Tips on active listening for better communication

Dear St Andrew’s community,

Over the past couple of days I have had the privilege of undertaking a number of individual interviews with our Year 10 students.  The purpose of these interviews is to look at each student’s character profile, focus on their interests, strengths and passions, and then to link this in with the academic results we have from Allwell, NAPLAN and internal assessment.  As we enter these conversations to chat about the possible pathways open to our students, we have a rich amount of data to assist with the conversation.  It is always an incredibly productive and rewarding conversation as I gain an insight into what a number of our students are thinking for their future. Also this year, how that might impact on the subjects they choose for Year 11 under our new ATAR system.

An individual interview is a massive time investment on behalf of so many teaching staff here at the College, but it characterises our approach to enabling students to move confidently into their future and equally as importantly, we seek to provide pathways that will see our students use their interests and strengths. 

An interesting part of the process for me has been getting to know some of the Year 10 students in a very different context and building a positive relationship through active listening.  This was something that our Psychologist, Dr Jasmine Green referred to in her session with parents on Monday evening.  Communication is a key factor in any relationship, especially those with teenagers and children. Active listening for our staff is a communication skill that can bring greater connection, clarity and understanding to build positive relationships with each other and our students.

However, when it comes to my conversations with my own children I am aware that often when I am listening to them, I can become distracted, and don’t give my full attention, interject before they have finished talking/expressing themselves, or I have closed body language. I’m probably not alone in this trait!   Our children see through this and as Jasmine reminded us on Monday evening in her session, our aim should be to develop active listening, which is to have the intent to listen to the complete message and its meaning by paying attention to what children are saying and how it is being said. It involves being aware of body language, voice inflection, overall attitude and the meaning of what children are saying, both to validate communication and help children feel supported and understood.

By being active listeners, parents can strengthen their communication and relationships with their children. Some benefits of active listening for communication and relationships are:

  • helping children to feel valued, connected, validated and understood
  • building trust and credibility with a child
  • helping clarify a child’s thoughts and feelings
  • avoiding conflict and misunderstandings
  • making it more likely a child will talk to you, express themselves and seek your views in the future

So what does active listening involve?

Active listening is a skill that can be learned and practised.  I hope these tips help you as they help me both with my teenage children, students at school and in fact all conversations with others! You may have heard of these suggestions before however they serve as an excellent reminder.

  1. Give the child your full attention. This may involve stopping what you are doing or it may happen when you are both doing something together.  If needed, move away from a busy place to indicate you want to listen and give them your full attention.  If you’re like me, when you are talking to a child and you notice your mind is wandering, bring it back to what the child is saying. Prioritising time to listen actively and attend shows a child their feelings are important and that you are interested in what they are thinking and feeling.
  2. Use your eyes to listen. Make eye contact and if possible, be on the same level to show them you are ready to listen. However, be aware that teenagers sometimes converse better without eye contact, like when you are both travelling in the car and eyes are straight ahead!
  3. Listen carefully to what is being said. Listen to both what the child is saying and their body language, without interrupting and avoiding questions that break their train of thought. Focus on what they are saying and the meaning behind it, rather than what you are going to say next.
  4. Use encouragers. Show that you are interested by nodding your head, smiling or making other appropriate facial expressions, providing verbal encouragers.  Our aim is to help encourage our children to keep speaking and engage in what they said.
  5. Reflect the feeling. After they have talked about a feeling, thought, experience, etc. use the opportunity to respond and describe in your own words what you think they are feeling and why. For example, “You seem to be feeling a bit upset about not making the top netball team”. This can help demonstrate empathy and understanding of our children’s feelings and thoughts.
  6. Use pauses and silences. Resisting the temptation to fill silences is important when children are trying to think about what else they want to say, as it gives them time to think and respond.
  7. Ask open-ended questions. Open questions encourage more detailed responses where children can provide more deep and meaningful information.
  8. Summarise. Summarising their main points can demonstrate that you understand what they were saying and can allow an opportunity for the child to add something.
  9. Make non-judgemental statements. It is important to refrain from judgement statements. Particularly with teenagers who are developing their own opinions and ways of seeing the world.  Try to reflect or paraphrase what your child has said, in your own words in a non-judgemental way.  This invites the child to tell you more about what they are thinking or feeling.

Like any skill, active listening does takes time and practice to develop. It results in better communication and stronger relationships. Solid and open communication through the sometimes-turbulent teenage years will result in a stronger ability to connect when it really matters. If we improve our skills in active listening, then the way we relate to our children in day -to-day discussion will help tremendously when there are key things to discuss.  Practicing and improving our active listening is a skill that can help support healthy communication and strong relationships with children, but also with other adult relationships.

Reverend Chris Ivey

PRINCIPAL