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The Importance of Listening

importance of listening

by Mark Gregston

There’s an old Ethiopian proverb that says this: “the fool speaks, the wise man listens”. John Maxwell has said this about good leaders, and I would apply it to good parents and good grandparents as well, motivating others by their listening skills. 

First impressions become less self-centered when we withhold initial criticism, stay calm, listen with empathy, be active listeners, clarify what we hear and recognize the healing power of listening. Then we are able to act upon what we hear. And we all know this, out of James 1:19, where Paul writes and said, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. 

You know, there are things that you hear when you’re a parent that you don’t always like. However, the way in which you hear it, and the way that you engage makes all the difference in the world. If there’s ever a time that our adolescents are looking for someone to listen, it’s now. Over the last few years, I’ve watched our culture kind of move away from some very basic principles and values necessary for relational interaction to an atmosphere where communication is more about the one-way expression of one’s thoughts and beliefs, rather than the two-way street of someone actively listening to the heart of people struggling to be heard. 

Chuck Swindoll made a comment to me once when we were doing some radio programs together and he said this, “I think I could change every parent in their relationship with their children with just one word: listen. If they would just listen.” 

Our response to someone saying that something matters, where we kind of generalize and make other things matter is about as wise as me saying to my wife, when she came to me and said I was sexually abused by a grandfather for seven years, “Well, sweetheart a lot of people were abused by their grandfather.” Or when somebody comes to me and says that they’ve had a real difficult time with their depression. And I say to them, “Well, you know what? A lot of people have problems with their depression.” What if my son came to me and shared with me that he was getting bullied at school and had been beaten up a few times, and my response was, “Well, you know, a lot of people are bullied and are getting beat up at school.” 

I’m sure that this kind of response would shut down our relationship and probably preclude any future communication. If the request for help and reaching out for hope is ignored, then the heart is hardened. Giving a hard-hearted response shows that we’re responding to people in a way that is only thinking of ourselves instead of looking to somebody else.  

A young lady came to me once and she said she was conned by a young fella that subsequently raped her. And she let me know that it was the first time she was able to talk about her incident. She was vulnerable in her desire to share feelings and the heartache that she’d been carrying for a couple of years. I remember that her words were shaky, her heart was pounding, her chin quivered, and the whole time she poured out her heart. If I ever hinted with words that generalized her messages saying, “Well, honey, many girls have been conned by young men and eventually raped.” Do you think she would ever share anything with me again? You know, this is what I found when people aren’t heard, when teens aren’t heard, they scream their message louder. And when the louder message isn’t heard, then they become activists within your family, actively behaving in a way to get other people’s attention. 

I wonder sometimes if unruly children who’ve reached the point of acting out with their parents or someone else significant in their life would still be in the position that they are now if they had actively been listened to? I believe that the key to active listening is to understand what you hear and to be aware of your filters. We all have them; our filters interpret and translate how we hear the message coming from our children and our grandchildren. 

Some of your filters may be traditions, how you were raised, your hurts, your perceptions, your background, your own beliefs, your own values, your own trust issues, your age, or your experiences can taint the messages that we hear. The challenge is to remove our filters and listen through our children’s grid in some way. 

I think this is what Paul is speaking of in Philippians. When he says do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit, rather in humility, value others above yourself, not looking to your own interest but each of you to the interest of others. There’s something about engaging and talking and listening to somebody else that is all about them. It’s not about us. If anyone has known me for a long period of time, they know that I believe that we need to move out of a teaching model of kids into a training model. And in the teaching model, you and I, as a parent and grandparent, get to talk a lot because it’s a teaching model, but when we start training somebody else, when we train up a child in the way that he, or she should go, we start listening a whole lot more. 

I would tell you to make it your goal to understand your child’s world and to filter their message in a way that looks out for their interests, not your own. Effective parents are good listeners, and they possess the ability to look to the interest of their team’s world and not lean on their own understanding of their world. That’s called participatory listening. Let me give you some tips that may help. People ask me all the time, Mark, how do you get along with kidsHow do you do the work that you do with kids?  

Many people know that I live with 60 high school kids and have lived with over 3,000 kids through the years. They ask, how do you communicate with them? And I go, you know what? I listen. I listen and I focus on them rather than focusing on me. I’m not trying to come up with an answer. I’m trying to engage with them to understand their heart. I’m listening with the intent of understanding, not with the intent of responding. I tell you this, that you’ve got to create an atmosphere that invites them to come to you. Invite them. Let’s make sure the welcome mat is always out. Make sure that they know you will always listen to them. “Hey, if you ever have anything going on, I want you to know there’s a couple of ears here that would love to hear your heart.” And that may sound kind of odd to a lot of people, but I think it’s a message that kids are looking for because there aren’t too many people out there listening to them. If you find yourself saying, “Hey, let’s talk later”, you’re missing some connecting opportunities. 

The other thing is that when you try to understand it doesn’t mean that you have to agree. Chances are you’re at least 20 years older than your children. So, when they become teens, it means that you might try relating to them the way that you remember your teen years, 33 years ago, and that’s a lot of years that have ushered in a world of change. Expect that there will be huge differences in the way your children perceive relationships and newsworthy events versus the way that you do. Call it a generation gap, if you will, these are just differences. Differences that’ll come up in your discussions. Just because there’s differences does not mean that something’s wrong. 

 Sometimes your child is engaging in speaking out loud and getting your opinion so they can process all this stuff in their head. You and I sometimes have this amazing desire or longing or feel like we’re fulfilling our parenting role when we feel like we have to correct them all the time. Quit, correcting and start connecting with your child. They don’t have to say everything right or do everything right. You’re going to have opportunities to talk about serious topics, whether it’s abortion or marijuana or terrorism or politics or what’s going on in the world today, what’s happening with the pandemic that’s spreading across the world. And people have different thoughts on that. It’s almost like you might need to say to your child, Hey, I know that we won’t agree on everything, but by helping me understand how you think you may move me closer to appreciate your viewpoint. Now how many kids really hear that from parents, you know? 

I want you to stay away from those fighting words. Some of those fighting words that infuriate children may be comments like this: Where did that come from? Which sounds just a little judgmental or, Who told you thatAre you kidding me? Or when you say this in a number of different ways, that’s so stupidor did you come up with that on your own

I mean, sometimes kids are moved away from us just by our response. Why in the world would you think that way? How can my child think stupid thoughts like that? Or if you really want to turn your son off and get him where he’ll never come back and talk to you, just say, Hey, you know, that’s wrong. You know, it may be wrong. But if you lose the opportunity to have a lifetime of influence based upon one discussion, because you shut them down and tell them they’re wrong, you’ll never have the opportunity to engage with them at a later date.  

Here are some comments that I always make with kids that may move you in a positive way; move you forward rather than backing you up. When they make a comment that’s interesting or different, simply say: Hey, I never thought of that. Hey, I see where you’re coming from. I’ve never heard it said that way before. Those are all comments that intrigue a child and imply that the welcome mat is still out. I want you to come to me. And at the same time, I want you to be able to talk about things where you don’t feel a sense of judgment or a demand for perfection. You hearing what I’m saying? I hope you’re listening. 

Here’s another one. Don’t interrupt. It’s a no-no. If you ever want to shut down a conversation, just start interrupting your child. What you’ll find is if you interrupt them, they’ll interrupt you. It just elevates the conversation. So now emotions are running a little bit higher and so somebody starts to say something, and they go, why are you so mad? Well, I’m mad because you’re interrupting me all the time.  

If you have difficulty in having a conversation where you’re always interrupting, do this: take a pen, hold it in your hand, and play this little game. Say: when I have the pen I get to speak. and when I’m finished speaking, I’ll hand you the pen. Now you hold the pen and you speak and I won’t say a word. What that does is get you into the mindset where you’re actually looking at what your child is saying. I’m going to listen to everything you say and quit spending the time thinking about a rebuttal, quit thinking about how you’re going to respond

Quit thinking about that quick answer that you’re going to give back and focus in on them at the time when they’re holding that pen, just listen. And here’s another thing: do not correct during conversations. My son used to do this to me all the time, and I found that I just didn’t want to tell stories when I was around him. Then there’s a son and a mom, they would do this: Mom, we spent two hours at the swimming pool, and she would say, no, it was an hour and a half. The son would say, okay, I swam six laps on my own and mom would say, no, it was only four. Okay. Then, we left to go get a hamburger. No, you had a cheeseburger. Okay. We came home. I took a nap. No, it was 30 minutes in the sun. Finally, he says whatever, I don’t even want to have a conversation around you. 

You get the picture from this conversation? What is it about people that can’t leave well enough alone? Just let someone have a conversation without correcting any possible misinformation. What happens in these situations is that eventually your child will have a conversation only in the presence of one avoiding the correctors presence. Most teens would rather not share anything than have a discussion that’s full of correction.  

Here’s another thing that I would encourage you in, in your listening: bring value to the conversation. Parents may have jobs where people listening value their opinions, and can’t wait to hear what they say, but then they come home, and no one wants to listen what they have to say. If you miss the validation you get from your job and your workplace, you may try to recoup it in your conversation with those around you, your spouse and your kids. Ask yourself how much of your conversation is an attempt to get value from the person you’re communicating with rather than bringing value to them. 

When I’m listening to somebody else, I’m not trying to prop myself up. I’m trying to figure out how I can prop them up. Here’s another comment that I would say: focus on your children. You’ve had a lifetime of people listening to you. Now it’s your turn to listen to your children. It’s basic humanism to always share our opinion but even scripture says that a fool appears wise when he keeps his mouth shut. Focus on your children. You may want to do this. Repeat back what they just said. Okay. This is what I’m hearing you say. Am I getting this right? Okay, wait, wait, is this, is this what I hear you sayingOkay, let me understand this. This is, this is what you’re trying to come across to me with? Or you may say this, you know, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Can you help me a little bit here?  

Those are all ways to invite people to have a relationship with you and to engage in such a way that a child will come back to you over and over and over and over again. I love the idea when kids say this, you know, I don’t remember what Mark said, but he listens to me. What’s amazing to me is kids eventually come to a point where they start asking questions and they want to go deeper and deeper and deeper. Kids are dying to be heard. You and I have that awesome opportunity to be before them with our ears to listen. To spend time listening to their heart. 

I know a young man named Mike who struggled at home and he often said to me that he had a tough time finding somebody that would just listen. He came and lived with us for a while and was doing really well because we spent a lot of time listening to him. He was just one of those kids that thought a little more deeply than others. As a result, he felt things a little bit deeper than others and he struggled with a little bit of depression.  

When he went back home, he rejected my suggestion of going to see a counselor so that he would have somebody to talk to. He said this, you know, they’re always trying to fix me instead of listening to what I have to say. He just wanted to be heard and in desperation and really, out of frustration this young man, Mike, got to the end of his rope, figuratively, and literally he tried to hang himself which finally got attention of those people around him. 

He didn’t die, but he did damage his spine to the point that he’ll spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Mike told me that his unsuccessful attempt to kill himself was so that people he loved would read the six-page letter he wrote describing what he was feeling and thinking. All along, all Mike wanted was for someone to listen and it almost cost him his life. 

Hey, teens are dying for someone to just listen. Don’t pay that awful price. Be the listening ear that they need. 

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Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.