7.2 F-A-X Listening: Step 1
F-A-X LISTENING ✰✰✰✰
Communication is a surprisingly complex process—it isn’t easy. Hearing a message is different from understanding it. People don’t always say what they mean. Their body language can contradict their words. Our brains work so fast, that we can easily misinterpret a message. We need to slow down our thinking, which takes energy and focus.
Effective listening is really a simple process. (Not easy, but simple.) Each step of the F-A-X Listening process matches the three problem-solving steps we just learned. We learn step 1 in this chapter and steps 2 and 3 in the Problem-Solving Toolset. (The Summary Sheet at the end of the Problem-Solving Toolset summarizes all the steps of the Child Problem Toolbox.)
- Focus on feelings. (Step B1) The first step of F-A-X Listening is, quite simply, how to check whether you decoded a person’s message correctly. The secret to decoding messages is to know how to listen to what others mean, rather than just hearing words. This process is more of an art and an action skill than an exact science or passive process. We listen with our eyes, ears, brain, and heart (intuition). By using warmth, empathy, respect, and effective listening tools, we encourage people to share their thoughts and feelings and show we understand. People connect with deeper feelings that they might not be aware of yet. This step brings great relief from overwhelming feelings, which may be all someone needs.
- Ask helpful questions. (Step B2) We can use helpful questions to better understand people’s feelings. They still might be upset, though, because they are confused or have inaccurate beliefs about the situation. We can also use helpful questions to help them realize, on their own, that there is another way to view the situation. This brings new insights, greater self-understanding, and a readiness to resolve the problem.
- X-amine options. (Step B3) If people need to plan a response or choose a solution, “Ask helpful questions” (Step B2) and “X-amine options” (Step B3) to guide them as they set goals and choose the best solution to meet those goals.
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LISTEN When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem you have failed me, strange as that may seem. Listen! All I asked, was that you listen, not talk or do, just hear me. Advice is cheap: 35 cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper. And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless. Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless. When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness. But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you and can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling. And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious, and I don’t need advice. Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them. Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people because God doesn’t give advice or try to fix things. He just listens and lets you work it out for yourself. So please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you. Author Unknown
When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving advice
you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem
you have failed me, strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I asked, was that you listen,
not talk or do, just hear me.
Advice is cheap: 35 cents will get you both Dear Abby
and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.
And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do
for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.
But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how
irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you
and can get about the business of understanding
what’s behind this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious,
and I don’t need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s
Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people
because God doesn’t give advice or try to fix things.
He just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.
So please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to
talk, wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you.
Permission to reprint this page granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.
Chapter 7: F-A-X Listening Toolset 181
Step B1: Focus on Feelings ✰✰✰✰ Step B1: Focus on Feelings
Step B1: Focus on Feelings
a . IDENTIFY THE FEELING
When children misbehave or express emotions, we ask ourselves, “What are they feeling?” If we aren’t sure, we can ask, “How would I feel if that happened to me?” Think of a word that describes the feeling.
- Don’t worry about making children more upset by calling attention to their feelings. Children feel reassured to know their feelings have names—it means they are normal and it must be okay to feel them. When we use feeling words, children learn how to express themselves with words, rather than misbehavior.
- It’s okay to use big words. If we use feeling words in context, children learn “This feeling is called ___.” This is the same way they learn “this feeling in my stomach is called hunger.” (My son’s first feeling word, at age two, was “embarrassed”—and he was not very verbal.)
- If we are unsure what others are feeling, it’s okay to guess. If we are wrong, they usually correct us—and by correcting us, they better understand what they are really feeling. “Well, I’m not really scared, just careful.”
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There are two difficulties we often face when focusing on feelings (besides the temptation to use the communication barriers mentioned before):
i. Responding to Nonverbal Messages
When people aren’t saying anything, we want to tune in to their behavior. Here are some examples of nonverbal clues and their possible meanings2 :
sagging shoulders …………………………………………………………… discouraged, exhausted, despair arms folded tightly across the chest ………………………………… defensive, impatient, or rejected clenched hands and jaw …………………………………………………. angry or tense quivering chin ……………………………………………………………….. struggling with intense emotion fidgeting and foot tapping ………………………………………………. nervous or anxious
sagging shoulders …………………………………………………………… discouraged, exhausted, despair
arms folded tightly across the chest ………………………………… defensive, impatient, or rejected
clenched hands and jaw …………………………………………………. angry or tense
quivering chin ……………………………………………………………….. struggling with intense emotion
fidgeting and foot tapping ………………………………………………. nervous or anxious
Tone of voice is another clue to the real meaning behind people’s words. Emphasizing different words can change the meaning of the same statement. Here is an example from Listening for Heaven’s Sake3 :
Interpretation: “Someone else said it was silly.”
Interpretation: I may have thought it was silly, but I didn’t say so.
Interpretation: It wasn’t you I was talking about.
Interpretation: It wasn’t your outfit that looked silly, it was you.
Interpretation: I didn’t say silly exactly, I said it looked unusual.
Sometimes people hide or deny their feelings as a defense mechanism. For example, “It doesn’t hurt that bad” or “It doesn’t really bother me.” Don’t assume they aren’t really bothered. Instead, lightly acknowledge the underlying feeling in a matter-of-fact way and give them permission to feel that way. For example, “I know you’re trying to be tough, but it’s okay to admit it hurts.”
ii. Tuning into Feelings
Many people have difficulty getting in touch with feelings. Feelings can seem like a foreign language if we have any of the following traits:
- Logical and analytical
- Raised in an over-controlling family where negative feelings weren’t allowed (learned to stuff or ignore feelings)
- Taught not to express any strong emotion, positive (tears of happiness) or negative
Don’t view these last two statements as blame or criticism of your parents. Remember, before the 1960s effective listening skills were not commonly known to parents or professionals. There was little information about the mind and emotions. If the information was not available to our parents, they could not have taught it to us. They, too, did the best they could with the resources they had.
If you struggle to find a name for feelings, the cartoon on the next page might be helpful.
b. IDENTIFY THE THOUGHT, BELIEF, OR EVENT
Usually, a person’s statement includes one of the following clues:
- The event that caused the feeling.
- The person’s beliefs or thoughts about the situation, which influence their perceptions and feelings.
If we are confused about why a person has these feelings, we can clarify facts without using journalistic questions. We do this by tying the facts to the feeling they caused. For example, “Let me get this straight. First this happened . . . then you felt . . . so you did . . .”
Be careful not to confuse thoughts and feelings. For example, “I feel the teacher shouldn’t give us so much homework.” The belief is that the teacher is giving too much homework. The feeling might be “overwhelmed” or “frustrated.” We learn in Chapter 9, “Keep Your Cool Toolset,” that our feelings are a direct result of our beliefs about an event. If our beliefs are inaccurate or unhelpful, we experience misguided or unhelpful feelings. As we listen to others, their statements often reveal these inaccurate or unhelpful beliefs. For example, a child might say, “My coach doesn’t like me because she told me I could do better.” The child is assuming the coach said this because she didn’t like her, which might not be accurate.
Try to balance thoughts and feelings. If we overemphasize thoughts, we tend to forget about people’s feelings and start analyzing or judging. If we focus only on feelings, however, we might feed into inaccurate beliefs. We need to maintain our objectivity while remaining in touch with the other person’s feelings and perspective.
c. SUMMARIZE WHAT YOU THINK THEY MEAN
First, we listen intently, identifying (in our minds) the speakers’ feelings and thoughts. Then we check whether we understood them accurately by restating in our own words what we think they mean.
So we don’t come across like a know-it-all, we can end our statement with a questioning tone of voice. Even if we’re sure we are correct, we are usually better received if we sound like we are “checking this out,” rather than telling them what they are feeling.
Here are some possible responses:
Important Points to Remember
- If you identify inaccurate beliefs, do not tell people their viewpoint is wrong. In the example about the coach, it is accurate, but unhelpful, to say,” You’re overreacting. Your coach likes
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Cartoon by Mick Wells. Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW,The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.
Chapter 7: F-A-X Listening Toolset 185
you. She probably just wants you to try harder.” Many children would think or say, “No she doesn’t! I was already trying as hard as I could!” Now the child thinks we are siding with the coach and gets more upset because we don’t understand. Instead, we can repeat the belief in a slightly different way so the child hears what was really said. We might say in a questioning tone of voice, “So she wants you to do your best because she doesn’t like you?” When people hear their beliefs restated, accurately but differently, they see on their own that they might be misinterpreting the situation.
If they are too upset to see this, don’t pursue the belief any further until they work through their feelings. Examining beliefs is a logical process. When they move to the next step, “understanding the problem or beliefs” (B2), we can ask helpful questions to explore this area again.
- Use the word “I” cautiously; use “you” whenever possible. If this is a Child problem, we want to keep the ball in the child’s court. When we say “I,” we are talking about us, not them. “I” often leads to personal opinions or advice, so it is usually a barrier. Likewise, be careful using the word “we,” especially when talking about the other person’s responsibilities, such as school, work, or chores. “We” implies that the task is partly our responsibility. This might result in people accepting less than total responsibility for the solution or fostering dependency on others to solve their problems.
- Don’t repeat names people call themselves or others. If children say they’re stupid or ugly, don’t use the names in your response. You don’t want to give the negative more power or seem as if you are agreeing with them. Instead, get in touch with what happened and how they feel about it. For example, “I bet it was really frustrating to have to spend a whole hour on your homework, when you thought it would only take 20 minutes” or “Do you feel self-conscious in your bathing suit?”
- Match your tone of voice with their emotional intensity. Don’t overreact to what people say, “I bet you hated the teacher calling on you.” The child might have felt just slightly embarrassed. On the other hand, if someone is furious, don’t calmly say, “You’re angry.” Instead, say with emphasis, “You’re furious!” We don’t have to act furious, just emphasize the word so people know we understand how strongly they feel the emotion. If they are out of control, we can use our words and tone of voice to show we understand, but control our own emotions. This helps people regain control, without dismissing their feelings.
- Our words, tone of voice, and body language combined communicate whether we understood someone.
A Personal Story. When I was selecting my son’s preschool, I visited a school that taught S.T.E.P.4 classes to their teachers and parents. Since I knew the skills and philosophy would be consistent with mine, I was optimistic. I observed a young child who was sitting at a table crying. Her teacher walked up to her, remained standing, put her hands on her hips, and said in a deadpan voice, “You’re sad because you can’t play with the blocks right now.” While her words were constructed according to all the rules, her body language said she didn’t really care how the child felt. She looked irritated to have to deal with the child’s feelings. Had she knelt down next to the girl, put an arm around her, and sounded more empathetic, she would have been much more effective.
Universal Formula for Effective Listening
When we combine the three steps for focusing on feelings, we get a simple formula for responding to people’s problems.
“You sound like (or similar opening) you’re feeling (feeling), because (event, thought, or belief).”
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As you become more comfortable responding to feelings, you will develop your own personal style. Just remember to include the three a-b-c steps: (a) identify the feeling, (b) identify the event, then (c) summarize what you think they mean in your own words. In the following statements, the feeling and event words are emphasized, so you can see how they fit together in various, more comfortable statements.
To respond to nonverbal clues, match a feeling word to the behavioral clue, like the following examples.
Sometimes people have contradictory or confusing feelings. It can be helpful to let them know this is natural and normal.
What Do I Say Next?
When we first start using these listening skills, we can usually think of a first-response, but don’t know what to say next. Our first response opens the door and children usually start sharing more. Many parents panic at this point. We just continue reflecting the thoughts and feelings we hear.
- The person vents the emotions, feels better, stops sharing, and moves on.
- The person expresses confusion about why the problem happened or talks about logical facts. At this point, move on to the next step, “B2: Ask Helpful Questions.”
Here is an example of a listening conversation between a mom and her 13-year-old son.
A Graduate’s Conversation.
Here, Mom didn’t want to defend Dad or the girls, or offer a solution. She felt it was more important to Focus on her son’s feelings and leave the “ball” in his court. She could have taken the next two steps, Asking helpful questions and X-amining possible options, which she might do if the same problem occurs again.
When Not to Use Listening Skills
- Sometimes we can overdo reflecting statements. You don’t have to respond to every frown or comment—use discretion. You will learn to recognize when people want to talk and when they don’t. You’ll also learn when it’s best to give a nod, a comment, or say nothing at all.
- Don’t try to force people to share their feelings. A power contest could result if you push the matter. Let them know you are willing to listen and they are free to talk or not talk. Don’t be discouraged if people don’t open up to you quickly. This is a new experience which may be uncomfortable for them. If you’ve had unhealthy communication in the past, they might be hesitant to open up. Give them time and space, to rebuild trust.
- Turn complaints into requests and ask people what they want. For example, “You think the carrots look dirty when the skin’s on. Would you like them peeled?”
- If someone is trying to involve you in unhealthy or inappropriate interactions, such as gossip, simply nod your head or give a dull “um,” then refuse to discuss the topic further. Change the subject or stop making eye contact.
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