Step 2: Listen

Once you’re aware of any roadblocks getting in the way, the single most important thing you can do to improve your relationship with your son is learn how to listen effectively. Ask yourself:

  1. How often do I know exactly why my son is telling me some inane detail and understand the response he’s hoping to elicit from me?
  2. How often am I completely focused on every word that comes out of my son’s mouth instead of mentally wandering to all the other things I need to be doing and thinking about?
  3. How often does my son want to talk to me when he’s upset?
  4. How often does my son walk away from a conversation with me, feeling better than he did before?

When you refine your listening skills, the answer to all these questions will be: almost always.

How to ENCOURAGE your son to TALK:

Some of my sons never stop talking and some of my sons…choose their words more carefully. Boys are most likely to be talkative when they initiate a conversation themselves and they are encouraged to continue the conversation with thoughtful follow-up questions that show genuine interest. 

If your son doesn’t initiate conversations or give you a chance to listen very often, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good relationship with him; but it does mean you’ll need to work a little bit harder. In addition to refining your listening skills, you will also need to develop your questioning skills in order to get a dialogue started.

The best opportunities for conversing with your son will probably happen while the two of you are doing something else together (eating, fishing, shooting hoops, playing catch, working in the yard, etc). Conversations in these environments feel casual and low pressure. You might want to start by asking your son about something specific you know is going on in his life. If your son is private or reluctant to talk about himself, you might want to start with something less personal. Tell him about one of your own experiences or share a story you read in the news. Follow up with questions that prompt his thoughts and feedback. 

For example, my boys all like sports. There are always controversies going on in the sports world I can use to initiate conversation. One of my favorites was the story of the pitcher who would have had a perfect game and been added to the Hall of Fame if the umpire hadn’t missed a call (ESPN). Here’s a sample script:

MOM: Did you hear about the pitcher who would have had a perfect game if the umpire hadn’t missed a call and ruined his chance?

SON: That umpire should be fired.

MOM: What do you think the pitcher was thinking when he found out the call was a mistake but it was going to keep him out of the Hall of Fame anyway?

SON: Geez, I don’t know, mad. Really mad. 

MOM: Have you ever been really mad about a call an umpire made?

SON: (Shrugs) Umpires screw up calls all the time. 

MOM: So what happens to you when you’re on the mound and the umpire messes up.

SON: Well…I get mad, but I learn from it. I learn what he calls and where his weaknesses are and I use them to my advantage later. 

Even though the son in this example wasn’t overly talkative, and the topic wasn’t intimately personal, the mom still got to learn plenty about her son’s approach to life by asking good questions that indicated her interest and kept the conversation alive. I call these types of questions conversation starters. You can use them to either start a conversation or to keep it going.

Here are some rules for forming your own conversation starters:

  1. Questions should be open ended and not have a simple or single “right” answer.
  2. They should be deliberately thought provoking and might even be controversial.
  3. They should require your son to draw upon his own knowledge or personal experiences.
  4. They should lead to other questions.
How to listen and respond ONCE your son starts talking:

I have never been a great listener. My mind wanders easily. I’m a teacher by trade and it’s hard to turn off the desire to teach and just listen instead. And sometimes, when I’m feeling nervous or shy, I fill silence by talking too much. Listening is not one of my natural gifts. However, in the last 6 months as I’ve been consciously working on my listening skills, I’ve felt my relationships with every member of my family deepen and improve. 

The best part about listening effectively is you don’t have to be a genius to do it. In fact, knowing less often works in your favor when you’re trying to listen well. I’ve found when I stop talking and start listening, I usually discover I can trust my children more than I thought I could and I feel less pressure to solve their problems myself. Good listening benefits everyone. Here are the rules for active listening:

  1. Show your interest with appropriate body language and responses. Make eye contact, lean toward the person talking, nod, etc.
  2. Restate the key points of what you hear to show you understand. If your son is very young, you can restate what he’s saying almost verbatim, but this feels patronizing to anyone older than about age five, so be careful. It’s best to rephrase and restate what you’ve heard in the form of a question that gives your son the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.
  3. Ask clarifying questions to deepen your understanding of his experience. Imagine that you are a detective trying to discover what is going on inside your son’s mind and heart. There’s always more than meets the eye.
  4. Reflect what he seems to be feeling and listen again. Use phrases like: that’s terrible, that’s wonderful, you must be feeling so sad, you must be feeling so relieved, etc. Children (and adults) who hear words for what they are experiencing feel deeply comforted. Once your son is clear about what is going on inside his head, then he can begin to come up with good solutions himself.
  5. Ask if you missed anything. Invite your son to mention anything else weighing on his mind.

Last night I sat with one of my children for over an hour while he cried about multiple different challenges in his life. Had I responded in one of the many ways I have in the past: problem solving, pointing out all the things he still has to be happy about, or trying to teach him how to prevent these things from happening in the future, I might have heard about one of challenges; but by actively listening, I got to hear about every challenge that was weighing on his mind. In my experience, the most sensitive and important things going on in my sons’ hearts usually get divulged last. It’s important to hear everything. 

Here’s a sample script:

SON: Mom, my teacher said something really mean to someone in my class today?

DAD: (giving his full attention to her son) Your teacher said something mean? What did she say?

SON: She said if Zoe ever remembered her homework it would be a miracle.

DAD: Wow. How did Zoe respond?

SON: She just looked at the floor and didn’t say anything.

DAD: And how do you think Zoe was feeling when she looked at the floor?

SON: I’m sure she was embarrassed. 

DAD: I bet you’re right. You seem worried?

SON: (Nods) I forget my homework sometimes too.

DAD: So you’re worried your teacher might embarrass you in front of the class someday?

SON: (Nods)

DAD: Hmm, that IS a scary thought. What will you do if that happens?

SON: (Shrugs) I guess I better not forget my homework anymore…but if I do forget and she says something in front of the class…maybe I will just say, “I’m sorry I forgot, I’ll bring it tomorrow.” 

DAD: That sounds like an excellent plan to me. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

SON: (Smiling) Nope, that was it. Thanks, Dad.

In this example, the son started by talking about his friend. The dad could have jumped in and said how inappropriate the teacher’s behavior was and offered to write a scathing email, but by exercising restraint, he was able to hear what was really bothering his son. By doing this he also empowered his son to think of appropriate solutions himself.

Things That Will Make Your Son Stop Talking

There are a few things that will slow down or stall a conversation with your son almost every time:

  1. Criticizing – pointing out things your son did wrong
  2. Lecturing – making your thoughts the focus of the conversation
  3. Admonishing – issuing warnings to your son
  4. Threatening – communicating your intent to inflict pain or punishment
  5. Analyzing – attempting to explain or interpret your son’s circumstances
  6. Blaming – assigning responsibility to your son for something that went wrong
  7. Judging – forming an opinion or conclusion about your son’s circumstances
  8. Overreacting – responding with more emotion that the situation calls for
  9. Underreacting – responding with less emotion than the situation calls for
  10. *Giving advice – telling your son what you think he should do

Here’s a sample script:

MOM: I was talking to my sister last night and do you know what she said?

SON: What?

MOM: She said that even though she was a good kid who never went looking for pornography and didn’t grow up with the internet, she saw hard core pornography at least 10 times without even trying!

SON: (Nods) I can relate.

MOM: (shocked) What?! What do you mean you can relate?

SON: (Backpedaling) I just meant I’ve seen things I didn’t try to see.

MOM: Why didn’t you ever tell me this before? How many times have we talked about this? You’re supposed to tell me every time you see something inappropriate. Every time. Maybe we need stricter rules on the computer. 

SON: Mom, you’re overreacting.

MOM: No, I’m not! I’m trying to keep you safe. You don’t understand how addictive this stuff can be and what an unrealistic view of women it paints. I’m trying to help you have a happy marriage. I’m doing this for your own good.

SON: Okay, okay, I get it, Mom. 

And here’s an alternate version:

MOM: I was talking to my sister last night and do you know what she said?

SON: What?

MOM: She said that even though she was a good kid who never went looking for pornography and didn’t grow up with the internet, she saw hard core pornography at least 10 times without even trying!

SON: (Nods) I can relate.

MOM: (shocked but maintaining her cool) Oh yeah?

SON: Well, you know. Victoria’s Secret ads pop up sometimes when I’m on espn.com.

MOM: (smiling and nodding) Because lots of women go to shop for underwear on ESPN, right?

SON: I know, right?! So dumb. And sometimes they put those stupid ads from Game of Thrones on the bottom of the apps on my phone too.

MOM: You mean those ads that have the girl with the huge boobs?

SON: Yes!

MOM: So what do you do when that happens?

SON: I refresh the browser so a better ad comes up. 

MOM: (nodding) That sounds like a good solution.

SON: (shrugs with a slight smile) It works. 

I’ll let you decide which version of this conversation is more likely to make the son want to talk to his mom about things that bother him in the future.

*A Thought On Giving Advice

The final communication barrier has its own set of rules because there are times your son WILL want your wisdom and advice. You are his parent, after all, but he probably needs it less often than you both think. Here are some things to consider before you risk stopping a valuable conversation by offering your advice:

First, did he ask for your advice? Unasked for advice tends to be heard as personal criticism and rejection. It’s a vote of no confidence. This is especially true if your son is disappointed in his own performance.

Second, what does he really want from you? Sometimes even when children ask for advice, what they really want is reassurance that their own solution is a good one. Offering a different opinion may still feel like a personal rejection in these circumstances.

Third, even if he really wants your advice, is this something that will be better for him to solve on his own? In the book, Parenting with Love and Logic, the authors say, “The best solution to any problem lies within the skin of the person who rightfully owns the problem.” Successfully solving problems breeds confidence and independence. Tread carefully when you consider taking these opportunities away from your son.

Fourth, how emotional is your son? When your son is emotional, his logical brain is taking a back seat and he’s not in a position to evaluate your suggestions rationally. After you’ve listened, communicated your understanding, and given your son time to calm down, then you may guide your son to a solution if you’re certain that’s what the situation calls for.

For More Information, See My List of Resources:

Cline, Foster, and Jim Fay. Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. Colorado Springs, CO: Piñon, 2006. Print.

Coffey, Heather. “Socratic Method.” Socratic Method. Learn NC, n.d. Web. 20 June 2015.

Faber, Adele, Elaine Mazlish, Kimberly Ann. Coe, and Joanna Faber. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. New York: Scribner Classics, 2012. Print.

Goulston, Mark. Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting through to Absolutely Anyone. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.

Kennedy-Moore, Eileen, and Mark S. Lowenthal. Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.

Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina Payne. Bryson. The Whole-brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Delacorte, 2011. Print.

Photo: Pixabay