When a few of us traveled to Reno with my friend Carrie, she called her sons, who both happen to live there. She invited the younger to meet us for dinner and the older for breakfast. “But only if you can make it,” she told them. Despite the fact that both boys had plans, they rearranged their schedules so they could join us.
“I can’t believe your sons dropped what they were doing so they could hang out with you and your middle-age friends,” I told her when she got off the phone.
Carrie laughed. “Part of the draw is a free meal,” she explained.
Once I met her sons, it was pretty obvious that a free meal had nothing to do with it, especially since they both have been financially independent since graduating from high school. There was absolutely no doubt that the reason the boys made such an effort to meet us was that they both wanted to see their mom. By the end of each meal, I knew for certain that Carrie’s sons not only loved her, but like and respect her as well.
I spent a good deal of time on the four-hour car ride home analyzing Carrie’s mothering skills. I wanted to absorb some of her parenting wisdom in hopes that fifteen years from now my girls would be as eager to share time with me. But as I shifted through her mealtime interaction with her sons, I struggled to come up with the key. Carrie’s boys talked freely and easily, filling her in on their lives, even though she didn’t ask many questions. When one of her sons mentioned an issue involving their dad (Carrie’s ex-husband), Carrie didn’t share her opinion on the matter or offer any advice. She simply nodded her head and listened.
“All Carrie did was listen,” I concluded, and slowly the light began to dawn.
Maybe the reason Carrie’s boys made such an effort to see their mom was because she listened–really listened–to them.
Stephen Convey, author of the bestselling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, calls listening “the magical habit.” He advises that “it is better to listen to understand than listen to reply.”
This idea of “listening to understand” turned my concept of listening inside out. I realized, after paying closer attention, that I almost always listen to reply, especially when it comes to my children. As a matter of fact, that is what I thought listening (and parenting) was all about–listening to offer a solution, advice, or aid. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to tune my children out because I don’t want to resolve one more crisis or hear about one more issue. By the end of the day, I can feel worn out from my problem-solving efforts.
But when Carrie conversed with her sons, she didn’t hand out verbal bandaids for every topic that came up. Instead, she listened, carefully and thoughtfully. And she didn’t seem exhausted by the time the check arrived either. Granted, Carrie’s children are much older than mine and responsible for their own lives, yet I had to wonder: If I listened to understand more, would I need to reply less?
With this in mind, I asked my oldest daughter Emma if she wanted to take a walk with me after dinner. She raced to her room to get her shoes. As we headed down the driveway, I remained silent and let Emma take the conversational lead. To my surprise, she began asking me questions about what I was like when I was her age. What clothes I wore, what subjects were hardest for me, and if I liked high school. After I answered, I asked her, “How about you?”
While she chattered away in reply, I concentrated on really hearing what she was saying. As we circled the block, I came to understand that she was wanting to explore a “style identity” for herself but didn’t want to go too far out on a limb, that she was worried about math and how hard it is for her, and that the upcoming graduation of some eighth grade friends was prodding her to think about high school. But mostly what I heard was that she wasn’t asking anything from me. She just needed me to listen as she felt her way toward finding the answers within.
Instead of feeling drained from our talk, I actually felt renewed. It felt like a privilege to have a glimpse into my daughter’s life, and I was intrigued by her problem-solving processes that differ from mine. This is not to say that suggestions and advice will never have a place in our conversations, but listening to understand initially might help me adjust my solutions to better fit her needs.
Theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty to love is to listen.”
Carrie already knows this, but I am just realizing the importance of listening well. Of listening to understand.
At the end of our after-dinner walk, Emma said, “Oh, I wish we could keep going, and talk all night long.”
I promised her we would walk and talk again soon. And as we strolled home, I smiled to myself, anticipating the day fifteen years from now when Carrie and I visit wherever Emma is living and she meets us for lunch.