Connecting at the Dinner Table – Active Listening

Do you ever feel like there are so many distractions around you that you are always half listening to those you are having conversations with? Technology, noise, fulfilling others needs…how do you connect when there always seems to be something pulling you in a different direction than where you can be fully present?

Malinda Carlson from the blog A Fine Parent says, “Active listening paves the way for us to have a better relationship with our kids. To feel listened to is to feel respected, valued, and loved. When our kids feel like we really listen to them, it builds their confidence and self-esteem. It reduces arguments. It makes them feel intelligent and capable. It builds emotional intelligence….Active listening is a way of fully hearing what the other person is saying. Not just assuming we know what they’re going to say after hearing the first two words and then spending the rest of the time they are talking preparing a perfect response. Instead, active listening focuses on dropping assumptions and working to understand the feelings, motives, and views of the other person.”

My husband and I are in a stage where there aren’t many dinner conversations with our daughter as she is 15 months old. However, because our little one is not talking much yet, it is especially important for us to be fully present when she is trying to communicate with signs or other cues she uses to help ensure her needs are met, but also so that she is validated in her efforts to communicate with us! It may be easy for us to throw food on her tray and let her be but that doesn’t allow any of us to connect or communicate with each other.

Focus on the Family offers practical advice on the importance of communication in a family in the article titled Encouraging Family Conversation.

“Why is it so important that moms, dads, and kids talk to one another? First, a theological reason. Speech is a divine gift. It’s a vital aspect of the Image of God in man. As such, it’s an important part of what makes us human. Through deep and meaningful talk, we become bonded at a level that simply isn’t accessible to creatures of any other species. When this happens, we have the privilege of reflecting and sharing in the very life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity was founded upon interpersonal communication and interaction before the worlds began.

We’re made in God’s image, then. Speech is as crucial to our relationships with one another as it is to our relationship with our Father in heaven. The Lord has created us for intimacy. Conversation is the glue that cements the connection and makes it happen. Deep down inside we all want to know and be known by others, and talking is absolutely crucial to this process.

It’s worth adding that conversation has the most beneficial effects when it occurs in the context of physical togetherness. Research has indicated that actual words account for only 7% of interpersonal communication. The rest is conveyed through body language, the face, the eyes, and the tone of voice. This means that in becoming dependent upon electronic communication devices, we have lost about 93% of our ability to connect with one another in a significant way. Thus the importance of being together as a family and speaking face to face.

To put it in more practical terms, family conversation is important because it promotes and bolsters a sense of family identity. It creates an environment of love, acceptance, and belonging. This is important for every member of the household, of course, but it’s particularly crucial to the mental and emotional health and development of growing children. Kids need to belong. They want to be part of a group, a team.

We should add that lack of this kind of family identity is one of the key reasons for the growing problems of youth gangs, addictions, pornography, and many of the other social plagues we face in contemporary culture. If young people can’t find a sense of belonging with mom, dad, and siblings, they’ll look for it elsewhere. By way of contrast, studies have shown that when kids feel free to share what’s on their hearts at home, they’re less apt to experiment with risky behaviors and far more likely to develop strong character. That’s not to mention that relaxed, natural, and frequent parent-child conversation is crucial to the younger generation’s spiritual growth and the development of a deep and genuine faith (see Deuteronomy 6:7).

As you’ve discovered, the catch in all this is that quality family interaction doesn’t happen automatically. This is especially true in our busy, hectic, electronically distracted, two-income-family culture. If conversation is going to flourish in your household, it will be because you and your spouse model it in your marriage. It will also be the result of deliberate, intentional efforts on your part to place it squarely at the center of all your family relationships.

The first and most important ingredient is availability. You and your kids can’t talk to each other if you’re never around at the same time. You won’t connect if you’re always under pressure to be somewhere else or to put all of your energy into some other activity. If you really want to foster meaningful family conversations, you may need to re-evaluate your schedules. If the frenetic tempo of life is making it difficult to talk, see what you can do to slow the pace.

The dinner table is a good place to begin. Family meals lend themselves naturally to family talk. You can encourage reluctant youngsters to speak by giving them your undivided attention. Practice the skill of active listening. Make a priority of initiating conversation with each child. Use emotion-based rather than fact-based language. In other words, don’t get stuck focusing on the things you’ve been doing or the tasks you have to accomplish. Instead, try to get at the feelings that are bubbling just below the surface of your family members’ day-to-day activities. It also helps to have something to talk about-common interests, mutual accomplishments, collective memories, meaningful stories, perhaps even a shared family hobby like biking, hiking, or camping…If you want to get a conversation started, stay away from questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, try to come up with open-ended questions of a fairly personal nature.”

Remember that active listening takes practice and time. The article Active Listening for Parents from Parenting-by-Example reiterates some of the points from Focus on the Family with some quick tips to strengthen your Active Listening:

  • Be PRESENT — Remove distractions – No phones, no tv, no work at the table…Give your full attention to your family
  • Make Eye Contact
  • Watch Body Language for Additional Cues on how your child is feeling
  • Restate what they have said in your own words
  • Engage by asking questions – Be inquisitive about how they are feeling or what they are going through
  • Stay calm – don’t let your emotions hinder the conversation from continuing or from your child feeling like they can share
  • When they are done talking, offer encouragement

How do you ignore all of the distractions around us to actively listen to those around you, especially your kids?