“Through the Ear of a Raindrop”: Thoughts about Listening

by Dr Angel Adams, Dr Patricia Papciak

Listening can be one of the most important tools for living. If we listen attentively when others are speaking, we often learn something we’ve never considered before. We are given new food for thought. When you are speaking, some people listen and then give you a thoughtful answer to whatever you are talking about, but others interrupt before you have finished your sentence. Some listen to your sentence, but as soon as you have finished they take what you have said and relate it to themselves. They can only hear what you have said if it means something to them personally. Some people seem to be listening when you speak, but they don’t say anything when you have finished.

What about you? What kind of a listener are you? Do you listen to some people in one way and others in another way? Think about the people you like to be around who really take an interest in what you are saying rather then talking incessantly about themselves. When you think about the people who actively listen to you, it will come as no surprise that they have the ability to suspend their preoccupation with themselves and enter into your experience because the essence of good listening is empathy.

Most importantly how do you listen to your children? As parents you may listen carefully at times and other times you may feel impatient and answer your children without truly considering what they are saying. Developmentally, the younger child does not have the experience of speaking to adults or understanding the protocol of how to speak to other children and friends versus how to speak to strangers, older adults or teachers. They may present themselves in ways that are uninhibited, rude, flippant or unkind. This may also be because they aren’t familiar with styles of speaking. Often children use language that is considered inappropriate or grammatically incorrect, but that is usually because it is what they have heard spoken. You can tell your child if they are saying something that is rude or disrespectful because otherwise they don’t learn what is considered acceptable. Make sure not to say they are rude, disrespectful or hateful, but what they are saying is rude, disrespectful or hateful. If your child says he/she hates you, you can say “No you don’t, you’re just angry at me!” A child may say he hates you when he isn’t getting what he wants or when he thinks you are being unreasonable.

When your teen says he/she hates you, it is important to think of it as emotional debris and not react to it. Remember you wouldn’t react to rubbish. Saying I hate or swearing at you can be the result of a teen’s inability to articulate what they really want to say because of expressive language deficits. You will need to set boundaries and you will need to help your teen problem solve when it comes to his or her needs. Family rules about abusive language would be important to set with consequences such as putting money into a “swearing box” or having to help a family member with a task or chore during their free time.

How often have you said to your child, “You aren’t listening to me!” Does your child ask you “Are you listening to me?” One of the kindest things you can do for your child is to listen to him carefully. A teacher once asked her 6 year old pupil why he was making a card for his mum, and he answered “I’m making her a card because she always makes my feelings feel good. I tell her anything. She listens.” When the teacher met the pupil’s mother at parent-teacher evening, she noticed how each time her son talked, she’d stop, look into her son’s eyes, and listen with genuine interest. Her words usually were nothing more than repeating back small tidbits of what he just said to let him know she was hearing him. If you make this a habit, your child will have less difficulty when he wants to explain something to you that is really bothering him.

When we listen to our children, we never know if what they are saying is of great importance to them or not. That’s why it is important to listen to everything as carefully as you can to find out what concerns them. If you know you are busy and don’t have time to listen carefully, wait until you have the essence of what your child is talking about, and then say to them, “I’m busy right this minute; but I want to listen to you more carefully after I have finished cooking when we sit down at the dinner table.” You may even need to jot down quickly what your child started to talk about so that you can remember to say to him later, “Now what was that you wanted to say about…”

We need to show that we are listening to our kids through our body language. 70% of all communication is non-verbal. You may need to train yourself to listen in the same way you train yourself to play tennis, to write a paper, or to cook. You may have to think about it and consciously put effort into it. That is often difficult to do because the subject of the speaker doesn’t interest you or you feel rushed, or your mind is preoccupied with many other things. Have you ever noticed that if you haven’t been exercising or reading very much it takes a while to get back in the habit? For example, when you first sit down to read, you feel restless after a short time, but if you keep at it, you realise that you can sit for much longer with your full concentration on your reading. The same thing goes for listening. You have to train yourself to focus on what other people are saying and not allow your mind to wander even if the subject doesn’t interest you. Once you have shown that you are truly listening through your body language and with empathy, then you can think whether or not what you want to share would be meaningful to the other person. Don’t be afraid of moments of golden silence as you can still learn a lot about others and yourself and it gives you time to reflect on what has been said. If your child is reluctant to speak, wait quietly for some time before you continue. The poet Thomas Carlyle, translated this phrase from German in Sartor Resartus, 1831, in which a character expounds on some of the virtues of silence:

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.”

The Buddhist monk, Tich Naht Hanh has written many books on mindfulness. He teaches us to be aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others. In mindfulness training, the person commits to the following guideline for daily living:

“I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord; or words that can cause the family or the community to break.”

The following are a few strategies to use when talking to and listening to your child.

Listen and communicate during times of activity. Some teachers will invite their students to walk around the campus and find this more conducive to helping the child to communicate more openly. Children can be more receptive to talking when they are doing something that they like to do such as playing Lego, fishing or kicking a football. Go to their place of interest to talk.

Ask fewer questions and reflect more. Many parents talk too much and ask too many questions. They also ask generic questions such as: “Did you have a good day at school?” which will usually elicit a one-word response like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then results in your needing to follow up with yet another question. Instead of asking a chain of questions, try to reflect more, encourage, reminisce, inspire, and evoke the sharing of experiences that do not demand a particular answer. This way of communicating is open-ended and invites your child to share. Try to use the word “we”much more then “I” or “you should”.

Find the best time and place for listening. Parents can learn a lot about their kids while travelling in the car, but they must spend the majority of the time listening so that the child doesn’t feel trapped by lectures. Judging, criticizing, advice giving is sure to end all communication. We have a saying that many parents have used to help them to remember to “zip your lip” when it comes to expounding on your own opinions. Thus, wait quietly and use this time to reflect on your child’s words Reminiscing about humorous occasions may help your child to open up and say what he/she really wants to say. Also remember that adolescents have a different time clock, and it may be more effective to talk to them before dinner time than in the morning.

Have a set time in the evening when all phones and mobiles are switched off. Parents can establish a policy for phones to be off limit. The most likely time for this is before and during family dinners which allows the space for parents to listen to their children. I also know a family who religiously spends Saturday mornings together making a fry up and enjoying their time together.

You can practice listening by listening to other things besides peoples’ words. Listen to the sounds around you. Be conscious of the train, the birds, and the wind. Listen to different kinds of music and hear the different instruments and really listen to the words. Try to reach a new experience in hearing sounds you’ve never heard before. Watch how animals speak to one another.

You may be thinking of a time when you had a beautiful listening experience. Maybe your awakening to an experience in listening is yet to happen, but you have to put those ears on alert! They have to be ready to hear something inspirational. You might also want to be sure that your children have a lot of different experiences when it comes to listening. Not only to a variety of types of music, but to waterfalls and church bells and the sounds of mammals under water. On a recent trip to the zoo, we saw a presentation about some of the individual animals. One of the animals was a magnificent wolf. The zoo trainer told the audience that the wolf was a very polite wolf and that it wouldn’t howl unless someone howled at it first. She encouraged the audience to howl. We howled and the wolf howled back. It was a beautiful listening moment especially when realising that the wolf had to listen before he spoke!

For today listen to some wonderful music. Listen to nature sounds at www.bl.uk/listentonature/main.html, listen to the world around you, and listen to your children. Or you can see Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish percussionist and composer who lost most of her hearing by age 12. Watch how she listens and hears! http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen.html

We can all use a reminder about how to listen well. Finally, take Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s advice and listen to the rain stick.

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music that you never would have known

To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice, rush, spillage and backwash

Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe

Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales

Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes

A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;

Then glitter drizzle, almost breaths of air.

Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,

Twice, ten, a thousand times before.

Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

– Seamus Heaney


Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

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