As a college parent, you experience a changing relationship with your college student once she heads off to college. During her growing years, you have functioned as caretaker, worrying and working to make sure that all has gone as well as possible in many areas of her life. Once your student goes to college, you will have less contact with her everyday life. This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily have less communication with her. Conversations change from “Where are you going?”, “When will you be home?” and “You need to pick up your shoes,” to more interesting and potentially more meaningful topics.
Most of us value our conversations and discussions with our college students. We want to know how their lives are unfolding, what they are thinking and feeling, and we want to share our thoughts with them. Chances are that our students want the same thing. However, even with our best of intentions, there are two conversational habits which are what Rebecca Shafir in her book The Zen of Listening calls “listening stoppers”. We probably don’t even realize that we are doing these things.
Take some time to consider whether you might be guilty of either of these habits.
Habit #1: Denial
This conversational habit is not denying that something has happened, as in a court of law, but rather might be a discounting your student’s perception of the situation. You engage in this habit with all of the best of intentions, and at first it seems as though it might be helpful. It is a natural instinct to try to minimize upset feelings or concerns, but it often happens at the cost of dismissing those feelings. Have you ever heard yourself respond with any of the following phrases?
- “It can’t be that bad.”
- “You’re making too much fuss about that.”
- “You’re taking that far too seriously.”
- “I doubt that your friend really meant that.”
- “I’m sure you misunderstood the professor when he said that.”
Although these may sound like reassuring phrases, each one tells the listener that he is wrong in his understanding of, or feelings about, a situation. He then may either argue back or shut down and stop talking, because he feels that you haven’t truly heard or understood his feelings. Obviously, neither of these reactions is what we want to happen.
Habit #2: Advice Giving
Parents love to give advice. We often see it as our responsibility to impart our wisdom to our children. In the right context, advice is appropriate and is even welcomed by our students. They may even ask for it. However, constantly giving advice may send a message to your student that you don’t think she is capable of making a decision or solving a problem without you. Rather than helping your student to feel empowered, you retain the wisdom and power. Eventually, your student may stop discussing problems with you in order to avoid being given unsolicited advice.
So what can you do?
Simply being aware of these two listening habits can help to improve your communication with your college student.
Before you jump in to minimize her problem, validate it and just listen to her story. Bite your tongue and just listen. Encourage her to tell you the whole story and to describe her feelings about the situation. Let her vent. Recognize that her feelings are real; even if you think they may be inflated or misdirected. Help her think about how she might respond to the situation by asking some simple questions or encouraging her to explore her feelings.
Think twice before giving advice. Use it sparingly. Consider the message that you are sending to your student when you immediately send him the message that you have all of the answers. Are you telling him that he constantly needs you in order to deal with the world? Think about whether the specific advice you are about to give is more important than the message of competence that you’d like to send to your student. Ask your student whether he’d like to hear your suggestion, but let him know that it is only a suggestion and he can take it or leave it (and be prepared not to give it if he says he doesn’t want to hear it). It’s not necessarily that your student doesn’t want any advice from you, but he may need to feel that he is in charge of soliciting the help when he needs it. Remember that your long-term goals are your student’s independence and your strong relationship with him.
Listening well to your college student is not an easy thing to do. It is definitely not a passive process. It is hard work, and it improves with practice. Listening well sometimes means biting your tongue. But sometimes, listening well to your student is just what you both need – and just the way you will get to know her better.