Turn on Your Listening Ears

When my kids were toddlers, I often took them to playgroups at local parks or friends’ homes. At one playgroup, I remember smiling when another mom told her son Ryan to “turn on his listening ears” and he actually reached up to twist an imaginary dial near his ear. It was his signal that he had heard his mom and was ready to pay attention.

While I often asked my children to turn on their listening ears when they were younger, I think I would fall over if they repeated that phrase to me now as teenagers. Instead, they have other cues to let me know they need my attention. Sometimes it will be a straightforward, “Can I talk to you in my room” or a sweet, “Can you tuck me in tonight?” When they were younger, I knew something was wrong when they threw toys or lost their tempers.

Regardless of the signals used, it’s so important to listen with our full attention. Many years ago, I made the mistake of not taking my hands off my keyboard when my co-worker, Bob, stopped by to talk. As I chatted, I literally kept my hands over the keys, poised to continue typing as soon as he left. I wasn’t aware of the silent “I’m too busy to talk” message I was sending. Thankfully, Bob called me on it. He pointed out my body language and how it made him feel. Ever since that day, I am more mindful of how I give my attention to someone who stops by my office.

Have you ever chatted with someone who is constantly scanning the room beyond you? When this happens to me, I think, “Why are they looking for someone more interesting or important than me?” Frankly, it’s rude! While I am sure I am guilty of doing this myself, I do take active measures to help prevent it. For example, I once had an office with a large interior window, and co-workers were constantly walking by. When I held meetings in my office, I would purposefully turn my back to this window so that I wouldn’t be distracted. It was a small gesture, but important for me to give my full attention to the other person in my office.

With my children, I also strive to use body language to show that they have my full attention. In the car, where many great parent-teen conversations occur, I silence the radio. At home, I turn away from my email and face them. However, I don’t pause doing the more menial tasks that might be at hand, such as folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher. Not only is it tempting to just keep doing these tasks to get them done while we talk, I also think their routine nature is comforting to my children and encourages them to open up. It’s even better when we can do these everyday activities together.

Clearly, there are many ways to give someone your full attention, but why is it even important?

  • To gain insight. I learn so much by listening. I glean different perspectives and sometimes pick up hip, new vocabulary. I get information I need to do my job or to be a better parent.
  • To build connections. I better understand the challenges others are facing and how I might help them. I try to show empathy, which can lead to more discussions in the future. My children and my employees need to know that they are being heard, that their thoughts are valued, and that they are cared about.
  • To model good behavior. If I don’t listen to my kids, why would I expect them to listen to me? Likewise for employees.

To give someone my full attention, I keep in mind this best practice:

  1. Stop what I’m doing. Unless the everyday activity is going to make someone feel more comfortable, I stop, really stop, what I’m doing. I put down my book, take my hands off the keyboard, face the other person, etc. If I need to pay attention to someone on the phone, I get away from my computer and other distractions. Sometimes, I’ll stand up to help me focus. If I’m in the car, I turn off the radio. I try to make the other person feel that he or she is more important than anything else going on.
  2. Listen without interrupting. I do my best to not jump in with my thoughts or a solution until the other person has finished explaining things.
  3. Ask questions to show that I am interested and to clarify anything that isn’t clear. I use the same open ended questions at home and at the office. E.g., “Tell me more” or “Give me an example” or “How did that make you feel?” or “What do you think we should do?”
  4. Summarize what I’ve have heard, as simply as possible.

When you turn on your listening ears, are you doing everything you can to make your child or employee feel that they are the most important person in the room? What approaches work best for young children vs. teens? When have you found it most challenging to give your full attention to someone at work? Please share your thoughts. I am listening!


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “Turn on Your Listening Ears

  1. Karen, you were a kind and generous mentor when I was but a newbie at my very first job. I look forward to reading your advice now that you’re a seasoned parent as well as executive!

  2. Thanks for the post Karen. I’m at the “Managing through change (of diapers)” phase, so I’m really looking forward to reading more of your posts here.

    1. Hi Monica – good luck with the “changes” you are managing right now. I hope you find my blog helpful.


  3. Hi Karen, what a wonderful blog connecting parenting and leadership styles. I think everything you said here also applies to teaching, which is the path I’m on at the moment in my MA in Composition Studies program at SFSU. We are learning a lot about classroom pedagogy but the interpersonal interactions are also really important and involve elements of good parenting and leadership practices.

    1. Hi Susan – thank you for your support. It’s fantastic that you are working on your MA with an eye towards teaching, and I’m delighted that my first blog post resonates with you. I’ll be interested to know how my future posts might also apply to education professionals. Looking forward to hearing more from you.


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