Listening Without Looking
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
When we are spending time with a friend and sharing the funny story about what happened at work that morning, we are taking in loads of information about their interest in our story without even realizing it. Non-verbal cues such as body-language, facial expression, and eye contact tell us how engaged they are and what they’re feeling…
Looking directly at someone who you are listening to demonstrates interest and active listening. It’s an important part of our social rules. We usually find it rude or at least a little awkward when someone’s eyes are glancing at their watch or gazing over our shoulder distractedly when we’re speaking to them.
So it’s no surprise that we find it terribly important that our kids look at us when we’re speaking with them. A fair request, sure. But sometimes requiring eye contact actually sabotages what we really want….for them to listen to us.
Most kids feel anywhere from mildly anxious to completely flooded with anxiety when they’re on the receiving end of a “serious” conversation with adults. Without realizing it we are usually more intense…our own facial expressions and body language are giving cues to this child that there’s a lot at stake here.
By requiring eye contact from a child that’s already a bit nervous, we escalate the anxiety which decreases listening ability….
Some of you may have kids that do very well with eye contact in these situations, but those of you who have kids who struggle with it…you know who you are. And I want to challenge you to try some new ideas.
Try parallel conversations: Rather than sitting or standing face-to-face, try sitting next to your child shoulder-to-shoulder, or taking a walk together. Don’t worry about occasional distractions, just guide the conversation back to the topic-at-hand.
Car ride chats: Many great conversations about hard days at school, playground heartache, and teenage crushes have been had during a ride in the car. The kid in back feels more comfortable with your eyes glued to the road and might be more likely to open up.
Use a “listening object“: Kids young and old often feel more comfortable having a hard conversation when they have something to fidget with. Find a hand held object that your child can mindlessly fidget with while you talk. Objects that have sensory input but don’t require thought to use and are silent work best. Think squishy balls with stretchy bits, glittery wands with floating stars inside, beads on a string which can be mindlessly twisted, etc.
My suggestion is to not require eye contact with your kids when you are having important conversations, but to inspire it. Diffuse your own upset or nervous energy, lower your voice, bring your tempo slower and bring more “lightness” the the moment. If you’re worried your child isn’t listening, at the end of the conversation do a re-cap together.
“So, what do you think about all this?”
“What will you remember most about our talk?”
“What’s our plan for next time this happens?”
“What ideas do you think will work best?”
“How are you feeling about our chat? You ok?”
If you get lots of “uh-huh” – “yeah” – “I don’t know” – responses, don’t worry about it. They might still be processing, or feeling uncomfortable. You can always circle back later.
Remember, our goal is creating emotional safety and connection in our relationships with our kids so they feel inclined to open up, share hard things, and reach out to us when times are hard.
By turning on the spotlights and launching the Parent Inquisition each time we have an important conversation, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. Our kids will be less likely to confess to wrong-doing or come to us with the hard stuff if they worry they’ll get the third-degree.
So relax, and do your own listening. If your kid is sending you messages that they’re feeling overwhelmed or flooded by a conversation give them a better shot of making it through the talk by trying some new strategies – or press pause and come back to it when they (and you) are feeling more calm.