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Are You Listening?

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 11, 2017)

There’s a big difference between hearing someone and listening to someone. Hearing someone entails acknowledging the sounds that they are making and registering the noises that are being made. Listening entails focusing, comprehending, processing and understanding. If you’ve been in a classroom, you’ll know that it is entirely possible for a student to be in the room, looking at the teacher and hearing the teacher but not have been listening. The student would look up if the teacher stops speaking because he had heard her speaking but if she were to ask him a question, he wouldn’t be able to answer correctly. Why? Because he wasn’t listening.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen in classrooms. It is as common in boardrooms and family dining rooms as they are in classrooms. People talk and share from their own perspective but didn't listen to what others had been saying. People generally like talking but listening is a skill that needs to be learnt, practiced and developed. And this is true for adults as much as it is true for children.

Many parents I’ve met are at their wits end because they feel like their children aren’t listening to them. “I told him to pack his school bag before sleeping but he didn’t do it” “I always tell her to do homework before watching TV but she doesn’t listen” “I tell her to sleep early but she doesn’t listen”. Not being listened to is frustrating and there are many ways to get children to listen but I'll save that for another column. We want them to listen to us but have we ever thought about how we don’t listen to our kids? We may hear them (yes, probably a lot!) but do we listen, actually listen?

I was at the park the other day and there was a teacher bringing a whole class of students on a field trip to the park. You could tell she was busily hoarding them from one side to another, making sure they were all moving in the right direction and trying to get them to the bus in time. One student called out her name wanting to talk to her but mid-sentence, she said ""don't speak. Focus on walking"". I don't know what the child was going to say - maybe he was going to ask a question out of curiosity, maybe he was going to ask for help, or maybe he wanted to show her something he had seen - but we will never know because she wasn't listening. And there's so much we can miss when we aren't listening, really listening.

Listening requires focus, asking questions to understand, empathy, time, undivided attention, and reflection. In this fast-paced, multi-tasking, digital world we live in, it's so easy to not truly listen. Even as we're eating dinner with others, our phones are on the table and the pop up of a notification can distract us from what is being said at the dinner table. If we really want to value our children's thoughts, opinions, ideas and feelings, we need to really start to really listen to them. So what are some things that can help us listen?

1) Let them know we're here. Tell our children that we're always there for them if they want to talk. It makes them know that they can feel safe to approach us. Teach them ways in which they can reach out. For example, ask them to tap you on the shoulder and ask you for your time. If you are in the middle of a phone call, it's not the best time to run to you and start talking.

2) Give your full attention. Yes, that means putting the phones away, turning the TVs off and shutting off the computer. Find a place that's conducive to a full conversation.

3) Get to your child's 'level'. This means sitting or standing in a way where you can have eye contact. If your young child is cranking his head up to talk to you as you tower over him, it's not the most comfortable way to talk.

4) Don't judge. Sometimes, it's easy for us to think we know the situation and the solution and jump in to give our advice. Listen first. Even if your child has done something wrong, listen to his sharing first before making judgement.

5) Ask questions. Be a detective and ask questions to find out more. If your child says 'school was fine', ask questions to know more about what happened and don't just leave it at 'fine'.

6) Show empathy. Engage with empathy and show understanding of your child's feelings. Even acknowledging the feeling will help a child feel understood. So if your child comes home saying her friend snatched her toy and seems upset, a good empathetic response would be ""it must upsetting to have your friend snatch something from you. How did it make you feel?"" This helps children build their emotional awareness and intelligence.

So next time you engage in a conversation, whether with children, colleagues, a spouse or friends, don't just hear them, listen. Really listen.


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