Listening Partnerships with Emilie Leeks
When we first encountered Hand in Hand Parenting, we were struck not only by the non-judgemental, meet-you-where-you-are tone, but also by the practical ideas offered through the Listening Tools. Four of the five tools are aimed at the parent-child interaction, but the fifth tool, Listening Partnerships, is specifically for adults to use together.
The basic premise of Listening Partnerships is that we exchange time with another adult – one speaks and the other listens for a set amount of time, and then you switch over. During listening time, we aim to shed some of the emotions that get stuck in our emotional brain and that stop us from thinking clearly and responding to our children in the ways that we want to.
But it's not always easy to get past our ‘story' to the emotions underneath!
I recently tried a strategy that helped me feel the emotions.
In my Listening Partnerships, I have a tendency to talk and talk and talk. I give lots of detail and want to explain or justify myself rather than getting to the actual emotional part of an issue.
I had been doing lots of reading and thinking to try to help myself with this, and something I heard from Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, really hit home for me.
She talked about trying to slow down when you talk and notice feelings. The listener doesn't have to understand the back story. In fact, saying very few words can actually unlock a more emotional response.
How Slowing Down Helped…
Our oldest child is just over 7 years old and, after 18 months of waiting, was about to be assessed for possible autism spectrum disorder.
I had lots of conflicting feelings about this: Did I want him to get a diagnosis, and have my observations of him confirmed? Did I want them to say there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on and that his behaviours are typical for his age? If they said he wasn’t autistic, then what was I seeing in his behaviour?
This had been going on for so long, but now that we had a date for the assessment it felt so much more real and concrete. I found myself thinking about it all the time. I really wanted to get some of that emotional gunk out of my head to free up my thinking – and to allow me to better focus on other things that were going on for us as well!
I thought I'd try Patty's ‘not-talking-too-much' idea in my listening partnerships. When it was my turn for listening time in a group support call I was on, I just said “Charlie*.”
“I don't know…”
And more pausing!.
And then I just stopped.
I thought about him for a few moments.
It felt really weird not talking, but I did feel comfortable knowing that I wasn't going to be interrupted, or pressed for further information. I just took my time.
As I allowed my mind to focus on the feelings that my son's situation was generating in me, I found myself thinking about how much harder his life was starting to be. As he gets older, his differences become more apparent, and our society isn't very accepting of differences!
I thought about how much I want to be there to help him through it, to be on his team, to counter other people not understanding who he is and how he does things.
I said a few words as the thoughts came to me. “I want to be there for him,” or “Why don't they understand?” I said, but without giving explanations. It was very freeing!
A few tears came as I talked about not being able to be there for him all the time.
Then I started saying a few words about my younger daughter, who is four, and son, who is two.
“Rowan* is so little. He gets my attention anyway, but Ava* needs me. Poor Ava. I have nothing left for you!” I said.
Then lots of tears came as I apologized to my daughter. “I'm sorry I have nothing left for you.”
My listener told me to “tell her you'll be there for her,” so I said, “I'll be there for you Ava,” and “I'm sorry I can't be there for you right now, but I will be there,” and there were lots more tears.
Shifting Focus: Using Emotions to Guide Responses
I had known that I needed to put some more focus back on our daughter as soon as possible. She had been clearly telling us with some small off-track, out-of-character behaviours that she needed our attention.
What I didn't realize was how badly I felt about my skewed focus towards our oldest child.
This felt such a good step forward. The slow talking, few words strategy is something I can use when I am going over an issue a lot and not seeming to move forwards.
After this session, I found I was a lot more tolerant of my daughter's neediness. She often tends to show that something is not right in her world by asking for help with things that she is more that capable of doing for herself, like putting on shoes or reaching to take her drink.
The very next day she gave me a great opportunity to test this out when she said she couldn't do her seatbelt up in the car. Although I felt frustration rising in me, I was able to recognise that it was much more to do with some emotional pressures I'd dealt with a few moments before, and that I could work things out with my daughter without letting the seatbelt issue get to me.
I stepped away for a moment saying, “I love you, I just need a moment for me right now.” When I returned, we connected with some cuddles and did the seatbelt up together. Then we were ready to head off home for a well earned play!
^Since writing this post, Emilie's son has been found to be autistic.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.
Read about how Emilie's playful response to her daughter's exaggerated crying helped them connect through laughter.
Find out how Listening Partnerships reduce parenting stress.
Emilie Leeks lives in Berkshire, UK with her husband and three children. She is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor with additional experience in speech, language and communication issues.