Please Listen

To give our undivided attention and truly listen to someone is to give them a “gift.”

One night on my way home, I passed by my friend Doris’s home. She had recently fallen and broken her hip. I decided to stop by for five minutes just to see how she was doing. Doris was eighty-four years old then and one of the brightest, most cheerful ladies I have known. I sat beside her, realizing how much pain she was in and how miserable she felt. She was frustrated with her body. We talked awhile and I wished I had brought a gift for her. I started to get nervous thinking about all the work I had to do at home before the next day’s recording session, laundry, etc. Again, I regretted my not bringing a gift, then realized that I had brought something for Doris. I had a gift she would appreciate more than anything else. My time and attention was my gift.

At this moment she needed someone to talk with, someone to listen to her. I looked at my watch and decided to forget the laundry. I decided to give Doris “The Gift” of listening to her, fully attentive for one hour. We had a great time! She is a fascinating, wise woman. I learned about her family, about her children when they were young, her travels and her husband. She has a wonderful sense of humor and we laughed away the tiredness I had felt earlier. I went home with the exact song needed to make this program complete. “The Gift.” It was easy to write, thinking of Doris and what she needed. The children and I recorded ”The Gift” the next morning.

Turn off the TV. Just be very quiet and see what I have to say. I’d rather not be interrupted and I don’t want advice or corrections while I’m trying to talk. Not until I’ve gotten to the end of what I want to say.

- Doris, age 84

Sometimes I want different things. If she says ‘oh’, then I feel like she’s listening. If they just stand there and don’t say anything, then I feel bad. I like it when she looks at me and answers me. I don’t want people to butt in and talk louder than me.

- Daniel, age 6

Don’t give your advice until you are called upon.

- Erasmus

I want them to stop what they are doing for a second and look at me. I don’t like to be interrupted if I was talking first.

- Katie, age 9

Listen like they understand what I’m telling them. I don’t like them to bring up different subjects. Don’t ignore me. Be interested in what I’m saying.

- Elizabeth, age 10

Body language is important. I need eye contact. I don’t want them looking behind me or off into the stars. They can add something as long as it’s about me. Don’t start talking about something else.

- Denise, age 17

I don’t want them to talk. I want them to be quiet and listen. I don’t want to be interrupted. Don’t walk around or look away or fidget. Don’t give me advice until I’m done and I have asked for advice.

- Ned, age 35

Pay attention to me–don’t talk to someone else or do something else while I’m talking. Look me in the eyes, don’t frown or put your head down, or play with your hair or say that you’ll be right back and be gone an hour.

- Gina, age 9

I want to think that you are interested in what I am saying. I would like you to pretend even if you are not.

- Ronda, age 40

Dr. Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training, emphasizes that in communicating with children, the value of really listening with empathy and not giving advice is that we allow them to work things out for themselves. This kind of listening:

  • Increases their confidence in their ability to deal with their own problems.
  • Gives children the opportunity to put the pieces together and come to their own solution.
  • Allows children to grow in responsibility and accountability.

When we interrupt with advice or disagreement, we may be interfering with the child’s process of talking it out, and we cut off their discovery of their own solution to a situation. One of our jobs, as parents, is to prepare our kids to leave our home with decision-making skills. They must be able to survive in the world with their own problem-solving skills.  

Dr. Gordon has been a pioneer and world leader in positive parenting. He has dedicated his life to creating a gentler, compassionate, safe world for children. I have had the privilege of working with his International P.E.T. Program for the past 14 years as one of the instructors. Dr. Gordon has generously given his permission to reprint several of his teaching tools in this curriculum. I highly recommend his book, Parent Effectiveness Training, especially chapter 3:  “How to Listen So Kids Will Talk to You: The Language of Acceptance.”

Silence, or ‘passive listening,’ is a potent non-verbal message and can be used effectively to make a person feel genuinely accepted. One of the most effective and constructive ways of responding to children’s feeling-messages or problem-messages is the ‘door-opener’ or ‘invitation to say more.’ These are responses that do not communicate any of the listener’s own ideas or judgments or feelings, yet they invite the child to share his own ideas, judgments or feelings. They open the door for him, they invite him to talk.

The simplest of these are such noncommittal responses as:

‘I see.’ ‘Really.’ ‘Oh.’
‘You don’t say.’ ‘Mm-hmmm.’ ‘No fooling.’
‘How about that.’ ‘You did, huh.’ ‘Interesting.’
‘Is that so!’

- Dr. Thomas Gordon
Author of "Parent Effectiveness Training"

Others are somewhat more explicit conveying an invitation to talk, to say more, such as:

‘Let’s discuss it’. ‘I’m listening.’
‘Sounds like you’ve got something to say about this.’ ‘Tell me about it.’
‘This seems like something important to you.’ ‘I’d like to hear about it.’
‘I’d be interested in your point of view.’ ‘Would you like to talk about it?’
‘Let’s hear what you have to say.’ ‘Tell me the whole story.’
‘Tell me more.’

These door openers, or invitations to talk, can be potent facilitators of another person’s communication. They encourage people to start or to continue talking. They also ‘keep the ball with him.’ They don’t have the effect of your grabbing the ball away from him, as do messages of your own, such as asking questions, giving advice, teaching, moralizing, and so on. These door openers keep your own feelings and thoughts out of the communication process. The responses of children and adolescents to these simple door-openers will surprise parents. The youngsters feel encouraged to move in closer, open up, and literally pour out their feelings and ideas. Like adults, young people love to talk, and usually do when anyone extends an invitation.

These door-openers also convey acceptance of the child and respect for him, in effect:

‘You have a right to express how you feel.’ ‘I might learn something from you.’

‘Your ideas are worthy of being listened to.’ ‘I really want to hear your point of view.’

‘I want to relate to you, get to know you better.’ ‘I am interested in you.’

‘I respect you as a person with ideas and feelings.”

- Dr. Thomas Gordon
Author of "Parent Effectiveness Training"

Communication: Intent, Mood, and Tone

A look, an inference, a tone, body language, and what we don’t say is extremely powerful. It can be uplifting, loving and positive, or it can be hurtful, demeaning and crushing.

A Lady was walking by a pet store on her way to work. As she passed the parrot outside the store, the parrot shouted, “Hey lady!!…you are stupid and ugly!!” The lady stopped to look at the parrot, then walked quickly away. The lady walked by the pet store on the way home from work, the parrot shouted again, “Hey lady…you are stupid and ugly!!” The lady felt embarrassed and angry. She stomped into the pet store and snarled at the owner, “Your parrot is rude! Keep him inside or keep him quiet. The pet store owner apologetically said, “I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again. I’ll have a talk with the bird about his manners.” The next day as the lady walked by the pet store, the parrot shouted, “Hey lady!” The lady turned to the parrot and with irritation said, “What!!!?” The parrot looked at the lady and flippantly said… “You know.”

Personal Rules and Communication

It’s good to be aware of the varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds of children, so as not to misunderstand their communication habits. This understanding and patience is essential in helping them modify their behavior toward more effective communication. In countries and cultures that are structured with tradition, there is one basic set of social, religious, and moral rules. Everyone basically knows what to expect in communication exchanges. Body language, intonation, and intention, are understood. The United States is a combination of many cultures and social behavioral codes. We have people trying to communicate with one another when they do not know each other’s “rules.” Add to this the many fragmented family and social structures, and communication can be very confusing.

  • Mom says one thing, dad says another thing (if both mom and dad are present in the family)
  • Teachers and friends at school have their viewpoints
  • TV, movies, and other media present conflicting viewpoints

There is no one set of “rules” for behavior and communication in a country of mixed cultures.

It is easy to disconnect, or to never connect in the first place. One man may have grown up with cultural “rules” that say it is disgraceful and weak for a man to show feelings, to touch or to express affection in public. On the other hand, another man may have grown up with cultural “rules” that say, men meet with a hug, kiss on both cheeks and walk down the street holding hands and talking while their wives and children follow along behind them. If these two men become business partners, they have entirely different personal “rules” for relating and communicating to one another.

In some cultures, especially for women, it is considered disrespectful, disgraceful, arrogant, and/or lewd for a woman to make or sustain eye contact while listening or talking. Traditionally, in the U.S., one is considered shifty, dishonest, and disrespectful if one does not make eye contact while speaking or listening. Eye contact has come to be expected in communication in this country.

Communication skills are essential to self-esteem, allowing a child to create and sustain meaningful and nurturing relationships. With common ground of effective communication skills, we can be comfortable with diverse cultures and enjoy harmonious relationships.

Pay attention and try to help me. Focus on me and be there. Look at me. When I am done talking, then I like to have advice. I don’t like it when they act like I am stupid or mock what I feel is important.

- Anthony, age 15

When I am talking, do not answer the phone and say, ‘Oh I’m not doing anything, no I’m not busy, sure I’ve got time to talk’… So what about me? If you’re not doing anything, am I nothing?

- Taylor, age 23

Sometimes the most difficult aspect of good listening is when we strongly disagree with the opinions or values being expressed, especially when we don’t like what the person feels. We may begin to be uncomfortable or want to fix or change it. Parents often tell me how much self-control it takes to truly listen, especially with adolescents and teens when the family’s value system seems threatened.

One of our five children, has given us more challenge than any of the others. To look at the surface he looks tough, but inside he is gentle, kind and has a heart of gold. He is so loving and gentle with his younger brothers. He has been real interesting to raise. He challenges us continually with his ideas. Some of the things he says shock us, hurt us, and scare us. (I remember when I was a teen-ager I tried to say things to shock my mom.) It’s so hard to listen to him. My husband sits quietly and just listens unconditionally to our son’s ideas and feelings. When our son is all finished talking, then he is willing to listen to his dad, and then we see that we still have influence in his life. He still cares about our values and needs.

- Jennifer Hart - Laguna Beach, California

Something does happen inside a child when he feels ‘I’ve been heard,’ but what is it? Because we can’t see it, we can only hypothesize. Perhaps the child needs to be ‘accepted’ as a real person, a person who hurts, or at other times is scared, disappointed, sad, lonely. Or maybe children need only to be recognized or acknowledged or confirmed by another–much like when they’re doing something satisfying: ‘Look, Ma, no hands!’ or ‘Hey, Dad, I can stand on my head!’ Perhaps they need it also when they tell us, ‘I’m scared of thunder’ or ‘I cut my knee.’

- Dr. Thomas Gordon
Author of "Parent Effective Training"

I want a turn. Sometimes it’s so hard to say what I think or feel because someone else is talking so much. Just give me a turn… an uninterrupted turn.

- Layla, age 79

When I am ignored, when no one asks me what I think, what I need, I feel so unimportant and invisible. I am very wise and knowledgeable. I have been here a long time.

- James, age 94

Self-concept is a thinking process. Self-esteem is how I feel about it. The head plays tricks on us, the heart is honest, the heart is the feelings. For children to learn to accept themselves and to accept their feelings, they need to develop trust. They need an environment of trust and acceptance. When they feel safe to trust, they will express themselves and they will grow.

- Bill Beacham
Consultant to the Olympic Committee

What you put attention on is what you get.

You have a right to be here, you belong.                               I’m so glad you are you.

It’s ok that you have needs and feelings.                               You can trust your feelings.

You don’t have to be perfect, I care about
You, just the way you are.

I was impressed with police officers Doug Howard and Jeff Singleton. They have that honest, very real quality of acceptance. They deeply care about the children they work with as they teach drug prevention. The children feel their sincerity.

While teaching drug prevention at a Boys & Girls Club, I had the opportunity to spend more time with Jeff. I observed in him what Dr. Thomas Gordon refers to as the difference between “power” and “influence.” Power only lasts while the person wielding it is present. Influence changes the other person’s feelings, thinking, and behavior, becoming a part of them. Influence includes respect and acceptance. Jeff has influence. When he speaks with these kids, they give him their respect and obedience. He accepts exactly who they each are and he listens to them. He treats them with the same respect that he would give an adult.

One day I arrived to find a crowd in the parking lot. I walked through the crowd, noticing an old sofa that had been left beside the garbage dumpsters. Jeff was sitting on the sofa surrounded by adoring children. The children and teens had written and choreographed their own rap songs and dance routines and were performing for him. I found the words to some of their songs to be a startling, tough, inner-city language. I was saddened to know that the words to their songs and the life descriptions about violence, guns and drugs were the reality for these children. Jeff gave his undivided attention to each child performing. He put his attention on them as beautiful, growing, learning children. He focused on their possibilities. He praised and thanked each child in an individual way. They love him for hearing them out, and for being there for them.

Whenever Jeff is there, the children are excited to see him. Because he accepts them and listens to them day after day, when he speaks, they listen. He truly has “influence” with these children. He understands and implements acceptance.

In the years of various sports, little league baseball and soccer, etc., I’ve noticed a pattern of negative behavior, based on refusal to listen. When a parent cannot accept the personal value and unique qualities of a child who is not very athletic, the parent and child are both cheated of a relationship based on respect. Perhaps the child loves art, music, math or science, and excels at these things. The parent demands that the child athletically represent the parent’s ego, criticizing and humiliating the child with each mistake he makes. Some children carry this humiliation and rejection their entire life.

On the other hand, the majority of parents participating in these sports are accepting, supportive, and positive with their children. We hear a lot of, “Good try! You’re having fun and you’re doing your best. That’s what counts! I’m proud of you for being a good sport.” Sometimes a parent or teacher will do or say things because of what they imagine other adults are thinking about them. When a parent or a teacher fears that he will be criticized, then his good judgment is clouded by his need to appear to be “right” or his need not to feel embarrassed. The adults own level of peer pressure takes over. He assumes that his reputation or identity hangs on how much he controls a child’s performance, behavior and appearance.

Making You Look Good

To what degree does your sense of success, serenity and self-esteem hinge on the choices your children make? If you see your children as reflections of yourself and your worth, you may find it hard to accept their uniqueness. If you believe that your children are responsible for ‘making you look good,’ they probably won’t have the emotional security to take risks, try new things or make mistakes.

It’s easy to accept the things about your kids that you like and that reflect well on you. The challenge of accepting is to be able to appreciate differences, let go of agendas and expectations and allow your children to become the people they are rather than the people you would like them to be. Again, this requires separating being–personality, preferences, and proclivities–from behavior. Being acceptable means that who you are is okay, just the way you are. It’s hard to imagine feeling loved if you don’t feel accepted. If you grew up with conditional love, you probably felt acceptable only when you looked or behaved a certain way. If you grew up with a great deal of criticism, shaming and disapproval, or with parents who felt threatened or uncomfortable with who you were, you probably didn’t feel accepted at all.

I haven’t met parents who didn’t love their kids, although most will, at least occasionally, find their kids a bit bewildering, annoying or even unlikable. The sad thing is that while most parents probably love their kids no matter what, many only demonstrate their love when their kids behave or look a certain way.

- Jane Bluestein, Ph. D.
Parents Teens and Boundaries Instructional Support Services, Inc.

As I listened to my daughter cleaning her room, an endless job for her, I reflected on the new ideas that I have started to use with her. In the past, I had criticized Hanna for her actions that didn’t meet with my approval. Our increasing tension drove us into a power-struggle for control. As I learned new ways to communicate with her, I spoke more often about her accomplishments and less time about what she failed to complete or failed to meet with my standards. Hanna has continued to grow and glow as she learns that I love her and appreciate her own accomplishments rather than trying to earn acceptance from me.

- Ronda Gibbons - Mountain Home, Idaho
Writer, Editor, Film Maker

It Must Be Those Darn Bugs

In 1966, I had been away at school for a year. My friend, Cotty Lowry, was coming home to the farm with me to meet my friends and family. I was trying so hard to appear to be all grown up and was in a rebellious mode, determined to defend my point of view with my newly formed ideas and opinions. I thought it was my job to expand my parents’ horizons and change the way they saw the world. My Dad did not like hippies or “sissy hair” like the weird “Beatles” with their long hair. Cotty and I walked up the long, dirt driveway to greet my Dad who had his head under the hood of his truck while he worked on the motor. Still under the hood, Dad looked to the side and gave me a reserved yet warm smile of welcome. Then he saw Cotty! Dad jerked straight up, hitting his head on the hood of the truck and dropping his tools.

Cotty was a first year student at Boise State University, working his way through school, playing harpsichord in a rock band, “The Alligators.” His band was playing the National Guard Armory that weekend, in a neighboring town, Twin Falls. “The Alligators” were the backup band for “Paul Revere and the Raiders.”

Cotty stood in front of my Dad, hand out for a handshake, smiling uncertainly as his shoulder-length, blonde hair kept blowing across his face in the wind. Dad recovered enough to wipe the grease and oil from his hand and greet Cotty with a handshake. Then Dad glanced behind Cotty to see the entire rock band walking up the lane towards him with their pony-tails and other long-haired variations, bell bottom pants, and big smiles. Dad stood shocked, wiping away the tears that were rolling down his face as he muttered, “those darn bugs keep getting in my eyes.”

I had brought the band home for the weekend. My Mom nearly fainted, then graciously invited them all for supper. She and Dad were very polite and talked about cows, crops, and the weather. The band was respectful and kind. Mom and Dad took turns leaving the table. We could hear nose-blowing, self-talk, and mumbling from the next room. They each kept re-emerging with their red, watery eyes and noses. Dad kept complaining about the “darn bugs” that kept getting in his eyes. That night, my parents taught me a big lesson acceptance, although I did hear about it for years. I remembered Cotty and the impact of this lesson, when my teenage son shaved his head, when he and his friends blew up condoms like balloons and hung them from the ceiling… and when my daughter brought home a scruffy guy who’s pants were so baggy I was sure that they were going to drop to the floor at any moment. Oh, and the music was so awful, yuck.

Cotty is and always has been an excellent communicator, with a habit of accepting others as they are. He’s like a great big lovable puppy. His integrity, warmth, kindness, humor, and his personal rules of win-win, have made him not only a great friend, but very successful. He is a bit of a celebrity in the real estate arena of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Excerpt from Bully Prevention Character Development Program © – Dianna L. Pappas-Marchese