Child Psychologist, Adolescent Psychologist, Psychotherapy, San Rafael, Marin County, Communication

In Defense of Listening

In defense of listening? Who would doubt that listening is an important, even powerful tool? Nobody reading this – that is certain. However, we all (myself included) can forget just how profound it is to feel heard and how healing this can be for relationships. When we truly listen we are giving another person validation, attention, and acceptance. There is no meaningful or productive conversation that happens without listening. Listening allows us to connect and understand. Someone who doesn’t know better might mistake listening for not doing much of anything but I believe listening is the foundation necessary for doing great things in our relationships.

I am honored when I get to work with an adolescent and their parents. I think that parents commonly fear that by going to see a therapist that their parenting will be scrutinized, or worse, judged. There would be nothing worse than going to see someone for help only to leave feeling that you aren’t doing a good enough job. In fact, I have a lot of respect for parents who bring me their teenagers. Their relationships with their children mean more to them than anything and they’ll do whatever it takes to help their families thrive. I’m honored to get to meet so many families and to be a part of their lives for a short while in order to get them to a better place.

I can think of one such family now. The parents were both loving and devoted to their children. They were highly educated and very psychologically savvy. They had two kids, one of whom was a teenager daughter who was giving them a lot of trouble. Their daughter had a backstory that I won’t get into, suffice it to say that her early childhood had been troubled and she felt distrusting of others. She feared that she was unlovable. She couldn’t tolerate any pain in addition to what she’d experienced already. She was the sort of girl who protected herself by keeping others away. Her parents become the primary targets for her feelings of frustration and anger and they didn’t know how to relate to her anymore. She would either incite conflict with her family members or stonewall them. Her parents were incredible people and parents and yet they often had no idea what was going on with their daughter.

One week they argued all the way down the hallway to my office. The girl would begin to say something – always provocative and inflammatory- and the parents would jump in to remind her that she shouldn’t speak that way in public, much less to a professional who was trying to help. They sat down and they all were exhausted from trying to communicate without any success. Both parties were frustrated and angry. I could tell from the fragmented conversation that something had happened earlier in the day at school though didn’t know what exactly. The parents also didn’t understand why their daughter was so upset.

“Can I try?” I asked the girl’s mother, to see if I might be able to further the discussion. With her mother’s approval I turned to the girl and asked what had happened earlier in the day. She began to tell the story in a way that made her parents cringe. I simply listed. I nodded when appropriate and asked questions so that she’d elaborate on details that seemed significant. I didn’t correct her language or tell her she couldn’t swear. I didn’t let her prickly behavior get to me. I just listened. I listened until she was finished. There was a palpable sense of relief in the room once the girl had finished her story. She needed to express it in her own way and with her own words. She needed not to be censored or corrected. After she finished her mother turned to me and said, “Oh, … you just listened.” I knew the mother was wondering why she hadn’t thought to do just that.

I’ll never forget that session (though it occurred more than 10 years ago!) because it was such a beautiful illustration of the power of listening. I have to remind myself at times to just listen and I encourage the parents of families I am working with to do the same. In my experience parents and teenagers share the concern that the other “just doesn’t listen.” Lucky for all of us it’s a skill that we can continue to practice.

If you’re having difficulty communicating with your child or teenager, whether because conversations quickly escalate into arguments or because there is no communication happening at all, please know things can get better. I help children, teenagers and their families will all sorts of problems. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your goals for your family.

2400 Las Gallinas Ave. Suite 260A,
San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 233-2466

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