Deep Listening- Learning to Hear Behind the Words

Deep listening is a skill that unfortunately, most people haven’t learned. We are often so caught up in the moment that we fail to hear what’s really being said, or what our kids are actually trying to communicate to us. This leads to frustration, hurt feelings, and lack of trust.

Let’s set the scene….

You get an important phone call. One you’ve been waiting for and can’t ignore. You ask your teenage daughter to help out by watching her younger brother so you can take the call. She willingly agrees.

Moments later your daughter receives a phone call from her best friend inviting her to dinner. She wants to go badly. You told your daughter that your phone call would take about 10 minutes, so she waits to talk to you.

10 minutes passed and your daughter comes into the other room to see you, to see if she can go, but you’re still heavily engaged in the conversation on the phone and you need more time. Your daughter leaves the room.

She returns 5 minutes later, a little impatient. You tell her, “I’m going to take another minute. Then I’ll drive you over there when I’m finished.”

Your daughter is now irritated, “Well, can I walk then?”

You tell her, “You can walk if you want, but it’s only going to take me another minute.”

After your phone call ends, you go back into the other room to find your daughter gone and her younger brother left alone.

When your daughter comes home a few hours later, you pounce on her:

“How could you leave your brother alone? I asked you to do me a favor and you agreed. That’s irresponsible!”

She yells back, “What do you mean? You asked me to watch him for 10 minutes, and I did. You told me I could walk. So I did.”

Stunned, you retort: “Your brother could have gotten hurt left alone! I told you I’d be another minute.”

“But you told me I could walk!”

Heads are butting and you are both becoming frustrated. Halt the record. Let’s pretend for a minute that this is a conversation going on in my counselling office. Here’s how we would handle it….

Me: “I think the two of you had a difference of perceptions in this situation. Then you each acted based on your different perceptions.  Jasmine, do you see any grain of truth to what your mother is saying?”

Jasmine: “Yes. That I shouldn’t have run out on my brother without makign sure it was OK, because he could have gotten hurt.”

Me: “Linda, do you see a grain of truth in what Jasmine is saying?”

Linda: “Yes, that when I said she could walk, she thought that meant she was free to go.”


There is always a grain of truth in the other side. But how would you ever know unless you truly listened to the other side?

The other person’s side makes perfect sense to them. Both sides are logical, based on the way each person sees it.

In this example, neither person could see the other side, not only because they were each caught up in the moment to see the other’s logic, but because they weren’t listening to each other. They were too busy defending their own positions.

The truth is, most of the time we all tend to want to defend our own positions. We do this instead of listening alot more than we realize.

Deep Listening: Knowing How To Respond

Before we react or say anything, we have one responsibility: to listen deeply. This is essential. Yet, of all parenting tasks, listening deeply to our own children is probably the one that we are the worst at.

First, by truly listening with undivided attention, kids can feel that we care about them and take them seriously.

The real purpose of listening to our children in any situation is so we know how best to respond to them.

Read that again.

How do we know the best thing to do, or know what to teach them, if we don’t understand everything we need to know about what’s making them act the way they are?

If our kids do something wrong and our first response is to yell, they will run for cover to protect themselves.

If our first response is to nag, they will tune us out.

If our first response is to listen deeply, they become more attentive and responsive.

Which would we rather have?

The Essence of Deep Listening

Before your baby could talk, how did you know what they wanted?

You did. Maybe not all the time, but most of the time.

You were listening at a level beyond any words. This is the level of deep listening. It’s picking up the energy between us in a way that we instinctively know what’s being communiated.

Once our kids learn to talk we forget about this natural way of listening because we start listening to the words. But, we never lose this ability to listen at this level. We simply need to quiet the mind to do it.

When the mind is empty and relaxed, then our senses are attuned to pick up what someone is really trying to communicate behind their words.

What Are We Listening For?

When we pay too much attention to the words, it keeps us from hearing what we really need to hear. We want to listen for 3 things:

  1. For what they’re really trying to communicate behind the words or actions. If your child were unable to use words, what would they be trying to say to you? When babies are young, we learn quickly that different cries mean different things. What’s more important than the words your child uses, is what they are really trying to say.

“You don’t understand me!” What is she really trying to say? “If you want me to respond properly, you have to show me love first. You have to say it with love.”

Your child doesn’t know how to say it. It’s buried too far in her subconscious. She doesn’t have the words to express it. If she knew how to say it, she would.

It’s like trying to describe “being in love” to someone who has never been in love. Or trying to describe a certain color to someone who is blind.

If we listen to the words only, we miss a lot.

We need to find out more by asking questions.

“Tell me more about that”, OR

“Can you give me an example of what you mean?” OR

“Explain what you mean again so I can understand better.”

When we ask these questions, our ears are attuned to what makes sense to them about what they’re saying. We can learn more about how they’re seeing the situation, which is causing them to react the way they are, behave the way they did, or feel the way they do.

If we’re too busy being “right”, or “the authority” or defending our position, we will never hear it.


2. How does your child make sense of their world? Wht is the grain of truth in what they’re saying? Not only do we want to know what lies behind their words, we also want to know the truth of it to THEM. We want to be able to see her “truth” as they see it.

Everyone has their own “truth” based on how they see the world. If we listen deeply we can hear it.

We want to keep asking questions until we are struck by something like, “Oh, I see how you could have come to that conclusion.”

It may not be right, but it makes sense to them- from their perspective.

Then you can reply with something like, “OK, I can see why you did that now. Now let’s talk abotu how there might be other ways to deal with a situation like that, that won’t get you in trouble.”

You can’t have that conversation if you’re not listening deeply to understand how they made sese of the world.

In order to hear the grain of truth you can’t carry your own preconceptions because you will only be listening to yourself. 


3. We want to listen for the specific thinking that’s keeping the child stuck or upset. Listening is the bridge between having a clear mind and knowing what we need to teach our kids in the moment. Unless we listen, we don’t know exactly what they really need to learn in any given situation.

Let’s set the scene for a minute…

Let’s suppose we take our 6 year old shopping and she sees a toy that she wants and she grabs it. We tell her, “I’m sorry, you can’t have that. It belongs to the store.”

She throws a first-class temper tantrum. All eyes are on you. You could yell, smack her, or yank her out of the store, because at this point we tend to listen to our own embarrassment. We only want our kid to shut up and not embarrass us.

But if we set aside our embarrassment, take a step back and truly listen, we might see that our embarrassment is not the most important issue here. What’s happening is a symptom of a larger issue. If we listen deeply we might here what we need to hear.

We might hear that the problem is our child’s state of mind is off. What does she need? Love and understanding.

We might hear that our child doesn’t understand how to keep from getting out of control, and how to keep her bearings when things aren’t going her way. This then becomes what we need to teach.

We might hear that her expectations, before she even went to the store, were unrealistic. It may mean that we need to prepare her before taking her into a store filled with things she’s probably going to want.

Whatever we hear through deep listening let’s us know specifically what we need to teach our child in the moment.

We may learn that the reason she’s being rebellious is because we aren’t working out decisions like this as a team so everyone has the same understanding.

Listen for any insecurity. Listen for any distress. Listen for what they don’t understand. Deep listening will guide you in the direction of what’s really going on and about what you need to teach.


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