How many of you, as a child, were told by your parents or teachers, "You're not listening!" But what was the real message they were sending? Most likely it was: Be quiet; Don't talk back; Don't argue with me. Sit still in your seat. Don't interrupt your teachers. Respect your parents. Don't speak until you are spoken to. Children should be seen, not heard. Be obedient. Often, the adults in your life were not really interested in you. Rather, they were more concerned with imposing their will upon you, and wishing for you to parrot back their ideas and attitudes. You were being judged, devalued, criticised, controlled or coerced.

Unfortunately, this type of treatment can lead to severe adult depression and neuroses: see Is Psychiatry Lying, by Martti Paloheimo M.D. When you are getting two conflicting messages, it's called a double-bind communication which Gregory Bateson showed can lead to schizophrenia or borderline personality disorders. This can then precipitate abuse, violence, even schoolyard massacres: see Richard Grossman's essay: Voice Lessons, Littleton, Colorado.

Yet, what if you, as a child, were really listened to, and your observations and feelings valued? What then? Would the world collapse? When I read the following passage, I remembered it as being a perfect example of listening, and of how comforting it can truly be. What the father did is simple. The next three paragraphs are by Gershen Kaufman, from his book "The Psychology of Shame." :

"Consider the following situation. A man has two sons; his oldest son, along with three friends, requires two more players to complete their basketball teams. They invite the man and his younger son to join. The younger boy begins playing the game displaying much excitement and joy, but his mood gradually turns to disappointment when he is not given equal opportunity to play; he is a good four years younger than the other boys. Once the game becomes truly competitive, the younger boy is increasingly excluded. In response he displays a "pouting posture"; pouting is a mixture of deepening shame and anger. The younger boy's tolerance finally evaporates and suddenly he flees into the house, crying. His father follows him in, and finds theboy crying bitterly on the couch. Sitting down beside his son, father places an arm around him, and listens as the boy intermittently cries and voices his feelings: "They aren't giving me the ball. They don't want me out there. They're ignoring me." The boy feels unimportant, little. Mixed with distress and shame is intense rage at his humiliators. His father simply acknowledges how badly his son feels and agrees openly with everything he says, "You're right, son, they don't want you in the game and you feel little." In effect, father is approaching the boy's shame, allowing it expression. His father is validating both the boy's perception of what was actually happening during the game and his inner experience of himself, his shame. The boy suddenly dries his tears, gives his father a hug and abruptly darts back outside to rejoin the game, his shame having been released.

This situation illustrates how the sudden, unexpected reduction of positive affect (excitement and enjoyment), as long as it remains a partial reduction, can activate shame. I have to assume he was imagining scenes of playing and contributing as an equal team member and that he was also imagining himself playing well, though the image he sought to match was one four years older. Children must contend daily with older siblings and adults whom they can never match in skill or accomplishment, guaranteeing a perpetual vulnerability to shame in the earliest years. When the boy's particular expectations concerning his playing on the team-his imagined scenes of positive affect-became repeatedly disappointed in reality even though he still longed for them, shame became activated. Even after running into the house, he had not renounced the scene.

Whenever an individual's fundamental expectations (imagined positive scenes or desired outcomes in relation to people, events, or accomplishments) are suddenly exposed as wrong, shame is activated. Whenever expectations are thwarted or disappointed, shame is also activated. These are all instances of the innate activation of shame, triggered by the partial or incomplete reduction of positive affect or of the imagined scenes thereof."

So what this father did was simple, just acknowledging and validating the boy's experience. But the interchange could have gone badly, if the father said this: "When you drop the ball, it is like me dropping the ball. Now get back out there and try harder!" In this case, the father's shame and sense of inadequacy is being activated, and it is being used as a method of control. What the father is saying here is "You are embarrassing me. I am disappointed in you." A crushing blow to a child dependent on its parents for acceptance, love and approval. Unfortunately, these words probably sound very familiar to you. The problem is multigenerational in nature, rooted in your parents upbringing. If a child says to you. "No!" or "I don't feel like it," for whatever reason, do you just leave him alone? Probably not. The problem has to do with the very nature of how today's society is constructed, our schools, military and corporations. It has to do hierarchy, and division of labor. It has to do with how we value ourselves. We live in a shame based world.

According to Grossman's article: Giving Your Child Voice, "One of the most important psychological factors in raising a family is giving children "voice." What is "voice"? It is the sense of agency that resides in all of us, that makes us confident that we will be heard, and that we will have impact on our environment. Exceptional parents grant a child a voice equal to theirs the day that child is born. And they respect that voice as much as they respect their own.

How can you give your child "voice"? There are three rules. First, assume that what your child has to say about the world is just as important as what you have to say. Second, assume that you can learn as much from them as they can from you. Third, enter their world through play, activities, discussions: don't require them to enter yours in order to make contact.

According to Ishikawa and Fullmer (1998): :

"Listening is a skill. Family therapy uses a direct system to concretize listening. It goes like this:

What did you hear "Jane" say?
What did you (second person) hear "Jane" say?, etc. etc.
Ask Jane if you heard what she meant for you to hear?
Continue to check out each message for each person.

The typical "normal" listening pattern is something like this: "I know you think you heard what I said. But I'm not sure you know what I meant. Therefore, we may not be on the same page or even in the same book."

So how can we develop the skill to listen better? When we communicate with each other, there are two components to the message, the content and the feelings. For example: a 2nd grader says: "I don't like school. It isn't much fun." The first part of the message is the feeling: "don't like." The second part is the content: "isn't much fun." According to Cormier, the skill of listening has four components:

1. Clarification
2. Paraphrasing
3. Reflecting
4. Summarizing

The first two components have to do with the content of the message. When the message you receive is unclear, vague or ambiguous, a listening response is to say "Can you clarify that for me? Do you mean that? Are you saying...?" Not only do we wish to check the accuracy of the message, but we also want to encourage the person we are talking with to elaborate. It sometimes takes strength and courage to ask these questions, because we may be also encumbered with our own personal baggage: for example, we don't want to look stupid. When we paraphrase, we help the person focus on the key content of the message.

Reflecting has to do with the affective part of the message, the feelings. When we reflect, we restate or clarify the feelings that are being expressed. This is to encourage the other person to become more aware of them, to express more of them, to express them with more intensity, or more accurately.

Lastly, summarizing is what ties everything together. It condenses what has been said both in content and affect, with the purpose of identifying major themes of the message, to interrupt excessive rambling or to review progress in solving the problem.

Now check out my webpage on the Johari Window, a model of interpersonal communication which appears to have been spawned by ideas from Game Theory.

An example of listening is my true story: "The Mediation."

The story Please Listen., reminds me of a trick that I sometimes use, and that is to seek advice from someone that I want to get to know better. It always works because it is a wonderful way of making people feel good! People love to give advice, and surprisingly, you do learn alot from these conversations. For example, this is a great tactic to use during job interviewing. If the interviewer voices objections to your qualifications, you simply ask for advice on overcoming this particular fault. Often just this simple ability to humbly take advice will open all kinds of new opportunities!


Bolton, Robert (1979) "People Skills: how to assert yourself, listen to others and resolve conflicts,"Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice Hall, 300 pgs.
Burley-Allen, Madelyn, (1982) "Listening: The Forgotten Skill,"NY:Wiley. 153 pgs.
Cormier, William H. & Cormier, Sherilyn L. (1985). "Interviewing Strategies for Helpers," 2nd Ed. Monterey CA: Brooks/Cole. pg. 89-111.
Grossman, Richard (1999). "Essays on Psychology and Life"
Ishikawa, J.S. & Fullmer, Daniel W. "Family Therapy as the Rites of Passage," in Educational Involvement, Published by Pi Lambda Theta, Hawaii Chapter, volume Four, November 1998, pp. 31-43.
Fullmer, Daniel W., (1978) "Counseling: Group Theory and System, 2nd Ed." Cranston, RI:Carroll Press,502 pgs.
Kaufman, Gershen (1990). Stick Up For Yourself: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Kaufman, Gershen (1996). "The Psychology of Shame" 2nd Ed. NY:Springer pg. 29-30.
Paloheimo, Martti (1994) Is Psychiatry Lying?

Last updated 26 August 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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