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Helpful Listening and Responding: Effective Communication with Children

Introduction & Literature Review

Communication is vital for all aspects of life. The way people communicate through both verbal and nonverbal languages impacts on what message the listeners receive, whether intended or not. Communication skills are first learned by children through the family, by observing the way family members communicate. According to Ramsey & Sohi (1997), of all the communication processes, listening is understood the least, despite that it is the aspect most often used. However, communication stems deeper than the verbal words that are spoken. In fact, the total impact that words have on another is only 7-10% (Pease, 2000). The other 90-93% of the total impact comes from intonation and body language. The act of listening establishes a trust and respect relationship, provided each member of the conversation feels that they are being heard (Ramsey & Sohi, 1997). From a young age, it is necessary to practice effective listening and responding in order to keep the lines of communication open, and to establish mutual trust and respect.

Having the appropriate skills to communicate effectively with children will allow them to communicate with others in society more effectively. As Pontecorvo (2001) states, “parents, curb their children’s behavioural dispositions that are incompatible with those of the community and, at the same time, press for the acquisition of socially appropriate roles, value systems and habits.” Knowing how to respond to different scenarios in life will determine the effectiveness of the communication between parent and child. Both the parent and the child should come away from a conversation without feeling humiliated, threatened, or judged, and should feel free to engage in conversations later on.

Listening has been defined in many ways. One important aspect that has arisen in many definitions is that listening is not merely hearing what the other person has to say, but is active and includes such components as feeling for the other person, being attentative, interpreting what they are saying, and responding (Bostrom, 1996) (Umiker, 1993) (Pease, 2000). This means that what the speaker observes from the listener’s presence speaks back to them, letting them know how the listener feels, prior to any words being spoken.

An effective listener will show the speaker that they have their full attention and that what is being said is important to them. The listener will show that the feelings and rights of the speaker will be respected and acknowledged. Whether or not the listener shares the same feeling is not important. It is the enthusiasm to listen to words of the speaker’s feelings, and to respond in such a way that the speaker knows it is all right to have those feelings that is important (Umiker, 1993). However, if the listener fails to effectively listen, the relationship between the speaker and the listener will be affected (Umiker, 1993). The speaker will feel that the listener does not care, as well as have feelings of inadequacy, unimportance, and frustration. In many relationships, people are often at fault of not listening effectively. Misinterpretations and misunderstandings occur because instead of listening to the other person, the listener is preparing their response even before the speaker has finished speaking, and is waiting for their turn to speak (Umiker, 1993). When the speaker has paused to take a breath, the listener jumps in with their prepared remarks, without having listened to the speaker effectively.

According to Ballantine (1999), when parents share their values and expectations with their children, the relationship and communication skills are enhanced. This involves the active listening of children and the parents, who are the speakers, are to speak in a way that effectively communicates to the children what is expected of them, in a way that they will understand. Children require conversations to occur as it develops their “capacity to organize experience through internal reflective conversation, embodying both speaker and listener roles” (Trimble, 2002). They need to grow as listeners and in being able to express themselves. It is also important to prevent bad behaviour later on by avoiding such responses as name calling, insincere reassuring, threatening and giving orders (Umiker, 1993). Instead of discouraging children’s feedback, effective methods of responding should be put into place to help children grow. Barclay et al. (1999) suggest that children should be positively encouraged to discuss their experiences, such as through questioning.

Two aspects of effective listening and responding will be discussed in detail. The first is Body Language, and the second is Responding. When responding to what the speaker said a crucial point to remember that will prevent many arguments and disagreements is that a conversation does not involve winning or losing (Gabor, 2001). Parents need to be assertive in that what they desire; however, the feelings and integrity of the other person or child is to be respected (Gabor, 2001).

Body Language

Gestures and body language are important non-verbal aspects of listening. Body language communicates nonverbal messages including attitudes and emotions (Wainwright, 1985). According to Bostrom (1996) and Pease (2000), some observable responses that are connected to effective listening include eye contact, head nodding, leaning forward, and having open arms possibly with palms up. For example, Wainwright (1985) discusses open/positive gestures in that they communicate “warmth, trust and friendship.” Pease (2000) and Wainwright (1985) both discuss mirroring in terms of the body language from the speaker and the listener, where both make the same of gestures and movements. This aspect of listening is usually subconscious and allows both parties to have feelings of similarities and comfort.

When actively listening, it is important to have an attentive appearance. This means that the listener faces the speaker and either sits or stands upright, the listener looks relaxed and interested, as well, nothing should be between the listener and the speaker (i.e. no furniture), good eye contact is maintained, and the listener uses facial expressions (frowns, smiles, raised eyebrows, head shakes/nods) that agree with what is being said (the verbal message) (Umiker, 1993).

Another aspect of listening and responding is through touching. Parents and children touch each other from the moment the child is born, to show love, affection, and possibly discipline, depending on where on the body they are touched. Touching, however, is influential and it must be done so that the child is not uncomfortable nor should it be interpreted as having sexual or aggressive implications (Umiker, 1993). Umiker (1993) continues stating that whatever the touch is, to make sure the message is clear, the touch should support what is being said.


Prior to verbally responding, it is important to pause and reflect on what has been said. Umiker (1993), Gabor (2001), and Pease (2000) state that pausing allows the speaker and listener to reflect on what has been said. It also suggests to the speaker that the listener is absorbing what was said. Another benefit is that the pause and reflection will decrease the chance of the listener responding with something that may be regretted later (Umiker, 1993). The reason why responding is important is that it is the way to share feelings, inform, or control the other person (Ramsey & Sohi, 1997). In many circumstances, children are often persistent in asking for something they want. If a parent is strongly against what their child wants, Gabor (2001) points out ways of showing assertiveness. He suggest to always use their name and to be persistent in the response. The tone, gestures used, and circumstance of when ‘no’ is used, is as significant as how ‘no’ is said (Gabor, 2001). Restating the response in a ‘broken record’ style will show persistence and that you mean what you are saying (Gabor, 2001).

Another technique used to allow the listener to know that you are interested and to encourage further discussion is though the use of attentative, or bridging words. Umiker (1993) and Pease (2000) have given some suggestions as to what this might include: ‘Uh-huh’; ‘Yes, go on’; ‘I see’; ‘Oh?’; ‘Tell me more’; ‘How did you feel at that point?’; ‘Meaning…?’; ‘Then you…?’.

Just as it is important to know when to give feedback, it is important to know how to give effective feedback. According to Johnson (1997), there are two main things that will distinguish if the listener’s help is useful. Firstly are the listeners’ intentions and their attitudes when giving their response, which will determine 90-93% of the total impact. Secondly are the actual words that are used when phrasing the response, which influences 7-10% of the total impact.

There is more than one way to phrase a question or response. Each has its benefit and drawback as to the effectiveness on the speaker. Johnson (1997) discusses in detail the five basic ways of responding. The first is Advising and Evaluating, which involves responding to an individual by offering advice and judging what the speaker has said. The speaker usually feels inadequate after receiving the feedback/response from the listener, and often a wall has been build so that further feedback will not be helpful. The second way of responding is through Analyzing and Interpreting. In this type of responding, the listener/responder is acting like a psychiatrist in that they are interpreting what the speaker has said and is giving them feedback as to what it means. Qualified or not, the listener, tends to put the speaker on defense, and inhibits further discussion, as he/she does not what to be analyzed. Reassuring and Supporting is the third method to respond to a speaker. Just as it states, the listener offers a response that is supportive to the speaker. The problem that arises with this way of responding is that often times the feelings of the speaker are denied, and the speaker feels that there is no interest in what they have to say. As Johnson puts it, the speaker hears from this response, “You should not feel the way you do.” The fourth way of responding is through Questioning and Probing, which deals with asking questions to get more information from the speaker. This way also deals with the different types of questions that encourage good responses, however this will not be discussed in detail in this paper. Knowing how to ask skillful questions, however, is an important skill when listening to others, and phrasing the question will either end the conversation or allow it to continue. Finally, the fifth way of responding is through Paraphrasing and Understanding, most often the safest way of responding. The listener takes the time to pause, reflect on what the speaker has said, reword that they believe has been said, and listen for whether they have understood what the speaker told them. The point, that is also made by Umiker (1993), is to clarify and understand what the speaker has said, and this method also works well when the listener wants the speaker to hear what he/she has just said. (Johnson, 1997)

Although it is advised not to criticize, if it cannot be avoided, Umiker (1993) suggests a few points to remember:

(1) Correct and criticize the act, not the person, as soon as possible after the act

(2) Avoid criticizing if either of you are emotionally upset

(3) Don’t use the terms ‘always’ and ‘never’

(4) Rephrase any ‘why’ questions to avoid putting the other person on defense

(5) Explain the reason behind the need to change their behaviour

Despite the fact that a listener may have the necessary skills to respond effectively, there does exist barriers to communication. The three major categories described by Umiker (1993) are physical, such as background noise and visual distractions, semantic, such as jargons and terminology, and psychological barriers, such as an individual’s perceptions, assumptions, facial/body expressions, tone of voice, and changeability of words.

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Developing the skill of being an effective listener with children and others is a vital communication skill. Without portraying to others that they are important and that their feelings are acknowledged and acceptable will leave them not wanting to have a conversation with you and it may lead to total avoidance. Because it is important to know what others need, want, and feel, parents need to develop the attitudes, actions and behaviors when engaging in conversations with each other and with their children. By taking on two different attitudes of being a listener, there are two very different outcomes of a scenario. Depending on what outcome of a conversation is desirable, will determine what type of listening and responding one will present to the speaker.


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Johnson, D.W.  (1997).  Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization.  6th ed.  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon. 


Pease, A.  (2000).  Questions are the Answers.  Great Britain: Griffin Press.


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Trimble, D.  (2002).  Listening with integrity.  The dialogical stance of Jaakko Seikkula.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.  Upland: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 


Umiker, W.  (1993).  Powerful Communication Skills: The Key to Prevention and Resolution of Personnel Problems.  The Health Care Supervisor.  Gaithersburg: Aspen.


            Wainwright, G. R.  (1985).  Body Language.  London:  Teach Yourself Books.

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