Listening well is part of critical conversations, professional counselor says
By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
Most days Darius comes home from school chattering nonstop about his day, so his mom noticed one day when instead of stopping in the kitchen for a snack, he went straight to his room.
She hesitantly knocked on his door and entered to find him sitting on his bed, a sullen expression on his face. It was obvious something had happened and equally obvious Darius was not going to initiate a conversation. What should Mom do?
Scenarios like this play out in homes every day. Children and adults alike have bad days — they’re just part of life. But individuals process these situations differently, according to Rod Campbell, a licensed professional counselor with Pathways Professional Counseling, a ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries.
“Some people need lots of time to think things through before they are ready to talk,” Campbell said. “For others, especially those wired to be auditory processors, talking something through might be an integral part of figuring out their own feelings and thoughts on a matter.”
For parents, being sensitive to their child’s individual gifting and needs is critical. In other words, “be present, supportive and available but let them lead the way,” Campbell said.
Basic principles of counseling can help parents as well. Elisabeth Nesbit Sbanotto, lead author of “Skills for Effective Counseling: A Faith-Based Integration,” writes that the goals of counseling are not to give advice, fix things or to help counselees “feel better.” Instead, counseling is about helping another person see their strengths and set short- and long-term goals based on their strengths and needs.
“Listening is the real key here. As parents, we are so often motivated to provide solutions or intervene to end suffering. Instead, think of yourself as a consultant. Don’t focus so much on ‘fixing’ the problem as on helping your child dig through the mess to make sense of it,” he said.
For example, a child who has been embarrassed may express anger. Listening to the story will help a parent see the hurt underneath the anger and respond appropriately to the feelings. The best words express compassion toward the hurting heart: “That must have hurt your feelings.” or “Oh, no! I bet that was so embarrassing!”
Communication is first
“Think in terms of bearing one another’s burdens,” Campbell said. “You can’t stop your child from going through difficult times, but they do not have to go through them alone.”
Communication must be the first step and communication is different from problem solving, Campbell said. Communication is about sending and receiving clear messages. Problem solving asks “What now?” When faced with a difficult situation, focus on communication first and problem solving later, he suggests.
“It is very important in relationships that we not rush through the communication phase and become so focused on the problem solving that we miss an opportunity to connect with one another and even miss that part where we agree on what the problem actually is prior to trying to solve it,” Campbell said.
Questions can help the communication process move along more effectively, and Campbell said the best questions are those that invite the speaker to explain more fully and explore the situation more completely, such as:
- Can you tell me more about [____]? I’m not sure I understood that part.
- How can I help?
- How did you feel while that was happening?
- What ideas do you have about how to go forward from here?
“Any questions that start with the word ‘why’ or that are phrased in a way that seem to require justification for actions or an explanation of behavior tend to shut down communication,” Campbell said.
Asking good questions
For instance, “Help me understand. What was it that hurt you about what she said?” might be a really good question to ask, Campbell said. But “Why did that hurt your feelings?” might not be as helpful, especially depending on the tone of voice and body language with which it is asked. The first question invites the speaker to examine their own heart and give further voice to their feelings while the second example can very easily sound as though the speaker is being required to defend their experience.
“One of my favorite rules of counseling is ‘If you have enough information to ask a question, you have enough information to make a statement.’ So first, the best questions aren’t questions at all but are instead short statements which indicate you are listening and trying to understand,” Campbell said. “Statements like ‘That must have hurt you,’ ‘That is so sad’ or ‘That sounds like it was so discouraging’ can be the most helpful responses a parent can employ. Those statements indicate that the parent is listening, is trying to understand and has empathy for the child in the current situation.”
Decline in conversation skills hurts relationships in today’s digital culture
By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
University of Mobile (UM) professor Buddy Landry likens technology’s impact on human behavior to a hammer — it all depends on how you use it.
“Technology is like any other tool — it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself. A tool like a hammer can be used to build a Habitat for Humanity home, or it can be used to harm someone. Right or wrong, good or evil is not about the tool but about how it’s used. The same goes for tech,” said Landry, associate professor and chair of the department of marriage and family counseling at UM.
Technology offers a range of communication tools we carry around with us daily — smartphones, tablets, social media apps and the Internet to name a few — and like all tools, they have potential, but the potential is in how we choose to use the tool, not in the tool itself.
By most formal definitions, a conversation must include the exchange of ideas via “spoken” words. Increasingly, however, people engage with each other via electronic media — by messaging apps, text or email — in written instead of spoken words. Even if conversation is defined more broadly to include electronic communication, this kind of engagement does not allow participants to observe body language, to hear tone of voice or to interpret another’s facial expressions.
The resulting loss is significant relationally, writes Tony Reinke, author of “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.”
“A good conversation involves listening and timing, and that is pretty much taken away with internet communications because you are not there with the person,” he writes. “Our online habits change our relational habits: both become clipped and superficial, and we become more easily distracted and less patient with one another.”
In her TED Talk “Connected, But Alone?” social science researcher Sherry Turkle shares common practices she has observed in today’s tech-saturated world: college students shopping online during classes, parents texting at the dinner table, co-workers who send an email rather than step across the hall to someone’s office, groups of friends sitting around together, all eyes glued to their phones.
Turkle believes these habits are increasingly hurting our ability to relate to others and to ourselves, especially within families.
In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Turkle writes, “We can share so much more with our families — videos, photographs, games, the whole wide world. And we can be ‘with’ our families in new ways — in some ways, never apart.”
But this connectedness has resulted in more and more interactions taking place online. Families even tell Turkle they like to have arguments through text, email or chat because it “helps them express themselves more precisely.”
Turkle says the result of this migration to online communication is a “crisis in mentorship” when it comes to teaching children how to relate to others.
“We need family conversations because of the work they do — beginning with what they teach children about themselves and how to get along with other people. To join in conversation is to imagine another mind, to empathize and to enjoy gesture, humor and irony in the medium of talk.”
Family conversations also teach children how to listen, an important skill, Turkle writes.
“It is in family conversations that children have the greatest chance of learning that what other people are saying (and how they are saying it) is the key to what they are feeling. And this matters. So family conversations are a training ground for empathy,” according to Turkle.
The difference is in communicating versus conversing, Landry said.
“We can use words to communicate ideas electronically but often something is lost in translation,” Landry said. “How many of us have sent an email or text and it has been taken the wrong way or part of the message has been misinterpreted?”
Communication research suggests that much of the give and take of conversation happens nonverbally through the volume and cadence of our voice, facial expressions and body position, Landry said. That’s one reason emojis have become popular — words alone aren’t capturing what we’re trying to communicate.
“We recognize that there’s a presence, an immediacy about an interaction that has a personal nature to it which is lost when we’re not face to face. It’s hard to deny the humanity of the person you’re interacting with when they’re right there in front of you,” Landry said.
Being tech savvy is one thing, Landry said. Being tech dependent is another.
“People have trouble putting it down,” he said. “In church, at the doctor’s office, in classrooms and at the dinner table, technology is something that has become part of our lives and a part of many people’s identity.”
What is the solution? Landry said it’s simple but not necessarily easy. Families must make it a priority and a practice to establish regular times when technology is off limits, such as certain hours of the day or tech-free weekends.
“Protect those times and dedicate them to true ‘face time’ with family and friends,” he urges. “God created us for relationship with Him and with others, and authentic personal relationships are developed through time spent in direct personal interaction in each other’s presence.”
Believers: A quick tip
Art of conversation
I fear the art of conversation is a dying art. Notice what people are doing in the waiting room, restaurant or even at home in the family room. They are either watching TV or looking at their devices. Very seldom are they having a conversation.
Yet conversation is the DNA of all relationships. Without conversation, marriages disintegrate, children become aloof and isolated, misunderstandings on all levels abound and evangelism is limited.
Here are some suggestions for rediscovering the art of conversation.
- Follow the example of Jesus. He was the master of the art of conversation. John 4 is a classic example as He engaged the woman at the well. Notice how He turned the conversation to eternal matters. A lack of conversation skills limits our ability to share the gospel.
- Parents, the skill of conversation is taught in the home. It may be more caught than it is taught.
- Do whatever it takes to have meals together. Mealtime is prime time for conversation — no media devices allowed at the table and no TV on.
- The key to good conversation is learning how to ask the right questions. This comes with practice. And no one word answers allowed.
— Chip Warren, ministry leader