Improving Family and Close Relationships Through Listening

A guide to enhancing communication and strengthening connections with loved ones. As my daughters grow up, I find that getting them to spend time talking with me is quite a challenge. After all, short clips on YouTube and the latest game are far more interesting than Dad. Many parents who have already been through this stage told me that this would happen, but it's always more difficult when you actually experience it. The shift from when my daughters were young and often interrupted my work to play or go outside, to the phase where I ask, "How was school?" and the most detailed answer I get is "It was fine" before they head to their room was genuinely hard for me.

Another challenge was to get my daughters more connected with each other. The gap between my three daughters is only five years (12, 10, and 7). However, as they grow up, age differences, even small ones, become more significant as each has different interests.

A few months ago, I decided to try to overcome this new challenge by implementing a strategy I have been researching for the past nine years, which has proven very effective in the workplace. This is known as the listening circle. You can learn about it here. What we did was set a family time where everyone had to be present; for us, it was Friday night. During this time, only snacks are allowed no phones, tablets, or other distractions. Each of us had a talking turn. During this talking turn, the others listened without interrupting.

Based on my experience in organizational research, it took a few rounds, but the results were amazing. My daughters started sharing and got really excited! They were so into the activity that they didn't want to stop talking because they were so happy that the whole family was paying attention to them (and skipped Dad's turn a few times, not Mom's). We initially set one hour for family time. However, it lasted over two hours. That, and after it ended, my daughters went to play together instead of each going to her room.

We have continued to do this activity every Friday since then. It turned into a daily family habit and a very positive one. It was an important lesson about the significance of listening structures. One of the biggest misconceptions about listening is that it is easy and similar to being quiet. This misconception often makes our conversation shallow and prevents us from truly learning about and connecting with others.

Listening is a skill that requires time, effort, and motivation. So, we need to build systems that make it possible. It is unrealistic to expect all (or even most) of our daily conversations to involve high-quality listening. To allow the power of listening to work, we need to create the conditions that will allow it.

The same goes for our close relationship with our partners. As the relationship gets longer, and especially after having kids, the conversations become more task-oriented. For example: "When do we need to go grocery shopping?" "Where will we go on vacation?" "When will you finally get someone to fix the kitchen cabinet that has been broken for months?" (I still argue I can do it, but evidence from the past 15 years is not in my favor).

Couples can improve their relationship by setting up a system for active listening. Each partner gets a talking turn in this activity, while the other listens without responding verbally. Then, switch roles. The important part is not to talk about mundane daily stuff, like the kids' teachers or your plans for the weekend. After each partner takes their turn, you can freely discuss each other's disclosures. Importantly, choose a meaningful topic. Our daily lives are so busy that we barely have time for significant conversations and reflection. To reflect effectively, we need someone to listen to us. Begin with a 10-minute session, spending 5 minutes on each side. Though it seems brief, my time with students and workshops has shown me that adjusting requires patience and practice. Initially, even two minutes per side might feel like 20. However, the more you do it, the longer you can go, and the better it will impact the relationship.

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