The Role of Listening in Your Family

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say,” wrote Bryant McGill, thought leader and international bestselling author.

How true this is. Listening plays a crucial role in building and maintaining healthy relationships, especially in families, which often include multiple kinds of relationships. For example, one person in a family might maintain relationships with parents, grandparents, siblings, children, step-children, and extended family.

When we think of communication, we probably first think of speaking. But listening plays an equally—if not more important—role in our efforts to communicate well with others.

Listening: The Under-appreciated Aspect of Communication

At its most basic, communication simply involves a sender, a message, a channel, and a receiver.

  • Sender: This is the speaker, the person who is delivering the message.
  • Message: This is what is being said.
  • Channel: This is the medium through which the message is being delivered. For example, the message could be spoken, texted, emailed, telephoned, etc.
  • Receiver: This is the person who is listening to the message.

Sometimes you are the sender, and sometimes you are the receiver. In other words, sometimes you’re talking, and sometimes you’re listening. We spend years teaching our children how to talk, and then they go to school and learn how to write and deliver speeches. When was the last time you heard of someone taking a class on listening? We spend just as much time listening as we spend talking—or, at least, this should be how it is, so why don’t we spend more time learning how to do it right?

The Benefits of Listening

Listening is so important that it is even in the Bible. James 1:19 mentions both aspects of communication: the sender and the receiver. It says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” What if we all sought to listen first and speak second? Wouldn’t that be a more peaceful world to live in?

Before we talk about how to listen better, let’s talk about some of the benefits of focusing on the listening aspect of communication in your family.

  1. Listening builds trust. When people feel that you really care about their needs, they’re more likely to trust you. Trust is another foundational aspect in healthy families. When children feel heard, they have the time they need to sort through their thoughts and feelings. When they don’t have this space and trust to process their needs, they might act out or lose their tempers because they’re inexperienced in dealing with emotions.
  2. Listening shows interest and respect. Like the McGill quote at the beginning of this post suggests, listening to people makes them feel respected. How do you show your spouse that you respect him or her? Maybe you support their professional goals, put up with difficult in-laws, or tell them what about them impresses you. But have you ever thought about listening as a form of respect? Showing genuine interest in someone by really listening to what they have to say with the intention of understanding him or her can sometimes communicate respect and honor better than any words you could say.
  3. Listening reduces the opportunity for conflict. Most arguments and conflicts begin as simple miscommunications and escalate from there. Listening with a genuine intent to understand reduces the chances of these unfortunate miscommunications from happening.
  4. Listening helps resolve conflicts. If a conflict or argument has already started, most people’s first reaction is to try to get their own point across. Instead of seeking first to be understood, try seeking first to listen and understand the other person. Your family member is much more likely to listen to your point of view if he or she feels heard by you. And once you understand where he or she is coming from, you will be much more equipped to explain your own point of view in a way that will make sense.
  5. Listening sets an example. “My children don’t listen to me.” Have you ever said this or heard someone say this? Think about this for a moment: as the most important influence in your child’s life, he or she learns the most from you. How you listen to your children teaches them how to listen to others. In other words, if you don’t listen to them, they won’t know how to listen to you. Ouch!

Types of Listening

If you do a simple Internet search, you’re going to find thousands of articles describing the difference between passive and active listening. There is actually another even more advanced form of listening that most people do not know about. However, let’s start by defining passive and active listening just in case you’re among the few who haven’t read about them.

  • Passive listening is basically just hearing. A passive listener probably realizes someone is trying to communicate with him or her and may hear the words. However, this type of listener may not pay attention or remember what is being said, and he certainly doesn’t understand all the meaning the speaker is trying to convey. Therefore, he will probably not be able to properly convey interest, respect, and empathy in his or her response.
  • Active listening involves genuine effort to understand what the speaker is saying. This means maintaining eye contact, nodding, not interrupting, repeating part of what is said to show understanding, ignoring distractions, and deferring judgment. An active listener‘s response will probably convey respect and understanding to the speaker.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey calls active listening “attentive listening.” Most people believe active or attentive listening is the highest form of listening, but he describes another level: empathetic listening.

Empathetic listening involves listening with the intent to understand both the message being conveyed and the emotion behind it. “Empathetic (from empathy) listening gets instead another person’s frame of reference,” Covey writes in his book. “You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.”

How to Implement Empathetic Listening into Your Family

Covey writes that there are three levels of empathetic listening. He uses a conversation between a father and a son to demonstrate the three levels. The dialogues below are taken from his book.

1. The first level of empathetic listening is mimicking, which essentially involves repeating full or partial phrases back to the listener to indicate he or she is being heard and at least partially understood.

Son: “Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds.”

Father: “You’ve had it. School is for the birds.”

2. The second level of empathetic listening is rephrasing. This means repeating the information back using different words. This indicates understanding of the message.

Son: “Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds.”

Dad: “You don’t want to go to school anymore.”

3. The third level of empathetic listening is reflecting feeling. This involves rephrasing the content and reflecting the feeling.

Son: “Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds.”

Dad: “You’re feeling really frustrated with school.”

In summary, empathetic listeners show that they not only understand what that the speaker means but also understand how he feels. This is a very simple example, but the concept of empathetic listening can be applied in more complex situations and conversations. When your children, spouse, sibling, or parent speaks to you, try listening with the intent to understand the meaning and of the words and the feeling behind them. Then watch how your relationships grow.


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