Can you tell me what you heard?

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There’s a well-known idea that people listen to respond, not to understand. In fact, George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

When my kids were toddlers, I used to ask them to put their shoes neatly together, side by side against a wall “like they’re married.” (Let’s encourage positive feelings about marriage—we’re together! Like shoes.)

But. Here I am, 13 years later, and the shoes are still all over the house. They’re in the living room—like RIGHT, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR. Why are they there? Is it so hard to put them in your cubby or your room or the front hall closet? I even bought a shoe tray and put it in the entry way. To be fair, the shoes are now in the entry way. But, they are just adjacent to the shoe tray. Not IN the shoe tray. Why is this?

I’m not going to solve this universal conundrum today. (Although, I do think there’s something: Why are these shoes still in the middle of the goddamn floor? might make an excellent parenting book title.)

Point? You can say things again and again with no hope of directions being followed if you don’t communicate clearly.

Tease out what they heard

I employ the following tactic with my children and my employees: “Can you tell me what you heard?” It’s an old marriage therapy trick, “What I’m hearing you say is…” If you truly listen to responses, you will find that the other person didn’t hear you. Instead, they were thinking about their lunch, or the boy they like in school, or why their boss lectures them constantly about dumb shit.

It’s your job, as a parent and as a manager, to tease out what was heard. By employing this single technique of asking, you will avoid miscommunication. Directives you thought were clear, like, put you shoes here, become clearer when you know the person heard “I don’t care where you put your shoes.”

And, if there’s a clear directive in place, chances are people will follow it. Especially, if you attach it to carrots and sticks: “If X happens, then you can expect a bonus or to be fired,” or “If I find these new $100 Adidas sneakers in the middle of the floor again, then I may just throw these in the garbage.”

Teach each other how to listen to the other

The other beautiful thing about this technique is that you teach each other how to communicate. When you start asking what they heard with every meaningful conversation, you learn the other person’s listening rhythms. What do they actually do hear when you speak? Then, you can modify your own communication tailored for that child or colleague. Some people need a story. Some need direct communication and an email follow-up. Understanding what they hear when you ask them will train both of you to sharpen your communication with each other.

Really, though. If you have any suggestions about what to do about the shoes, please contact me. I just cannot figure out why my children have this thing with shoes—is it just my three? Let me know in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “Can you tell me what you heard?

  1. Great post! Glad to know the shoes all over the house isn’t a problem only in my house. I find the socks left everywhere even more disturbing.


  2. This is such and excellent piece. About how we communicate. Someone told me I don’t know if this true: adult brains are like flashlights we can beam down on a single idea, task etc very easily. But kids brains are more like a lantern they have a wide picture and aren’t particularly focused….made me think about when I am asking them to do one thing (put away the shoes) and they are looking under shoe rack because they saw an eraser there.

    Loved this pots


  3. I love this strategy, and it works to model in the other direction, too. Being a good listener should take up your time as a parent. I’m still working on this–both by being fully (ok, mostly) present when we’re together and by reflecting back what I hear so the kids feel understood.


  4. This was great! I did hear and listen to this post. As a mental health counselor, I focus on clients and their interpersonal skills more and more. Learning to play nicely in the sandbox-never gets old.


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