Talking with Children (or customers)

I’m reading a book by Thomas Gordon on how to listen to children.
It’s quite a famous method that was pointed out to me by a professional in the child-care business.

Being the father of a 5 year old boy I need lots of patience. And finding that patience has been my one of my biggest parenting challenges so far.

The book teaches how to listen to children in such a way that stimulates parents to allow their children to solve their own problems and nurture a trusting relationship with their children at the same time.

A lot that I read in this book I have also seen in books on sales, persuasion and Neuro Linguistic Programming which basically underlines the importance of being able to properly convey a message or even allow someone else to tell you what you need to know.

Who owns the problem?

Gordon states that the communication flow should be very different based on who has a problem. Who owns the problem.

Either the child owns the problem or the parent owns the problem.
The child is unhappy about something or the parent is unhappy about something.

In this article I’ll focus on the child (or customer for that matter!) owning the problem. In a subsequent article I wrote about the parent owning the problem.

Child owns the problem

If the child has a problem, the parent should engage in active listening. A form of listening that stimulates the child to speak freely about their problem (feelings, doubts, challenges at school or bad experiences) and to decide on the best course of action themselves.

For example:

[Child] I really hate school. It's a waste of time and I don't know what I'm doing there. Maybe I should just get a job instead.
[Parent] So school makes feel like you are wasting time.
[Child] Yes, it's always the same thing every day. And especially math is stupid. Who needs to know how many cows can fit on a barge of 30m²! I'm not a farmer.
[Parent] You're saying math doesn't really serve much of a purpose for you.
[Child] Yeah, life would be so much better if I didn't have to deal with math. Maybe I'll just drop that subject at the end of the year and replace it with French instead.

The child in this example has progressed from wanting to abandon an education to a much more reasonable idea. Dropping the most problematic subject.

The conversation could have gone very different if the parent would have interjected with opinions

[Child] I really hate school. It's a waste of time and I don't know what I'm doing there. Maybe I should just get a job instead.
[Parent] Education is very important! Besides, what kind of a job could you land without even a high school diploma?
[Child] I'll figure something out! It can't be any worse than listening to those teachers yapping about stuff I don't care about!
[Parent] If you get a silly job like working in a burger joint isn't gonna solve your problems and make you happy!
[Child] Well you have a degree and you seem to hate your job too, so why shouldn't I do something I hate and make some money at the same time?

That conversation went off-track right away and basically ends in a discussion about what’s worse. It’s a lost opportunity for the child to ventilate and learn to look for real solutions and the parent<>child relationship didn’t improve either as the child will feel like their parents don’t understand them.

Active listening

When listening actively the parent refrains from providing advice, passing judgement or warning them for the consequences of what they are saying. Telling the child what to do, what to feel or whether their behavior is acceptable or not will always lead to resistance and tensions.

Active listening is about truly hearing and understanding what the child says and summarizing in your own words what they are telling you. This summary both serves as a confirmation you have understood what they are saying and it invites them to continue telling you about what is bothering them.

When applying active listening the child continues to own the problem which is a major relief for parents who already have enough problems to deal with anyway.
It allows the child to develop problem solving skills and to grow up to be an independent, self-sufficient human being. Also it keeps a lot of extra worries away from the parent and contributes towards a healthier, more relaxed household.

Being able to tell someone about your problems and feeling understood (or at least not judged) allows one to ventilate and to reflect on the situation. This often leads the problem owner (the child) coming up with solutions or ideas on how to solve their problems.

Active listening in the business world

I found there’s quite a few parallels between what Gordon calls Active Listening and listening to the problem of a customer.

In order to have a good relationship with your customer you also need to make sure you understand the problem you’ll be helping them with. You need them to feel understood and you’ll need all the info they can give you to decide on the best course of action.

When you bring up a potential solution to a problem that the professional has been solving in a certain way for the past years it may be difficult for them to hear out your idea for a solution. Partially because they are still in the old context and partially because you’re a newcomer and don’t really know them that well. Besides, they’ve been managing without you so far anyway.

So applying active listening to the customer may have its benefits.
They may provide you with their own ideas, some of which may not have occurred to you yet.
Also, them thinking about the solutions opens them up to be steered in the right direction and adopting the pitched solution as their own.
And that will make your chances of success a lot bigger and the odds that the contract gets prolonged so you can solve more of their problems will grow too.

Parent owns the problem

When something the child is doing doesn’t sit well with the parent then the parent owns the problem.

To keep this article to the point I’ve written about that matter in another post.

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