Being a peaceful parent, and trying to listen to our children's feelings isn't easy, particularly because many of us are trying to parent in a way that is radically different from our own childhood. When we were young there was little understanding of the importance of listening to children with warmth and patience, so our parents couldn't give us a model of how to do this. Our unheard feelings from our own childhood get triggered in challenging moments with our children.
Another reason parenting is so challenging is that our busy, modern, society is not built around listening to each other. We often don't have the time and support we need and so our feelings get in the way of us being the parents we want to be.
Once upon a time we did know how to listen. In many indigenous cultures there is a tradition of listening deeply to each other, and the healing power of doing so. These traditions suggest that the ability to listen, is something deeply instinctual to us, and that we can recover and relearn the skills.
Hand in Hand parenting is not just about listening to our children's feelings, but about listening to our own, and those of the other adults' around us. Listening partnerships are the powerful tool where two parents listen to each other, so that we can de-stress from the challenging work of parenting. We can build community where parents support each other, and want the best for each other. This gives us the chance to do the deep healing work we need to have the patience to accept our children's emotions.
Here are my top ten tips for being a good listener. Whether you are listening to a partner, or a friend or family member is feeling upset, these should come in handy. If you're new to the idea of listening partnerships, you might want to read this intro to listening partnerships before reading these tips.
- Keep everything you hear confidential. When we do listening partnerships it's always important not to refer to what's been said outside of the session. These principles are also good to follow when a friend or family member confides in us. We gain their trust when we keep their words to ourselves, and don't gossip with others.
- Don't interrupt – We have a natural healing process for releasing feelings through talking, laughing and sometimes crying. When we have the chance to follow our own train of thought, with a warm listener we will be naturally led to our own healing. When your listening partner is talking don't interrupt them. There are some things you can say in a listening partnership, that can help your partner when they get stuck and can't release their feelings. Patty Wipfler talks about these in depth in her listening partnership booklet.
- Trust that your partner/friend etc. is the best expert on their life – If your friend or listening partner is having a lot of arguments with their husband, or struggles with their son's aggression, you may think that you have the perfect solution. However everyone's life is different, and our solutions may work fine in our own life, but may not be so appropriate for another. When people are upset, they find it hard to think clearly and listen to advice, however well-intentioned. When we listen and allow our partner to release their feelings, they'll be able to think more clearly and can often come up with their own solution.
- Don't Tell Your Own Stories – In everyday conversation with friends and family it's common practise to compare struggles, and the solutions we found that worked for us. This kind of back and forth doesn't give either person enough time to do the deep healing work they need to release feelings. So when your partner is in the midst of an emotional upset don't draw their attention towards your stories, and your life. Keep listening, and focused on them.
- Don't Judge – Your listening partner, or friend may be behaving in ways that may you think. ”Oh I'm such a better parent than that I would never do that!” But the thing is, the things that they find difficult in their present life are often a reflection of the ways they were hurt when they were young. Understanding this is how we remove judgement towards other parents. We can then move towards listening to them with compassion and unconditional acceptance. That gives them the safe space they need to begin to heal.
- Let your partner lead the way – We do this in normal conversation, often changing the subject completely or digressing far from the original topic. However when we want to listen and help the other person heal, it's good to let them steer the conversation rather than us. That way they can direct it towards their own healing.
- Don't try to cheer them up- If your partner is upset, because she's desperate for a break from parenting, you might try ‘cheering' them up by saying something like, ”it's Wednesday, only two days till the weekend,” or ”well your mum's coming next week, then she'll be able to help out.” This is something we do quite naturally in conversation, probably because we grow up with an unconscious pattern of trying to avoid our own emotions and other peoples. So instead of trying to direct our partner away from their emotions we need to help direct them towards their emotions. We might want to say, ”tell me more about that,” or ”how is that for you?” So they can expand upon how they are feeling.
- Offer a contradiction – If your partner is saying they feel like a terrible parent or a failure at work, and you know it's not true, it's good to tell them so. You may not want to do it when they're in the midst of tears, as when they need is a shoulder to cry on. But if they're finding it hard to get to their feelings, they may need a glimmer or hope, to know things aren't so bad, so they can kick start their healing process. So tell them that they're a fantastic mum, or great at their job. etc. And say it genuinely, when the timing's right, rather than as a reflex reply.
- Help Your Partner Laugh- Once you tap into your natural ability to listen you may notice moments when you say something that makes your partner laugh. Laugh along with them, and perhaps say more on similar lines to keep the giggles flowing. This is really just like playlistening for adults, and is all part of the healing process.
- Listen if they cry. When our partner cries, we just need to be there and listen. We can offer real (or virtual!) hugs. We can offer a few empathetic words, but we don't need to say much. Just our presence and our listening lets our partner know that they have a safe place for their feelings, and then they can begin to heal.
To find a listening partner you can join the Hand in Hand parenting discussion group on Facebook.
To learn more about the skills of listening that we use in listening partnerships, Hand in Hand parenting has a listening partnerships booklet, and a self-guided study course, with videos, reading materials, and everything you need to know to be a good listener.