Active listening – part 2

I finally post part two about
active listening! It’ll be long but I decided not to divide it into two because
everything is connected and I don’t want to confuse you.
That’s why I think I should
explain more or less what it is all about because I realize that in a previous
post (HERE) I didn’t say much and it confused some of you. Active listening is
not frequent acquiescence, agreeing, speaking up, sharing one’s opinion, active
responding, etc. I know that some of you thought this is what it is and I take
the whole responsibility for that. And so the beginning of this post is this:
active listening is reflecting another person’s feelings in the way which will
allow him to feel completely accepted and understood; it’s repeating what he
said using your own words while trying to capture the precise sense of what the
speaker is experiencing at that moment. This will allow him to look at his
problem from a different perspective, to hear how it sounds, it if makes sense
to him and will give him the opportunity to correct something; it’s allowing a
person to solve his problem by himself; it’s making it possible for him to
share all the feelings which are inside him in a safe atmosphere; it’s focusing
only on his problems, emotions, words without sharing yours (that can come
Examples! Pay attention to
annotations in brackets – I’ll talk about them below the dialogues.
1. Maybe you remember when a long
time ago I gave you an example about a boy who didn’t want to go to bed for
several years, he clearly said he didn’t want to. Later it turned out that he
didn’t want to annoy his parents but he was scared he’d stop breathing while
sleeping! I’m coming back to this example because it’s stuck in my head and
I’ll show you two possible versions.
(This example is about
authentic experiences of one woman’s life who joined a “Parent
Effectiveness Training” workshop and I took it from a book with the same
name by Dr Thomas Gordon, but the following dialogues are created by myself and I
don’t know if they’re similar to what’s in the book or not.)
a) Mother: I’m going to sleep
because I’m very tired. It’s getting late so you should go to bed too. [comes
closer and covers him with a blanket]
Boy: [firmly] I’m not going to
sleep, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. [puts the blanket away]
Mother: Oh, stop doing the
same thing again. [command] Sleep now because you’ll be tired the whole day
tomorrow. [logical arguments]
Boy: I’m not going to sleep!
Mother: OK, I’ll wait until
you fall asleep, ok? [turns off the light, sits down on the floor by his bed]
Stop being a little baby. [ridicule]
Boy: Stop it! Turn on this
light and leave me alone! I hate you! [visibly upset]
Mother: You better stop
talking to me like this and stop making me nervous! [morals, warning] The world
is not about you [morals] so stop it now. [she leaves the room – withdrawal]
The effect is an upset boy who
hates his mother at that moment, doesn’t feel understood and he’s left alone;
and mother who was tired and wanted to sleep but she couldn’t find a solution
with her son so she decided to leave his room all nervous.
Now I’ll show you one more
b) Mother: I’m going to sleep
because I’m very tired. It’s getting late so you should go to bed too. [comes
closer and covers him with a blanket]
Boy: [firmly] I’m not going to
sleep, I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. [puts the blanket away]
Mother: You don’t want to go
to school! [active listening]
Boy: Yes, I hate school, I
can’t do anything, I’m a failure.
Mother: [he likes school]
You’re fed up with school and you think you can’t do anything! [active
Boy: I don’t know anything
from chemistry and this is ridiculous what our teacher wants us to do!
Mother: [boy’s good in
chemistry] So chemistry is what causes you problems. [active listening]
Boy: Well, maybe not… I just
don’t want to. I’d rather spend the whole day with my friend.
Mother: Instead of going to
school, you’d rather go to your friend’s house and play with him. [active
Boy: Yes! This would be
Mother: You really like this
idea. [active listening]
Boy: Yes! Playing for the
whole day is fun. [he smiles, seems to be calmer] OK, so I’m going to sleep
now. Good night!
Mother: Good night!
Boy: But will you stay here
for a few minutes?
Mother: Sure!
Boy: [after a while of
silence, boy starts to grunt and sniff]
Mother: Problems with your
Boy: Yes, it’s stuffy but at
the same time there’s nothing inside. Do you have any medicine?
Mother: You think a medicine
will help?
Boy: I don’t know. [still
Mother: It’s really bothering
you. [active listening]
Boy: Yes… [he gets worried;
still sniffing]
Mother: You seem worried.
[active listening]
Boy: [louder] I wish I didn’t
have to breathe through my nose while I’m sleeping!
Mother: You think you have to
breathe through your nose when you’re sleeping?
Boy: Yes, it sure is this way.
Mother: You’re sure about
this. [active listening]
Boy: I am. You can’t breathe
through your mouth when you’re asleep. When I sleep, I don’t move so you’d have
to open my mouth. If I have to breathe through my nose and it’s stuffed…
[doesn’t finish the sentence]
Mother: You’re afraid you’d
choke while asleep? [she realizes what her son meant during the whole time]
Boy: Yes… You have to
breathe to live!
In this example because of
mother’s decision to get involved in what her son was saying (she showed him
understanding and acceptance) she learned things she had no idea about earlier.
It turned out that all the problems with going to sleep for years were caused
by his fear about dying while being asleep! He didn’t want to annoy his mother,
it was not because he didn’t like school but because he didn’t want to die. If
not for the mother who used active listening, he’d be left with this problem
for a longer time and he’d live in, his eyes, a real threat of dying every day
which seems to be very uncomfortable…
At the beginning he was
talking about school, then about playing with his friend – he was testing if he
could go further, if his mother wouldn’t get upset and wouldn’t yell at him and
tell him to sleep and go to school. When he saw that his mother cares about his
comfort, he trusted and he could learn if what he believed in was true and if there
was anything to worry about. Moreover, now he knows he can share his problems
with her in the future.
2. A 8 year old girl has a 1
month old brother. As it usually happens, their mother pays a lot of attention
to the baby who needs a lot of it right now. The girl feels jealous and right
after her brother falls asleep, she comes and starts to yell.
(I made this example up but I
have some experience in this kind of situation because at the beginning of my
relationship with Nathan, Alicia happened to be jealous.)
a) Girl: Wake up! Hello! Wake
up! [she’s serious]
Mother: What are you doing,
stop! [command] I just made him asleep, you’ll wake him up again! [upset,
raises her voice]
Girl: I don’t care! [mad,
tears in her eyes]
Mother: You should care!
[morals] If you don’t calm down, you’ll go to your room! [threats, ignoring her
Girl: I hate him! He’s a
stupid little brat! [yelling]
Mother: Don’t say that!
[command] This is your brother and you should love him! [morals] Go away, I
don’t want to see you anymore now. [rejection]
Mother just spent some time on
comforting her son and when he finally fell asleep, her daughter came and woke
him up; she got upset and said she hated him; mother got nervous and she told
her to go away; she had to take care of him again. The girl wasn’t able to
share all of her emotions because she was rejected and she felt hated by her
own mother who couldn’t stand her at that moment. And on top of that, the boy
woke up and cried. Everything was not the way it was supposed to be!
b) Girl: Wake up! Hello! Wake
up! [she’s serious]
Mother: I spent a lot of time
on making him asleep and I’m afraid he’ll wake up in a moment because you’re
talking loudly. [expresses her fear then explains her problem: points to her daughter’s
specific behavior that causes her problem,
explains what she is afraid will happen, and what the impact will be to
her, the mother; I talked more about this way of confronting HERE]
Girl: I don’t care! [mad,
tears in her eyes]
Mother: You don’t care! [active
listening] I see you’re mad and you seem sad too.
Girl: I hate him. He’s
stupid… [talks quieter, cries]
Mother: You think he’s stupid,
you really don’t like him! [active listening]
Girl: Because you don’t have
any time for me anymore! You don’t do anything with me, it’s only him and him!
Mother: [this is not true that
she doesn’t do anything with her daughter] So you think I don’t do anything
with you, I don’t pay any attention to you and he’s the only one who counts. [active
Girl: Yes! I’d like you to be
interested in me too because you’re not at all…
Mother: You feel I’m not
interested in you at all and you’d like it to change. [active listening]
Girl: Yes… Because I love
you and you stopped loving me after he was born! [the girl doesn’t feel loved!]
Mother: You think I don’t love
you anymore! [active listening]
So the problem there wasn’t
that the girl wanted to be loud just because and to wake her brother up to have
fun but she was frustrated that her mother didn’t love her, wasn’t interested
in her. The way she was acting earlier was her way to get her mother’s
attention and to show her there was something happening; she was expressing
emotions which were inside her. At the moment when her mother tried to
understand the girl, she felt she could trust her and she finally said that she
didn’t feel loved; she has a mother but so what if the mother doesn’t care…
Or maybe she does if she listened to everything and even when the girl said
that her brother was stupid she didn’t correct her and teach her that “you
don’t say that.”
3. A few days ago Alicia
wanted to sleep at Margie’s place. It wouldn’t be a problem if not the fact
that it was very late (11:30pm), neither me nor Nathan wanted to go anywhere
and Margie was already asleep. The first dialog DID NOT HAPPEN and is made up by
me and the second one is more or less how it went then but I’ll give you a
short version.
a) Alicia: Will you drive me
to Margie’s?
Nathan: No way, it’s too late.
Alicia: But I don’t want to
sleep here! [starts crying]
Nathan: Stop acting like a
baby and go to bed. [ridicule, command]
Alicia: [cries louder] But I
don’t want to stay here! Drive me to Margie! I hate this house!
Nathan: The truth is you like
being here [analyzing] but you’re just mad now and that’s why you’re saying
that [analyzing]. I can’t go to bed because of you! [blaming]
Alicia: I hate you! [yelling]
Nathan: Go to your room! [a
complete ignorance, rejection]
I can’t even imagine things going
this way 😉
b) Will you drive me to
Nathan: You don’t want to
sleep here?
Alicia: No, I want to sleep
there. [she seems uncertain]
Nathan: OK, you prefer to
sleep there, I get it. [active listening] It’d cause me a problem because it’s
very late, I’m tired and I don’t want to drive anywhere now.
Alicia: But I don’t want to
sleep in my room! I’m afraid of sleeping there tonight! [she looks afraid]
Nathan: Wow, you’re really
afraid of sleeping in your room! [active listening]
Alicia: [starts crying] I
don’t want to stay here! I hate this house!
Nathan: You hate being here
and you’re serious about this! [active listening]
Alicia: Yes! [still crying]
Nathan: I believe it’s
difficult for you, you seem mad and sad. I’d like to help and at the same time
I’m really too tired to drive you to Margie’s place.
Alicia: [thinks for a moment]
So maybe let’s try this… [gives her idea]
I think that this example
shows something a little different as well. Among the whole understanding and
receiving a child’s problem as something important (what you saw in two first
examples as well), there’s also confronting Alicia with a problem Nathan would
have in case he’d drive to Margie. It’s obvious that we sometimes have problems
as well. I talked about this more in THIS post, I gave you this link earlier
I personally wouldn’t stick to
using active listening each minute during the day. When, for example, Alicia
asks me “when will dinner be ready”, instead of this:
Alicia: When will dinner be
Me: You want to know when
dinner will be ready.
Alicia: Yes! I’m starving.
Me: You’re very hungry!
Alicia: Yep… So when?
Me: You really want to know
the situation would look like
Alicia: When will dinner be
Me: You’re hungry? [I’m making
sure if she’s asking because she’s hungry or maybe she wants to do something
and she’ll be busy so she needs to know how much time she has, and so on]
Alicia: Yes.
Me: In half an hour.
There surely are situations
when children need or want a concrete answer. For example:
– If I eat this tomato with
this white soft… stuff on it, will I get sick?
– I heard a word
“rape” at school… What does it mean?
– If a pigeon eats one grain
of rice, will it really explode?
And so on…
I know that most people in the
world are used to a completely different way of talking with each other and I
was still used to that too 1.5 years ago. This is the way I see people, they
simply haven’t experienced this other way. At the beginning I was thinking that
what Nathan started to share with me was so weird, how you can talk like
that… But the more time I’ve been here, the more I’ve seen how it works, how
I feel with it, how a 5,5 year old (Alicia) is, how important it is in a
relationship when you have problems between two people, etc. I talked more
about my personal experiences in the first part.
I realized that all the ways of
communicating 99% of people who I’ve talked to use cause others to stop sharing.
This happens automatically and I tested this several times while talking to
friends who had no idea about what I was doing, to see if it works the way I
think it does. I’m sure that in a lot of cases it’s caused by one’s desire to
help and at the same time a lot of responses can interfere with another who is making
a decision, solving a problem, sharing emotions completely, etc. If one person
has a problem and he wants to choose way A and another one really wants to help
but has a completely different opinion and says that way B is better… it’s
just a disaster. I’d like to show you 12 things which cause a conversation to
go in a bad way. In the book I mentioned earlier they’re called
When someone is experiencing strong
emotions, or when he has a problem, these 12 roadblocks tend to cause the
speaker to lose interest in sharing. If everything in our relationship with our
child/partner/parent is fine and we’ll use, for example, some
“warnings” as a joke, nothing bad will happen. Some of them will
surprise you I think and I’ll understand it perfectly because at first I was
surprised myself. But, like I said, the more time I’ve been here, the more I
saw and I see all those things I’m talking about in here and I believe in them.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t share at all, believe me.
1. Commands:
– Stop feeling sorry for
– Don’t say that!
– You can’t do that, go there
and say you’re sorry!
I think that someone who uses
commands is someone who wants to be an authority, wants to be a “real
parent” whose role, as they see it, is to put his standards into his children’s
Saying something like this is
sending a message to a child that she’s not really accepted and her problems
are not important. Also, a child isn’t free to express what’s important for her
in the moment, to be honest with herself. Moreover, everything that children do
(and all people in general) is done with a good reason. I also think that it’s
usually like this in most lives that when someone hears “do it” and
doesn’t really want to, it’s even less likely she’ll do it–just because she
heard this command.
2. Warnings, threatening:
– You’ll never find a job if
you don’t study.
– You better stop crying
– If you keep doing this,
nobody will like you.
It’s very similar to giving
commands but in this case there’s also an explicit threat of negative
I believe that this is sending
a message that a child isn’t accepted. It might cause the child to be afraid
and will keep in his mind something which will stay there for the rest of his
life or at least for a very long time and there won’t be any possibility for
him to be himself. Every time he’ll wonder if what he wants to do will be
approved by a parent or not… If not, something bad for him will happen so
it’ll be better to lie to himself. I believe that living in fear is awful and
if a child hears “you’ll never have friends if you act like this”,
it’ll be automatic that he’ll have problems with opening himself to other
people which indeed will cause lack of friends and later when he’s a grown up,
he’ll blame himself for that, even though the fault is on the side of someone
who was saying those things when he was young. Moreover, things like this
provoke children to test it. Something like, “I’ll do it anyway and I’ll
see if she was serious”. It might also cause anger, resentment.
3. Morals, preaching,
– Life is brutal, you can’t
change it!
– You shouldn’t worry so much.
– This is your
responsibility/you ought to…
Keeping it short: ignoring.
Things like this might cause a
child to feel guilty and to start defending himself which usually brings arguments.
Also, what I see often is when a child hears something like “you shouldn’t
do it!”, he says: “and you shouldn’t yell at me!” which is
exactly the same thing that parent did just before that. I believe that being
ignored is a very bad feeling and when you have a problem and you’re ignored by
a close person, it’s even worse.
4. Advice, ready solutions:
– I think this is a better
– Have you maybe tried…
– If you do it this way…,
it’ll be better.
First thing that comes to my
mind now is an older person who says: I know better, I have more experiences,
I’ve lived longer so young people have to listen to me (I experienced this a
lot of times, on my blog as well).
This way might cause a child
to feel that her parent doesn’t believe in her ability to solve her own
problems, that she’s too stupid. It doesn’t give a child any possibility to
think about possible solutions by herself and to choose the best one for her
even if she’d have to try several times until it works. And also the whole
responsibility falls from a child and is on a parent who automatically gets the
problem if they want it or not.
5. Logic arguments, arguing:
– Yes but…
– You’re not right because…
– Facts say…
When someone says something
and the other person doesn’t agree.
It provokes another person to
give arguments against something and there’s a ready argument. And also, it causes
a child to stop sharing because his mind was completely ignored and then he’s
taught that what his parent thinks is right. Also, children might feel
inadequate and I believe that this is one of the things that breaks their
mental health for their whole life.
And when children use their
imagination which was not affected yet and say they saw a flying earthworm with
blue wings, I personally don’t see any reason to tell them they’re not right or
they’re goofy or anything like this… I don’t want my child to think exactly
the way I do and the fact that I don’t believe in earthworms with blue wings
doesn’t mean he has to have the same opinion. And the way it is for real, he’ll
learn later.
6. Criticism, judging,
vilification, disagreeing:
– You’re just lazy!
– It’s your fault.
– You’re not right.
Which means there’s something
wrong with a person who has a problem, everything is her problem and she just
should change her personality. Things like this cause a child to lose his
interest in sharing anything with his parent because of the fear that he’ll be
negatively judged, that his problem will be his fault and he’ll feel even worse
than before. What’s worse, it happens often that a child believes a parent that
he’s “bad”, worse than others. Or sometimes one person says
“you’re stupid!” and the other one says: “you’re stupid
too!” which is very common on playgrounds and so on.
7. Praising:
– You’re a good girl!
– You’re doing a good job.
– You’re absolutely right.
I hear or read very often that
parents should praise their children every time they do something parents like.
I’ve seen advice to give children stickers for each good thing they did. Well,
I believe that good listening doesn’t have to contain praising.
Why? Because I believe that
praising puts high expectations on children for the future. Something like, a
child comes back from school with an A and so his mother says “you’re such
a good boy!”. After several days the same boy comes back with a C and is
already afraid of mother’s reaction because he won’t hear he’s a good boy. What
will he hear instead? That he’s bad? That he’s good only when he has high
results in school? I think this is the way it works – a child thinks he’s fine
only when he does exactly what his parents want him to. Also, I think this is a
manipulation directed toward a child to do whatever his parents want him to and
in the hopes that he’ll be anxious each time he fails to meet parents’
I think it’s better to say
what’s happening with us instead of judging a child. For example, let’s say
that I’m tired and I’d like to sit down and rest but I see that there’s a mess
on a table. I go upstairs for a moment and when I’m back I see that my child
cleaned the mess. I could say “oh, you cleaned the table, you’re such a
good girl” but I don’t want to send a message saying “you’re good
only when you clean for me” or “I expect you to clean every
time”. Instead, I’d say something like: “I appreciate that you
cleaned that mess because I have less things to do and I can have a rest”.
I think such a simple and concrete message is very important to avoid
misunderstandings and false conclusions.
8. Ridicule, name-calling,
– You should be ashamed!
– You’re such a baby…
– Worrying about this is so
After that a child feels
worthless, worse than others, embarrassed, wants to hide… He loses more and
more of his self confidence every time he hears something like this. Sometimes
a child will close himself and after that he’ll be called “shy”
which, I think, is never an innate condition but an effect of how he was
treated; it sometimes happens that he’ll start to defend himself and argue.
9. Analyzing:
– You’re making a victim out
of yourself.
– What you really mean is…
– Oh, you’re just bored.
Convincing another person that
our interpretation of what he’s saying is the only right one. Even if it’s
about feelings that weren’t expressed yet.
I think it’s very frustrating
when I try to share something with another person and to find the source of my
state by myself and the answer I hear is that I really think something
different, not what I said… Where can that person know things like this from?
Also, I think in a situation like this a child might feel either up against a
wall (as if he has to admit something which is not true for him because
otherwise he won’t be believed), or exposed (because maybe he wasn’t ready to
share what he just heard and feels very unsteady). And there’s also the feeling
that a parent or any other person doesn’t believe in what a child just said.
10. Comforting:
– Everything will be alright!
– Just smile!
– You’ll laugh at this in the
This is something I haven’t liked
for a long time. It irritated me when others wanted to comfort me and I didn’t
do it myself. I obviously understand that the reason why people do it is that
they’re worried and they want others to feel better. At the same time, it
disturbs the whole communication. And when I hear sometimes something like
“oh, don’t worry, others have bigger problems”, I wonder… But now
it’s me who has a problem and I don’t care about “others” who I don’t
even know. To such assurances I would sometimes answer “it’s easy for you
to say” and this is one of the things which you can hear from children as
well. I think that this hidden message to a child is very destructive as it says
that negative emotions are bad and it’s not worth it to pay attention to them
and it’s better to pretend that everything is fine. Later the same person grows
up and even if her whole world is falling apart, she has to be brave and she
can’t show any weaknesses. Based on my experience I know and I believe that
what happens often is that if someone (for example me) is with someone who she
can trust and who she feels safe and good with, starts to throw all the
emotions which were sitting inside for years and cries every single day for a
month because there’s something new coming she remembers… Too bad not
everyone has an opportunity to share everything because I think it’s very
important and healing.
11. Asking questions:
– Why did you do it?
– You really want to say that?
– What did you do?
I think that asking questions
like this suggests an answer and manipulates a child to say whatever it is that
parents want to hear. To the examples above I want to add “why are you so
rude?” because I heard this question very often. Children feel that if a
question of this kind was asked, they’ll be criticized after answering so they
either won’t say anything or will lie to avoid unpleasant situations. I think
they become afraid and anxious and feelings like this stay for a long time.
12. Distraction, withdrawal,
– Let’s talk about something
more pleasant.
– Your story reminds me of…
– Maybe just become president!
First hidden message there
that comes to my mind is that you should avoid all the problems you meet in
life. If there’s anything in a child’s way, she should just not pay attention
and not worry at all. Also, it tells her that her problems are not important
and they’re so small that the best way for the parent to deal with it is to
ignore and to change the subject or to make jokes which might be very painful.
It also causes a child to stop sharing because she knows she won’t be listened to
and she’ll be completely ignored.
Let’s say there’s a situation:
a parent wants to go somewhere and a child says she doesn’t want to fasten her
seatbelt. Mother sitting in front says she has to do it. The girl says she
doesn’t want to. Then her father sitting by her starts to distract her and
says: “oh, look there, such a nice bird” or “look, I have a
candy for you” and then when a child does something different, the father
fastens the seatbelts. And then the child has no idea why it’s so important to
have seatbelts, what might happen when they’re not fastened, forgets that there
was any problem at all so why would it be any different next time? It won’t
look different and a reason for that is the father’s distracting. I think that
if he gets upset next time, he should get upset at himself, not at the child.
I suppose I’ll provoke an outrage
in a lot of you but I’d like to share something that is stuck in my head and
makes a lot of sense to me. A long time ago Nate told me that and I spent a lot
of time thinking about this in different aspects and all of my conclusions told
me the same thing. There’s a lot of situations when a child becomes scared of
her parents. Living in fear is something awful and the more fear in one’s life,
the less room for joy and love! I don’t believe that anyone can love someone
who she’s afraid of in any sense, I don’t believe it at all. The other thing is
lack of trust and it’s easy to see that in people who yell at children or anyone
else. Because yelling seems to be the best way in a situation when we don’t
believe another person will want to work with us. I don’t believe in a real
love when there’s no trust. And lack of trust doesn’t appear by itself. I’m
sending you to both parts of this post for explanations. (This is my opinion,
I’m stuck with this but you don’t have to agree. I can’t change the world but I
can talk about this on my blog.)
When I added part one, one of
my readers said something like: “and look who says that!” I’d like to
add that a basic and the most important thing you have to have to listen is
that you WANT to do it, and in case of that comment I didn’t have any need for
that and I know there will be times when I won’t have it either. If I don’t
care about anyone at all and I don’t want to give him any of my time or energy
or someone insults me and I simply don’t want to listen to that, I won’t force
myself. At the same time, I personally can’t imagine not being interested in my
child’s problems (or any other person I care about, I want to have in my life,
I want to help) and I can’t imagine making them lose their interest in sharing
with me. Even if it comes to a disaster like “my teddy bear lost two whiskers!”
I said it’d be long! Did you
have any feelings like “yes, I’ve been there” while reading this
post? I’d be happy to read your experiences and opinions. Doesn’t matter if
they’re negative or positive. I want to secure myself by saying for the end
that I don’t have to want to use active listening responding to all the
comments 😉
Talk to you next time!
Aga… with some Nathan’s help 🙂