Most parents I know want a positive connection with their kids. Many of those same parents struggle with knowing that their children text and talk to their friends more than to their parents. They don’t hear from their kids unless they need something, or have something to gripe or complain about. Both parents and children live in the same house, but for the kids it’s more like a hotel than a home.
Research on relationships reveals that the way that we listen to our kids may be the reason why that connection isn’t happening. And, if you and your spouse are listening to each other the same way you listen to your kids, you could also be causing a disconnect in your marriage without intending to.
I’m usually focused on something else when my teenage son starts in with, “Hey, Dad…” I could do a better job of listening. It’s not easy. It takes extra effort to shift my attention to hear what he has to say. Those are times when it would be better for me to say, “I really want to hear what you have to say. Give me a few minutes to finish this, so I can listen.”
Instead, I’ll nod my head and say, “Uh huh.” That’s a mistake, because I’m not really hearing or acknowledging what he’s said.
The Bible teaches that we should be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). An “uh huh” response just doesn’t cut it.
As it turns out, in our family relationships it’s more important to be happy with those who are happy than to weep with them when they weep. There’s a connection that can happen in the relationship when we hear and respond in the right way to a person sharing something they’re happy about. A sympathetic response to their bad news is good, but a positive response to their good news has extraordinary power.
The importance of how we respond to a family member’s sharing of positive experiences was discovered a few years ago by Dr. Shelly Gable, a research psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues. They published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures.” The paper described research on how people listen to and respond to another person’s good news and bad news.
Dr. Gable and her research team discovered that a listener’s positive response to a person telling them about something good they experienced influences that person to have stronger feelings of satisfaction, commitment and love toward the listener. It also increases trust and reduces conflict in the relationship. They found that a caring response to a person’s bad news, while helpful to the person expressing it, doesn’t have as strong of an effect on the relationship.
But here’s the important take-away: just any response by the listener to a person’s good news won’t do. There are four types of responses a listener can give. As parents who want a positive connection with our children (and our spouses), there’s only one type of response that strengthens that connection. The other three responses are no better than having a mobile phone without a signal.
Here are the four types of responses. I’m working on avoiding the first three—these create a disconnect–and making a habit of the fourth.
1. The Passive-Constructive Response
This is when we say something like, “That’s nice,” or “Good for you!” I’m afraid I’ve used that one too often.
2. The Active-Destructive Response
Some examples of this include: “I don’t believe it. How do I know you didn’t cheat?” or, “With an attitude like yours, you shouldn’t have been allowed to participate.”
3. The Passive-Destructive Response
When we allow our child’s good news to go in one ear and out the other, we’ve perfected this one. Not good!
4. The Active-Constructive Response
This is the response to master. When you want to build a stronger connection with your child, celebrate their good news with them. Sincere comments like comments like, “That’s awesome!” “Congratulations!” and, “You go!” score big when your enthusiasm is real. Then show curiosity about what they told you. Once you’ve heard the headline of their report, ask them to tell you more. Listen to their story, ask questions, and give feedback to show you’re listening. It won’t only work with your child—do it with your spouse, too.
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A version of this post first appeared on LifeZette.