Communication between parents and teenagers is often difficult. As parents of college students we have lived through most of those difficult years. Now that your student is headed off to college and you may not have the same kind of daily contact with them, you want to make good use of the times that you do communicate with them. Although you may not see your student for several weeks (if they are living away), you may talk more often. Daily phone conversations may not be the best way to encourage independence, but you may want to establish some regular phone contact to help you stay connected. You also want to take advantage of those conversations that happen when your student does come home for a visit.
So now that communication with your college student may happen less often, you want to maximize the opportunities that you have. What can you do? The short answer is to talk less and listen more. You may be surprised at how much you will learn about your student simply by listening. Here are twelve suggestions that will help you listen more carefully to your college student.
No, don’t give your student the silent treatment, but try talking less and leaving the door open for your student to talk. Think carefully about how often you jump in with suggestions, observations, reactions, or comments. Leave space for your student to talk.
Consider the physical environment
If your student is home, think about where and when you create opportunities to listen to your student. Find a time when you won’t be interrupted. Find a place that is comfortable. Find a time and place that feels natural. Turn off the car radio. Go out for a cup of coffee together. If you are talking with your student by phone, consider some of the same factors. Are there other children in the background? Are you in the middle of cooking dinner? Is the dog barking at every passing squirrel?
Whether you are communicating with your student in person or on the phone, give them your full attention. It may be difficult for your student to take time to say what they are thinking if your student feels that they are interrupting you or that you are on your cell phone in the grocery store or that you need to be doing something else or your mind is on something else. If you need to postpone a conversation until a more ideal time, do that.
Eliminate internal noise
We all know that it is difficult to hear or listen to someone in a noisy room. That jackhammer outside of the window can make it difficult to carry on a conversation. However, we often carry noise in our heads as well – preconceived ideas about something, mental distractions, preoccupations. Try to clear the clutter so that you can truly listen.
Ask open questions
Although your student may be willing to talk to you, they may not know what you need to hear. Don’t interrogate, but do ask questions that express your interest, let your student know that you are listening, and provide an opportunity to elaborate. Open questions are questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Instead of asking “Did you plan your schedule for next semester?” try asking “What class are you most looking forward to next semester?” or “Why did your advisor suggest that you take the advanced section of that class?”
Encouragers are those little words, sounds, or reactions that let someone know that you are listening and that you want them to continue. Nod your head, say “uh huh”, say “go on,” “tell me more”, smile, laugh, frown. Be involved.
Read the nonverbal cues
If you are talking to your student in person, watch the body language. You know your student and you can tell when they are sad, excited, frightened, disturbed. Determine your reaction accordingly. Even if you are talking to your student by phone, you can use nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, pauses, hesitations. Listen through the words as well as to the words.
Let your student finish before you jump in. Sometimes, even though you want to ask an important question, or share an observation, you need to just let the flow happen. Let your student get it all out and then respond.
Listening is not a passive thing to do. It takes work. One of the more difficult things to do is to suspend your evaluations for a time to truly hear what your student is saying. Don’t let your ability to really hear what they are telling you be clouded by your automatic judgment about what your student is really saying.
Be aware of your red flag words or ideas.
Are there certain words or ideas that will automatically put up a red flag and block your ability to listen? Try to be aware of them and put them aside for a time. You may want to talk to your student about them later, but for now, try to get past them and just listen.
Use perception checking
Perception checking is both asking direct questions and using nonverbal cues to determine whether what you think you hear is accurate. Sometimes your student may be taking a roundabout route to telling you something. Ask for clarification. “So are you saying that you want to drop out of college because you hate it there?” may get a response of “No, I just don’t want to live on campus anymore because I don’t like the social life.” Or “No, I want to stay in college, but I’d like to think about transferring to another school.”
Share your honest reactions
After you’ve given your student time to say what is on their mind, be open and honest in your responses. Make sure that your conversation is a two way communication. Yes, you want to do more listening than talking, but when you do talk, be honest in your reactions and your student will continue to be comfortable sharing their thoughts with you.
You won’t need all of these suggestions all of the time, but using even a few of these may improve the quality of your conversations with your student. We often try to think about how to better talk to our children, but sometimes we may need to consider more how to listen to them.
Even if you try to follow all twelve of these suggestions, every conversation with your college student will not be fulfilling. Sometimes we just don’t want to talk. Sensing the good time and open opportunity and knowing when to let it go is also an important measure of good communication. Given time, you will have more and more meaningful conversations with your student.