Our youth say that adults don’t really listen to them, the kind of listening where they feel understood and truly seen. 

Thomas Gordon, who developed Parenting Effectiveness Training (PET) years ago, created a list of what adults generally do instead of listening first.  He called it “The Dirty Dozen.”  It includes:

  • Ordering
  • Warning
  • Moralizing
  • Advising
  • Using Logic
  • Criticizing
  • Praising
  • Labeling
  • Analyzing
  • Reassuring
  • Questioning
  • Avoiding

These are behaviors adults do instead of listening to understand.  . .  FIRST.  These behaviors may be appropriate and useful.   However, if done FIRST instead of listening, the intended message might be lost.

Reflect a moment about how YOU would feel if your supervisor acts in these ways or your spouse or your mother. . . instead of listening first to understand you.

Listening to understand is not listening to think of what to say next or listening to argue your point or a “I know exactly what you mean.  Let me tell you about my experience.”   It is a quality of listening that, at its core, is about a desire to understand the speaker, a desire to connect to their essence.

Peter Senge, professor at MIT and author of “The Fifth Discipline,” describes this quality of listening as:

To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words

You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. 

You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is.     

Students today are starved for this kind of empathic listening.  If students had many experiences of being heard and truly seen, I believe their levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation would decrease.  Their resilience would be nurtured. The pandemic has heightened their social emotional needs for connection.  If every class started with an opportunity to share and be heard, engagement would increase; learning would be enhanced.

I am working with a school that asked me to help them start Listening Groups, which is a small group of students who meet regularly to share and to be heard.   The teachers saw their students not showing up for distance learning, not engaged as evidenced by blacked-out screens, no chats, not turning in homework, etc.  Listening Groups at my school were one of the best memories my students had of middle school. Now 26 years-old, Ian said he learned how to listen, how to understand another person’s point of view, and to understand the importance of feelings. 

The need to be heard and seen is not just for students.  Adults have this same need, too. 

How might you include more acts of listening to understand in your relationships?