Five Questions That Will Help You Listen (And Learn)

“Wait,” my oldest recently interrupted me. “Aren’t you supposed to be lending me your ears?” 

“What?” I responded, annoyed at being interrupted but also momentarily distracted by the image of handing over something akin to the fake rubber yoda ears shoved into our costume bin in the basement. In the time it took me to shake the image, take a deep breath, and prepare to dive right back into my, “list of very important things my kid must understand and that I must tell them right now,” I remembered his reference.

The week before I had been presenting at a conference. One of the other presenters, Dr. Anne Gearity, had said something I later shared with my kids. She said, “Young children need your words. Older children need your ears.” 

What she meant of course was that very young children sometimes need us to help them make sense of their experiences by giving words to describe them. As our kids get older, kids need us to listen as they make sense of their experiences themselves. 

Listening takes practice.

My recognition that I had been talking for a while transformed my irritation into an important realization. The impulse to jump in to reassure, share an opinion, or deliver a lecture can be strong. After all, we have so much experience and wisdom to impart! The urge is even greater when our kids are grappling with challenges or we’ve hit a rocky spot together. 

Lending kids our ears sometimes requires significant impulse control. Especially because some kids and teens don’t have much to say right away. Listening takes practice. That’s why it can be helpful to have questions ready to go that put us right into a listener’s frame of mind. Here are five that I find helpful:  

1. “Is there anything else you want or need me to know?”

When we launch into problem solving or lecturing mode we are often reacting to just a fraction of what has actually happened. Whether it is one text thread we see on our teen’s phone or the tail end of an argument we catch between siblings, we are usually reacting with incomplete information.

It’s tricky because we usually feel like we know more than we actually do. We often react quickly based on information we pull from the past or our worries about the future. This sounds like, “I can’t believe you would text that to someone…how are you going to handle college if you can’t even handle your phone!” or “Billie I have told you this one thousand times…you are always picking on your sister!”

In other words, we have a story we are telling ourselves about what is going on and/or  where it is headed. Sometimes this story is accurate! Other times, not so much. But when we use that as our starting point, we are more likely to miss the mark or amplify conflict. Instead, consider pausing to ask, “Is there anything else you want me to know / think I need to know? 

2. “This is what I am hearing… Am I getting it right?”

Rather than launching into our own hot take, it can be helpful to simply “mirror” back what we are hearing. This not only helps us correct misunderstandings, but gives our kids a chance to find different ways of explaining things that are more accurate if they don’t feel understood. 

When in doubt, pause, mirror, and ask, “Am I getting that right?”

3. “Is there anything I can do to not make this worse?”

Our impulse to “fix” things assumes that our actions or solutions inherently make things better. The reality is that sometimes we inadvertently make things worse, especially if we move too quickly. As our kids get older, social and academic challenges can be complicated and messy. Older kids need space to consider the consequences of next steps instead of just responding to our interventions. 

If your kids are anything like mine, they might have a difficult time answering the question, “What can I do to help?” while having a much clearer sense of what they don’t want us to do. While our kids can’t always dictate next steps, we can take this information into careful consideration. 

We can acknowledge that by asking, “Is there anything I can do to not make this worse?”

4. “Would it help to write it down?”

Some kids find it hard to put feelings and thoughts into words. Writing slows processing down and allows them to both figure out and express what is on their mind. This strategy can be helpful in-the-moment if a child is stuck trying to verbalize what they are feeling. We can also provide ongoing opportunities for kids to write down what they are thinking about or wondering. 

For example, we keep a plain spiral notebook on our bookshelf for “hard to ask questions or hard to share things.” Anyone in the family can pop a question or a thought into the notebook and then we can use that to get a conversation started. 

Some kids might never write a single thing in a notebook like this. Others might fill pages. We will never know unless we invite them to try. 

5. “Do you want me to help problem solve or just listen?”

Sometimes kids just want us to know that their day was hard, overwhelming, challenging, or exhausting. It is tempting to skip over this with our own ideas of how to “make it better.” We usually have all kinds of opinions about the best next steps when our kids hit a rough patch. This makes sense! After all, we have decades of experience working in our favor. 

The reality though is that we don’t always know what’s best. Plus, some challenges don’t have “solutions.” They’re just hard. Learning how to tolerate distress is an important part of growing up and simply being heard can make things feel more manageable. 

That’s not to say that problem solving or sharing advice is never helpful. But asking for permission to share makes all the difference in the world. This is especially true for teens. Instead of, “I know exactly what you are talking about! Let me tell you all about it.” Try, “ I don’t know exactly what you are feeling, but do you want to hear how I struggled with something kind of similar as a kid?” Or, “Do you want me to share a few ideas about what you might choose to do next? It’s okay if you don’t right now. Can I check in about it again after dinner?” 

Showing up with our ears ready.

For some of us, listening comes easily. For others, we have to sit on our hands (or tape our mouths) to keep ourselves from taking over. For all of us, creating space and invitations for our kids to make sense of and communicate their thoughts, feelings, and needs is an important part of growing up (for parents and kids alike). 

So whether it is hanging a pair of yoda ears in the kitchen as a reminder, printing out these questions, or generating a list of your very own, let’s do our best to lend our ears to our kids when they need it most.