Sideways listening

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

I’ve just come across a new term: sideways listening, writes parenting columnist Ian Munro.

It’s a variation on "active listening" and better expresses the sort of listening that works best with children.

Ian Munro.
Ian Munro.

Since communication is a two-way process, it is important that it is not just us doing the talking but that we’re also effectively listening to our youngsters.

I’ve written before about the value of transporting them and their friends and quietly listening to the backseat conversations. This is a sideways listening approach.It works best when you’ve created a relaxed situation doing something with your youngster on their own. It is in these sorts of situations that the youngster-led chit-chat can take you all sorts of places.

If you can establish and maintain these sorts of non-threatening together situations where you "sideways listen" and keep your mouth shut, you can develop the sort of rapport that can make it easier, later, for your teen to continue to chit-chat with you about all sorts of things.

The more comfortable they are chatting with you, knowing you’re not going to jump down their throat, the more likely they’ll open up about things that are worrying them.

This approach also allows you time to pick up on the underlying tone and the emotion behind their words — embarrassment, fear, pride — and to ask yourself "What’s the message he wants me to receive?", "What would it be like if I were in her shoes?".

As you peel another potato, take another sip of coffee, take a break from jogging, or throw out the fishing line again, check what you pick up about their feelings.

"I sense that you’re ...", "You sound ...", "You must be feeling pretty ..."

This will take the chit-chat to a higher level without being threatening.

Once this sort of connection becomes a relaxed routine in your lives, then it removes the need, when something is bugging either of you, to try to create a chance to talk with all its potential artificiality and tension. It means that there will always be an opportunity available to get something off your chest.

Sometimes it can create a problem. They may have entrusted us with information that we want to act on immediately.  It’s important not to break that trust. It could undo all those years of work.

Take the time to work through with them the next best course of action. Ask them how they could see you helping them rather than determining there and then what you’re going to do about this, even if you feel it would be in your youngster’s or teen’s best interest.

Sideways listening is about taking time to hear the little voice before we wade in with our big voice of experience and knowledge.


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