When your child leaves home to head for college, you worry about losing contact with her. If she will be living at college, and perhaps not returning home for several weeks or months, you worry. However, it is possible that, with some effort on your part, your communication may become even more meaningful.
This post is the first in a series of five posts that may give you food for thought about how you communicate with your college student. We’re posting one of these articles each week over the next five weeks. Some of our suggestions may be common sense reminders, and some may be new ideas for you. Obviously, communication skills are interrelated, so consider all of these suggestions together. This first post concerns how you listen to your student. In future posts we’ll consider nonverbal communication and the signals that you send, how to check perceptions to make sure you understand what your student is really saying, how to ask helpful questions, and how to frame some of your messages so your student may be willing to listen. We hope that thinking about how you listen and talk to your student may help you to keep all of your communication doors wide open.
Listening may be one of the most important, and undervalued, communication skills that we use. Unfortunately, many of us believe that listening is passive and that if we’re not talking, we’re not really communicating. Listening well is difficult, and doing it well takes practice. Listening well will help you understand your student better and will also model listening skills for your student. Hopefully, he’ll also learn how to listen to you. We’d like to offer eight suggestions that may help you listen more carefully to what your college student has to tell you.
Listening to your student
- Stop talking (and doing) and listen. It sounds simple enough, but we don’t often do it. Listening well means taking time to do it and giving it your energy. Think about what you do when your student is talking to you. Do you have one eye on the television or the computer screen? Are you working on the grocery list or brushing the dog? Sometimes that’s fine, but sometimes a conversation warrants stopping and just listening. Don’t respond either. Just listen. Bite your tongue for a while and let your student talk. Let there be some silence while she thinks about what she wants to say next. Just listen.
- Create a space for listening. This doesn’t necessarily mean (although it can) a physical space. Create space in your head. Clear the clutter. Clear the distractions. Eliminate the “noise”. “Noise” can be the TV or the other kids in the background, or the to-do list in your head or the work meeting tomorrow. It’s hard to listen well when you’re mind is on something else. Create listening space.
- Hold your judgments. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t evaluate, Don’t think about what you are going to say. Hold on and listen.
- Keep an open mind. If you’re holding your judgments, you have a good beginning on this, but keeping an open mind also means being open to changing your mind. Make sure you’re not just letting your student vent so that you can tell him what you’ve already decided or already think. Keeping an open mind means being willing to have a blank slate for a while as you truly hear what is being said uncolored by your preconceptions.
- Focus. Stay with your student. Think about your nonverbal messages (body language). Send the message that you want to listen. Make eye contact, lean forward, nod your head. Send positive signals – even if you don’t like what you’re hearing. Look at your student and listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Encourage her to continue. Let her know that you’re with her and that you’re hearing what she’s saying. Give her the reassurance that you want her to continue.
- Check on what you’re hearing. Ask for clarification. Ask for more information. Rephrase what you think you heard and ask if you’re correct. Don’t’ make assumptions.
- Validate what you’ve heard. Let your student know that, while you may or may not completely understand, or agree with him, you have heard what he said. You recognize what he is saying and you respect his opinion and feelings even if you disagree. Don’t negate or trivialize what he says or feels. Let him own his feelings and ideas.
- Take time before you respond. Ask if your student wants you to respond. Perhaps she just needed to vent and doesn’t want or expect a response just now. Perhaps she’d like you to take more time before you answer a question. Taking time before you respond, whether it is a minute or a day, indicates that you are thinking carefully about what you have heard.
Keeping the avenues of communication open begins with listening carefully and respectfully, but good listening definitely isn’t passive and it definitely isn’t easy. We’ve written an earlier post about some habits that hinder listening and also thinking about when and where to listen best. We hope you find them helpful as well. Experiment with your listening. Try just one suggestion and see if it makes a difference. You, and your student, may be glad that you did.
If you’re interested in more help with your listening skills, we recommend the following two books. Rule #1: Stop Talking! By Linda Eve Diamond, and The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir.