One of the strangest arguments I’ve ever witnessed involved my dad and brother. My brother and I accompanied my dad to one of his marriage seminars. The day of the conference my dad was suffering from the 24-hour flu and was not in the best of moods.
As we arrived at the conference center, my dad began to complain about my brother’s clothing selection. However, Michael adamantly defended his style, “My clothes are fine,” he snapped. “You just have no style!”
My dad shot back, “We’ll see how ‘in-style’ you feel when everyone else has on a suit. You’ll be embarrassed and you’ll embarrass me. You’re staying in the car and that’s final!”
The argument continued to escalate until they stopped talking altogether.
As Michael remained in the car, I'm sure he felt like the family pet. To get even, I’m sure he was tempted to “bark” as people walked past the car. That way, people would forget about his clothing and just worry about his mental state.
The irony was that my dad was just about to teach about healthy relationships.
As a family therapist, one of the most common complaints I hear from children is that their parents do not “listen” to them. As my brother Michael learned first-hand, it’s a very painful experience when someone—especially a parent—will not listen and validate your feelings or needs. This is why I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the gift of listening to them.
Several years ago, I surveyed a group of about 5,000 adults at our monthly seminar. One of the things that I asked the group was were there things that you wished your parents would have done differently? Not surprisingly, the number one response was that they wished their parents had listened more. In other words, instead of lecturing, arguing, teaching, sermonizing, instructing, scolding, reprimanding, solving, guiding or directing—all the things we do as parents—our children crave to be heard, listened to, and understood.
In addition to my own study, in 1983, Dolores Curran published remarkable research on traits of a healthy family. She surveyed 551 professionals who work with families, and asked them what specific factors contributed to a healthy family. Amazingly, the top two traits in healthy families were: 1) communicates and listens, and 2) affirms and supports one another.
The Art of Listening:
It can be very tempting when engaged in communication with someone to make several mistakes. One is to focus first on problem-solving instead of understanding the person. This is especially true with men. As fathers, we can often times pay very little attention to what our loved ones are saying; instead, concentrating on “fixing” the problem or finding a solution. This is why we need to LISTEN first and then look for ways to solve a problem. That is the right order.
Another common mistake we make is to place the focus on ourselves first. In other words, when communicating, first trying to get the other person to understand our position or concern, defending ourselves, or convincing the other that we are right. However, we communicate a very damaging message when we focus on us first: “I’m just a little more important or superior to you.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we do not need to “solve” something or focus on our needs and feelings. Instead, I’m suggesting that it’s all about timing. If you want to help your children feel valued, honored, understood, and validated, we must seek first to understand then to be understood. This is why I’m strongly advocating for fathers to become skilled listeners first and foremost.
What Do We Listen For?
At this point, you may be thinking, “Okay…I see the value of listening first …But what is it that I’m supposed to be listening for?” In terms of listening, this is truly where the rubber meets the road.
As men, we are usually able to pick up on the “what”—the content of what someone is talking about or what the person needs. This doesn’t mean that we “agree” with what they’re saying, but we usually get the “what.” However, if men have a weakness in communication I suggest that it involves emotion. Overall, I believe that we have difficulty recognizing and embracing feelings. Let me offer a typical example of this.
Let’s say that my oldest daughter Taylor walks in from school, throws her backpack on the ground, runs to her room and slams the door shut. Unless I’m brain dead, I’d probably conclude that something is wrong. It would be typical of me to then ask Taylor what’s wrong (content or needs). Let’s say that she reluctantly explains that a boy she likes made fun of her and embarrassed her in front of the class. Here’s the critical part. I would normally either launch into a teachable moment about boys being idiots, how to overcome embarrassment, or suggest several “snappy” come-back lines that she could use next time. But I might not have focused on understanding her feelings.
If my objective had been to validate her emotions, then I could have asked her about what it “felt” like when the boy made those comments. Because kids (and adults for that matter) can have trouble naming their emotions, I could have offered several feeling words to see if that’s how she felt. Then, I would want to repeat back what I heard her say. I might have said, “I hear you saying that you were hurt…embarrassed…frustrated…humiliated…disappointed…fearful…etc.” The point here is not to debate, interrupt, rationalize, explain, problem-solve, or fix her feelings; instead it is to listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. This is the special gift we can give our children.
I encourage you to make a commitment over the next month to become a person who seeks first to understand. Become the kind of father who cares more about understanding your child’s feelings and emotions. In other words, become a great listener.