Why Listening Works

A pair of six year old girls, teasing each other in the car on the way home from school. Oh joy, that’s my idea of a fun drive home. “You’re mean.” “I don’t like you.” “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” “Mommy, Ella is teasing me! She’s saying ‘blah, blah, blah, blah!’” It’s enough for any sane parent to lose their cool. Add to it not enough sleep, deadlines, and a desperate wish that they would just shut their mouths and get along, and you have one cranky mom.

Rewind. Repeat, day after day.

Telling them to stop didn’t work at all. Turning the radio volume up louder than their talking? Talking became yelling. Often, I was just hoping to get home before they would start hitting each other, else I’d have another problem on my hands. I had finally gone through this cycle enough times to want to change my approach.

I had to find a better way. Fortunately I did.

I learned a few new ideas, the first being this:  kids are good. They want to cooperate, get along, and share. This made sense to me. This is what I knew in my heart about my girls. I just thought they were bad when they were teasing each other. But their behavior wasn’t a sign of any defect in them. It couldn’t erase their inherent goodness. Instead, when kids behave in a manner that is teasing, hurtful or unkind, they are showing where they are hurting. This idea changed the lens through which I viewed my kids.

Children feel safe when they are connected with a parent (or caregiver).

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The attention of a loving adult creates a sense of safety within them that allows them to show their full selves to us, what seems good to us along with what seems “bad.” One place where the connection happens is when an adult can lovingly allow a child the full expression of their hurt.

But my problem, in the car that day, was that this information did me little good. Good or bad, I just wanted my kids to be quiet, to either ignore each other or let me ignore them.   I was trying so hard not to yell at them anymore. I still wince from the last the time I lost my cool and screamed “Shut up!” at them. They did get quiet that day, and I felt just awful. Not my most glamorous parenting moment, to be sure. I needed support myself, to figure out why I couldn’t think well about them. To find out where I was stuck. To break through my hurt so I could love them despite their teasing.

Someone to listen to me

The answer was really simple. I needed someone to listen to me, to remember my goodness despite my behavior, and to allow me to show how and where I hurt. In short, I needed someone to give me the care and attention I wanted to give my kids in that moment but couldn’t.

I had a listening partner, a person with whom I share my stories. We take turns, using a timer to be fair, and we listen fully to each other. When I listen, my job is to make it safe for my partner by remembering her goodness as a person, as a parent, to know she’s doing her best at all times. When I share, my job is to let out the junk, whatever it looks like, be it crying, tantrums, tears or just telling my story. It works. Afterwards, I feel better and make better decisions around my kids. I have lots of practice to tell me so, but why?

Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, in their book Parenting From The Inside Out, have an answer.

Emotions are a process

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photo courtesy of christopher eriksen

“Emotions can be thought of as a process that integrates distinct entities into a functional whole….Emotion as a fundamental integrating process is an aspect of virtually every function of the human brain…Emotion is the process of integration that brings self-organization to the mind. As we discussed earlier, integration may be at the heart of a sense of well-being within ourselves and in our relationships with our children and others.” (p. 59)

When we work through our emotions, we integrate their knowledge into the very fabric of our thinking, and we are subsequently able to think well, feel an overall goodness within ourselves and with our relationships. My emotions were stuck, so I couldn’t think well. I needed to express them so they could become part of me, and no longer stop me from thinking well.  I needed to feel understood.

“To ‘feel felt’ requires we attune to each other’s primary emotions. When the primary emotions of two minds are connected, a state of alignment is created in which the two individuals experience a sense of joining.” (p. 64)

The notion of feeling felt is very powerful. This changed my thinking about the situation with my kids. I suggest this is the fundamental gift of listening time be it between adults or adult to child.  We walk away from our time together feeling deeply understood, or “felt” by another human being. In a world that discounts (and often discards) emotions, to “feel felt” creates a level of being understood that is exquisite and so very special.  Which links to the above notion that once we feel felt, our mind is able to self-organize and we experience increased wellbeing. What is “self organized?” We are able to think well again, to come up with our own answers to life’s challenges, to respond thoughtfully and deliberately in situations where we used to react.

“So much of what happens in relationships is about a process of resonance in which the emotional state of one person reverberates in that of the other. Attuned connections create resonance.” (p. 65)

Mirror neurons

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Listening Partnerships and the other Parenting by Connection Listening Tools create these attuned connections, which create resonance, or linked minds—two minds, each connected with the other mind in a deep way. This paves the way for what I find is the most amazing concept in the book—mirror neurons.

“Mirror neurons are found in various parts of the brain and function to link motor action to perception. For example, a particular neuron will fire if a subject watches an intentional act of someone else, such as the lifting of a cup, and will also fire if the subject herself lifts the cup. These neurons don’t merely fire in response to any action seen in another person. The behavior must have an intention behind it. Waving hands in a random way in front of the subject does not activate a mirror neuron. Carrying out an action with an intended outcome does.” (p.65)

This all means that when we intentionally hold the thought in our mind that our Listening Partner is a good, smart, intelligent, loving parent, who loves their child, we are taking an action—an action within our mind—and our partner’s brain begins to mirror these thoughts as they work through their hard feelings. The better we can hold our attention on their goodness, the better their mirror neurons that signal “goodness” can fire within their brain, thereby forging a brain state that recognizes their inherent goodness. (Most of my Listening Partnership time is over the phone, but I’d guess this would be even more powerful in person, with a skilled listener. That person’s eyes and body language could help confirm my goodness, and I, in turn, could use my full self to confirm theirs when we exchange listening time.

And so it goes with our kids. With them we can hold love in our minds, and our body language confirms our belief in them as good, capable, loving people. When our intentionally calm, gentle faces and body language are combined with our loving thoughts (and often, with a needed limit) the mirror neurons in our children’s brains fire to match the emotional state we are showing them, while their tantrums, crying and dramatic complaints release their feelings of hurt, so they can once again feel our love, and attune with us at last.

The more we can intentionally hold this good thinking for them, the more their brains can align with ours, because our mind sets the intention.  We are giving them the experience of feeling felt, creating attuned connections and resonance, thereby restoring warmth and goodness to them and allowing their minds to self-organize. In my listening time I remembered the times in the car as a child when my sister and I would fight. I worked through how hard it was for me to be teased and hit in the car, unprotected by an adult. I cried and got angry, expressing the feelings I’d kept secret and held in as a child. I remembered that one of my kids had been bullied recently at school, and realized that maybe that was why she was teasing. I was starting to think well. I felt the warmth and support of my listener, and after going over this a few times, I felt better. I felt a lift—like a burden had been removed—and I knew I’d been understood and cared about.

The next time my kids were teasing each other in the car, I responded differently. There was a touch of reluctance, but I pulled over the car anyway. Instead of threatening, as I had done in the past, I just did something that actually worked to change the whole interaction. I didn’t try to make them change their behavior. My goal was to connect. I planned to bring a limit and do some Staylistening – listening to them as they showed me how hard it was, just as my friend had done for me. But that wasn’t their plan. They began a game of chase—inside the car—and my thinking was flexible enough that I could go along with them.

As I got to the back door, they’d run into the front seat. I’d go to the front door – they’d return to the back. We did this over and over for at least 10 minutes. They laughed hard. I’ve learned along the way that laughter is a powerful way to release emotional tension. They loved being in the driver’s seat, a place they are not normally allowed to go. Part way through Ella climbed on my back, showing that she wanted more physical connection, yet Lauren still shied away from me, laughing hard. We played a few more rounds before Lauren showed me she felt better by making eye contact and snuggling.  We then all got back into the car, and continued on to the store.  I’ll add that we had an easy shopping experience, with little begging, an acceptance of my no’s and more overall cooperation.

I can’t say we’re done forever with this issue, as I still get agitated with them in the car sometimes. But now I have tools. I know what to do. I stay as calm as I can and I see where I have work to do. I tell my story to my listening partner and get to “feel felt.” The result is that I am more able to think, to be flexible, to connect with my children in the moment they need it, so they can think better, too.

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