentence, the system finished it. Sometimes the prediction was correct, especially it I was writing something typical, like “Have a nice day.” But many other times, the email software created a sentence that I didn’t really mean to write.

Soon, as I kept writing, I noticed an interesting pattern. Sometimes, I took the time to change the auto-fill text to what I had originally intended—especially if my meaning was very different from what was filled in. But other times—especially if I was in a hurry—I shrugged and left the sentence as it was.

What did those changes really matter? Maybe not much. But maybe a few of them did change the meaning of what I was planning to write. Or maybe the new version simply didn’t sound as much like “me.” With so much else to think about, I simply finished my emails and moved on.

Think About Everyday Conversations

Pexels, Kampus Productions
Notice your responses from the youngest ages to help kids feel heard
Source: Pexels, Kampus Productions

If this were only about emails, it doesn’t seem so important. But think about this habit, and these patterns, applied to the conversations in our everyday lives. How many times do we, with the best of intentions, assume we know what the other person means? Or how often do we cut ourselves or our opinions off in the interest of time, rather than taking the time to explain?

What would life be like, if we were on “auto-fill” in our conversations with the people in our lives—especially the children we raise, teach, or care for?

So often, we and the children in our lives come to conversations with two separate agendas. Given the academic pressure to help kids succeed early on, and the push to “intensively” parent, we may come with questions about homework, grades, or more generally, which answer is “right.” Or, with a focus on structured activities, we may come with all the logistical questions involved in teaching or parenting. All this doesn’t mean we’re not listening to the kids in our lives. But it definitely can make it harder to listen well.

This is especially true when we’re exhausted from caregiving, or simply rushed, stressed, or burned out.

Look for Deeper Meanings

Take the example of a child who says, “I don’t want to go to soccer.”

When we’re in a rush or upset already, it’s easier to brush off their comment and say, “Well, you have to,” and take them by the hand. It’s harder to take that extra moment to see what the issue is. It’s not just about asking “Why.” It’s just as much about not assuming what their answer is.

Maybe the child is tired today. Maybe they’re being bullied at soccer. Maybe they don’t like the clothes they have on that day. Their issue can be relatively minor and fixable, or relatively large. But in either case, it’s critical to know if we want to be able to help effectively.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we not help kids with their homework, or that we don’t try to get them to school, or on time to their soccer games. But I am suggesting that we notice when we’re assuming what each other thinks, feels, or wants—and how much frustration or upset can result.

Children notice when their thoughts and ideas aren’t being heard. They may push back or act out in response. It’s not possible to hear them out all the time, of course. But there are ways of paying attention differently.

Pexels, Kindel Media
Listening for the feelings behind words helps understand children's emotions.
Source: Pexels, Kindel Media

How can we use this idea of auto-fill to help everyone feel seen and heard?

Check Your Listening Style

Try this idea out:

Figure out your listening style, and then see if you can match what a child needs.

Research by clinicians in critical health care find four different kinds of listening styles: 1) analytical, who try to solve problems from a neutral starting point; 2) relational, who try to build relationships through listening; 3) critical, who judge how reliable the speaker and information are; and 4) task-focused, who try to move toward an efficient solution.[1]

For example, a “task-focused” listener might hear a child’s comment about soccer and try to find a solution to the problem. A relational listener might ask about the feeling behind the problem; what is the child experiencing?

In practice, try noticing how you respond to a child’s comments, and whether you jump in to propose a solution, provide a listening ear, or reflect on a child’s feelings. Then, try this three part process:

The Three Es for Listening

1) Expand: See if you can start by providing silence and a chance for a child to expand on their comments. Ask questions like, “Tell me more about that.” Focus on attending to what a child is truly saying, not what you assume they mean.

2) Explore: Explore the feelings behind what a child is saying. Notice and check in with the type of listening a child wants or needs. Do they want a problem solved, or a chance to connect with you, or both?

3) Evaluate: After you’ve talked, notice along with your child how they feel. Has the issue been solved, or do you need to have another conversation later? Focus on emphasizing the need for multiple conversations. You might not have the time to solve the problem now.

This process doesn’t have to be long. Even five minutes or less can let you expand, explore, and evaluate. You’ll likely find that these brief connections—when a child gets to fully explain—bonds you and builds



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