Active engagement in a conversation is hard work. I know, as does anyone with a child with additional needs, that patience is required. Sometimes my patience slips. Then my body language and manner of wanting to interrupt soon betrays my thoughts. But active listening is so, so hard.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. It’s not my daughter who produces this reaction in me, perhaps it is me. I sometimes catch myself waiting for the other person in a conversation to finish what they are saying so I can say my bit – and this isn’t just with people with additional needs.
I don’t think my talents are unusual. When someone is talking to me, I can predict the end of their sentence before they actually spit the words out. Sound familiar? Then I switch off listening in anticipation of getting my turn to speak next; and to my mind, to say what’s most important in the conversation.
In other words, I do exactly the opposite of what Laura Ashfield, in podcast Building Resilience in the Forest, called ‘active listening.’ Active listening is being present in the moment.
When I don’t do it, my body language must betray my anxiety to speak. Maybe I draw a breath in anticipation before it’s quite time, maybe there’s a slight movement of my mouth as I seek a point to interrupt. But how does this make my daughter feel?
I think many of you are in the same boat as me where our children don’t process information in their minds quickly. And maybe they have other speech and language needs too. Then to have one of the most important adults in their lives look on impatiently must affect their view of themselves.
If I were stumbling over words, having started a sentence and, once in it, not quite sure of how I’m going to finish the sentence, I would not be happy if someone jumped in with something else to say during one of my pauses. I might think, is this person really wanting to listen to what I’m saying? And if I had a negative self-image to start with, this would reaffirm it.
None of us do this consciously of course. But it’s easy to do as we’re trying to get out the door for school or work in the morning. It’s 8.03am, let me just help wrap up this dialogue.
I want my daughter to feel valued, and feel what she has to say is important and interesting. To do this I must show my interest. Thus I must listen actively. Look her in the eye. Try not to get ready with my words. Hold any attempts to move my mouth.
Oh yes this is hard! I’m not denying that. But I want to practice this most of all on her, because when I don’t actively listen to others they don’t necessarily assume its them who is the problem. They look at me and think, ‘He’s rude.’ Most people don’t have the same challenges to overcome, and so most people are less likely to internalise the signals I’m sending.
If I learn this skill on my daughter and then apply it to the conversations I have with everyone else, then I think all of my relationships would improve. With Debra, with the rest of my family, with friends – everyone around me would feel special. Isn’t that effect on others worth it for a little restraint on my part?
Yet the main reason is my daughter. I want to bolster her self-esteem and if it only takes three or four seconds of holding off on what I want to say to do that, then it is a small price to pay. Active listening on my part is hard. It requires mental effort. But she is worth that effort.