Wednesday 18 September 2019

David Coleman's simple rules on seeing eye-to-eye with our teens

In the third part of our series on family communication, David Coleman spells out how we can build a balanced conversation with our children

Don't panic: Says clinical psychologist David Coleman
Don't panic: Says clinical psychologist David Coleman
David Coleman outlines how to build balanced conversation with our teens
Clinical psychologist David Coleman
David Coleman

David Coleman

I frequently meet teenagers and their parents as part of my work. Remarkably, I get the same, or similar, complaints from the ­majority of them. Parents complain that they can't get a word out of their teenagers; while their teenagers moan that "nobody listens to me".

Perhaps it is true that teenagers become monosyllabic once puberty hits, but I don't really believe it. Teenagers don't stop talking, they may just talk less to their parents.

This might be because they may want to keep their lives more private, or they may feel that their parents don't, or won't, understand about stuff that is on their mind or happening in their lives.

However, such complaints are usually a sign that communication has fractured somewhere along the way. So, in this third article of my series on communication, we're going to focus on the art of listening.

Clinical psychologist David Coleman
Clinical psychologist David Coleman

In order to show ourselves to be actively interested in hearing what our sons and daughters have to say, we first have to attend to them. Like we discussed last week, that begins with making eye contact. So, if your son spontaneously says something, make sure you look at him. If your daughter responds to your "welcome home" with a comment, take the time to notice her and look at her.

Paying attention is an active process. It may involve eye contact. It may involve turning to face your teen. It may involve going to the room where they are, rather than trying to respond by calling from the kitchen.

Once we are attending to them, we must encourage them to keep talking. That encouragement is usually given verbally and non-verbally. Smiling, nodding, even shaking your head in disagreement shows engagement and listening. So do all the little filler words and sounds we make… "uh, uh", "oh, right", "yeah, yeah", "really?", "mmm", "tsk, tsk" and so on.

You can tell how important these little fillers are when on a phone call. If the other person is entirely silent, we quickly break off and ask "are you still there?" because we don't expect listening to be silent.

It is important to be authentic and genuine when using these kinds of encouragements. If you are distracted, trying to cook the dinner for example, and just off-handedly say "uh, uh", it will be clear that you aren't actually paying attention. Don't "fake" paying attention.

Repeating back what your son or daughter says to you is another powerful way to show them that you are attending to them. If you can repeat what they said, then you must have heard it.

I find this an effective way to engage with my teenage clients. Even though I may be simply repeating their words to me, I can imbue my response with a series of other meanings, by changing my tone of voice.

As I repeat what gets said to me, I can choose to sound incredulous, or curious, or shocked, or delighted, or any manner of other emotional responses. So the repetition shows not just my attentive hearing, but also my level of emotional engagement in what they have just said.

Importantly, I can also use this repetition as a form of summary, referring to the most recent statement and, perhaps, including other bits of information that the teenager has already mentioned in the course of the conversation.

Summarising what has been said not only shows effective listening, but also allows you to check your understanding. While you may have heard the words that got spoken to you, you may have interpreted a different meaning to those words than was intended. Summarising gives you the chance to clarify anything you haven't understood and also to share your interpretation to make sure it is what your son or daughter intended you to understand.

Where possible, I like to use statements rather than questions to prompt teenagers to talk more. Sometimes, questions can add a bit of unwanted pressure to a conversation. If we are not careful, questioning can soon appear more like an inquisition, as if you're just looking to catch them out in some lie or inconsistency.

When you do have to ask questions, make sure they start with the words, "who…?", "what…?", "where…?", "why…?", "when…?" or "how…?". These kinds of questions open up the conversation as they invite further explanation. Questions that begin with "do you…?", "are you…?", "have you…?" and so on are more likely to close down a conversation as they only invite a "yes/no" response.

Our goal in listening is to show real engagement. If you are asking questions, not only must they be nice and open, they must also be relevant. The questions should be trying to explore our sons' and daughters' agendas, rather than just pushing our own. We want to be trying to get their perspective and opinion on the subject, rather than just trying to get them to hear our perspective.

Hearing their perspective is important, even if we can't or won't act on it. Your son or daughter will appreciate if you seek their opinion and allow them to voice it. It can be hard to put our own agendas aside, to be able to listen.

Indeed, if you find that you end up talking a lot, when you are engaged in a conversation with your teen, then it is quite likely that you are not doing enough listening. At the very least, you are looking for the conversation to be balanced, with both of you having equal opportunity to talk. To be really supportive to your teenager, try tipping the balance in favour of listening more. You might be amazed at what they start talking about.

Next week: I'll be wrapping up the series on communication by looking at how we can connect to the emotional world of our teenagers, using all of the skills discussed so far, to help them make sense of, and process, the complexity of adolescence.

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