top of page

Listening Like A Pro



Once I asked a 4-year-old child if he listened to his parents at home. "My Mom", he said. I always listen to my Mom." When I asked why he brightened. "Because she always listens to me!"

True story and one of the most powerful reasons to listen to the children we spend time with. Even if we're already great listeners it usually helps to re-focus our skills every once in a while.

Many people think empathy begins with understanding and that's correct. Understanding, however, begins with listening. In this first lesson on Creating Empathy Through Play, I'm going to share with you some ideas and experiences I've had, and then you can try them out for yourself over the next week before you come back on Friday for your lesson dealing with bullies.

Here's what you'll learn today:


  • First, we'll define empathy and explore how it differs from sympathy

  • Then we'll explore The Circle of Communication and how it can help you tune in to your child

  • Next, I'll give you some easy-to-learn listening techniques from a timeless parenting classic that too many young parents and teachers have never heard of.

  • Finally, I'll teach you the magic 3-word sentence switch that affirms to your children that you're there for them and will listen.


Definition of empathy

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

Definition of sympathy

feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

"they had great sympathy for the flood victims"

The biggest difference I can see in the two definitions is that empathy is more complete and includes a deeper understanding of the individual person than sympathy. I have one other problem with the definition of sympathy and it's a little bit picky but I don't believe a person can truly feel sorry for another person although it's possible to feel sorry with them.

Watching the Sleeping Baby

There's a secret vice that many parents share but few talk about. I call it "watching the sleeping baby syndrome" New parents get a lot of advice on what to do when their baby is finally asleep. Some say you should catch up on sleep yourselves, others that you should use the time to quickly clean up the kitchen and prepare for the next round of parenting.

But when questioned, most parents will admit to the guilty pleasure of spending quite a bit of time watching their new baby sleep. In my experience, it's downright addictive. I believe that we're wired to watch our babies for several reasons, one of them being the desire to understand more about them. This is the first stage of listening.

So keep it up. It's relaxing and it'll start you on the road to a great lifetime of communication with your little ones.

Listening, though, is often more active than that, especially as your children get older. I'd like to tell you about a technique designed by the late, great Dr. Stanley Greenspan back in the '90s. Although it was originally developed for parents and early childhood educators, it's since expanded and become a popular method for communication with children who have autism. The method is now called DIR (Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based).

Either way, it works and it's the easiest way to increase both listening and language skills in all children and it even works with adults you'd like to form a closer bond with.

The underlying principle is that emotions spark learning. One crucial piece of understanding Floortime is honoring the circle of communication that takes place between adult and child. It starts with a gesture, a look, a sound, or a word. Then a response which leads to another. The circle continues like a game of catch being played between two highly engaged participants. According to Greenspan, it is the foundation of positive communication and learning.

Over the years I've used Greenspan's techniques with all children, not just those with special needs. I've found it super effective and easy to do, even relaxing. The hardest part is carving out 15 minutes per child for one-on-one attention. After that just relax get ready to listen. I call it the "lazing parenting" technique and if you do it right it's guaranteed to bring you closer to your child.

Floortime (or Lazy Parenting 101)

Grab a beverage and sit down close to one of your children as they play. Quietly watch and eventually ask a few simple questions out of real curiosity. Don't try to teach them anything.

Put aside any judgment you have about their behavior or choices. This is the hard part. We always want to teach them but it's best if every once in a while we let them lead the show. Play is the perfect opportunity for them to try out skills and language freely. Let them. During Floortime, we become their assistants for a while.

Playing the part of a Floortime assistant doesn't make you weak or have any less authority with the child. They see it as respect for what's important to them and it can actually cause them to have more respect when something is important to you.

Use this time to learn about your child. Notice what they're trying to accomplish in their play. Since play is nature's best way for children to learn, you're off the hook. Just enjoy your child for a while and support what they've chosen to do. Since the pressure is off to teach, you'll probably be more relaxed and happier than ever, just to be with them.

This is the best way to support their learning and to build a stronger bond between you. Here's an example from life.

Parent #1 is lying on the carpet watching the child play with a trainset. The parent doesn't say too much, just answers when the child asks a question but occasionally picks up and moves a train for themselves.

Both parent and child are relaxed and the child is happily babbling on about what he's doing with the trains, pretty well convinced his parent was listening, asking a question every once in a while just to make sure.

Parent # 2 notices a good Floortime scenario and picks up a camera to get it all on film. When parent #1 sees the camera he immediately sits up and asks the child to retrieve the blue train. This breaks the floortime magic because of the "educational" question. Once the child was put on the spot, he was no longer the leader of his play scenario and became the pupil.

It's not a bad thing to be in those roles, just not a Floortime thing. Floortime has its own particular purpose.

Just because a parent or teacher does Floortime with their children does not mean they lose any overall authority they have. Children need to know that sometimes parents decide things and that they'll always decide when safety is an issue.

Way back in the 1980s, a book was written by 2 women that would revolutionize listening and talking with children forever. The book is called, How to Talk So Children Listen and How To Listen So Children Talk. Heard of it?

Their ideas are clear, concise, and user-friendly. Plus they use a lot of hysterically funny stories that you just know came from real life because you can't make that stuff up.

And if you don't have time to read the book, you can get many good ideas by reading the cartoons included to illustrate every major concept they teach.

Their methods work so well that they've withstood the test of time and are still recommended reading for any good listening curriculum.

I'm including a link to get a new or used copy if you're interested. Just click on the book. I have no affiliation with the Faber and Mazlish organization whatsoever.

I'm going to summarize 3 techniques found in the book that will help you with your listening skills.

Say Nothing

The first technique I'm going to talk about is to say nothing. Really. When your child comes to you and starts telling you something that seems to matter to them, resist the urge to judge, give advice or take sides. Just listen. Say nothing or just a hmmm....or an Oh! will do. Wait without judging, they will tell you more. When they're done talking you can ask them what they plan to do. You'll find that they often have an even better plan than the one you felt like telling them.

Don't Judge

Most often, kids don't want your advice. They already know how you're probably going to feel about it. If you pass any kind of judgment whatsoever, you'll cause them to clam up. If anything, ask them to tell you more.

Ask For Clarity

I find that asking for more of an explanation is a great technique to use in life, not just in parenting or teaching. When you ask and you take the time to listen to the answer they give, you find out what they really think and what they really might do. Their first words might just be blowing off steam and you can let them vent without worrying that they'll end up breaking the law or hurting someone.

Using the above techniques will get your kids talking better than any other method hands down.

Now here's the final technique I'll share with you today. It's just a shift in the order of three little words some parents use almost every time their child falls or gets a minor injury. Many parents and teachers will automatically say "you're OK" before the child even reacts. They hope the child will automatically believe them.

But children's brains don't work that way. When they hear you say they're OK the first thing they often think is "No I"m not!". Then they cry or whine more in order to show you that they're hurting.

Instead, I'm going to encourage you to turn those 3 little words around and say "Are you OK?" instead. Believe it or not, this changes everything.

Think about it. You have no real way of knowing how much they're hurting. When you ask them to assess the situation, they'll have to stop and think about it before answering you truthfully.

Listen to their answer carefully before you decide how to proceed and soon you'll find that they'll choose to keep playing unless they're really hurt. This is this kind of trust that teaches children that you'll listen to them, so it encourages them to share more with you.

Tip: If you need to have an important or a hard conversation with a child, think about their learning style. Some kids respond better when you go for a walk and talk while some do better with more eye contact. Some even open up more during longer car rides or when doing some work together. Remember that every child is unique and it's worth the effort to try different methods for different children if it leads to better communication!

Thanks for reading this! You can join our community of parents and other important educators and get all 10 lessons on creating empathy through play delivered to your inbox or read more of my blog posts here.

Nanci J. Bradley is a child and family educator, parent, author, family aerobics instructor, and all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, lifelong learning, healthy eating, fun, and more than anything else, PLAY! She studied early childhood education at Triton College and received her BA in education from Northern Illinois University in 1986. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison, WI.

185 views0 comments


bottom of page