I first learned about active listening in high school. Twenty-some years later, I think I've finally figured out how to do it.
I called my daughter, "How did it go at school today?"
"Terrible, Mom." And she told me about how, for the project she'd been working on for weeks, each of the three judges chose a winner and none of the judges chose her. She went on for a few minutes about the unfairness and what some of the winning projects were and how even though one of the judges said her presentation was excellent, he picked another student and didn't explain why. Other students told her they loved her invention and presentation, but that didn't seem to matter to her at all. In fact, she almost seemed insulted by it.
I was tempted to say, "At least people gave you compliments about your presentation." I could have said, "It's okay if you didn't win" or "You're not going to win every time." I wanted to ask, "What do you think you learned from this experience?" I thought about saying, "That's the way it works sometimes." I probably did say some of those things eventually.
But what I said first was, "It sounds to me it's not so much that you're upset that you didn't win; you're upset that you were told you would be judged on these certain criteria and you feel you were judged on something completely different. You are frustrated the judges didn't do what your teacher said they were going to do and that kids who didn't prepare as well ended up winning."
"Exactly!!!" she said.
Exactly? I have a few-months-away-from-being-a-teenager. This type of response is extremely rare. In fact, it might be a first.
But I took time to actually listen and not just think of my response or try to talk her into feeling anything different than she was feeling. I heard what she was saying, and what she wasn't saying. If I hadn't been listening closely, I would have thought she was acting like a sore loser or just being whiny or gossipy. But she needed to vent, and when I listened to her vent, I could get to what the heart of the issue was. It wasn't the loss that bothered her; it was the unfairness. Once she felt heard about that, and had her feelings validated, she calmed down quite a bit. I didn't have to agree with her that it was unfair or try to talk her into feeling it was fair.
I didn't really have to say much at all.
I just had to listen.