Dos and Don’ts of Effective Listening

February 16, 2012 at 10:40 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

Sometimes, when my kids speak to me, they have to check in. “Mom, are you listening to me?” And occasionally Elia tells me outright, “Mom, you’re not listening!” How did she know? Was it that obvious? Sometimes it is; when my eyes don’t leave my laptop or my response is simply a vague, “Mm-hm,” my kids know they don’t quite have my full attention.

So popular in our culture is the advice to “be a good listener,” but what does that mean for parents? We communicate so many verbal instructions, how can we communicate listening, too? How can we prove to our kids that we’re listening so that–like my kids–they don’t have to ask?


Solve. Don’t tell your child what she should do. This takes away from her ability to figure it out for herself. When children come to a parent to talk, they’re looking more for validation and support than answers and directions. No matter a child’s age, when she decides what to do for herself, she assumes responsibility and gains confidence.

Judge. Refrain from imparting any evaluations (positive or negative) of what your children tell you. Instead, help identify feelings and ask questions and to help him arrive at his own assessment of the situation. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, says, “When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism.” When kids are worried about receiving criticism from parents, they are less likely to come to us to share problems or difficulties—which is exactly the kind of thing we do want from them!

Assume. Give your child the benefit of the doubt. When your child is telling you about a fight he got into, don’t think, “What did you do to start it?” Start each conversation fresh, with no assumptions based on past behavior. Listening with an open mind gives him the chance to see his own situation objectively, arrive at his own solutions, and make his own decisions.


Summarize. Repeat back what you have heard/ what you understand. The first step in effective listening is simply to understand. This part is just about proving that your child has your full attention and about getting the facts straight. “So when you asked your friend if you could borrow a toy, she said no.”

Empathize. Identify your child’s his feelings for him. Put his emotions into words. This will not only help him feel validated, it will also help him gain clarity for himself. “Hm, you must have felt very unsafe…Sounds like your feelings were hurt…That probably made you very angry.” These kinds of empathic responses communicate understanding and acceptance.

Ask. Rather than provide a solution to the problem, ask questions about it. This lets a child know that you simply seek to understand his perspective. “What was that like?” “What happened next?” “What did you decide to do?”

How to Talk is a fantastic book on parent-child communication (newly revised and updated this month for its 30th anniversary), as is Nonviolent Communication.

These books really get at the root of effective communication. They explore why listening is a cornerstone of strong relationships and how we can strengthen our listening skills to improve communication. Both are must-reads, and teaching ourselves to be “good listeners” is a must-do!

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