Mark Hayter is the Principal at Grayston Prep (a school in Sandton, Johannesburg). Each week he sends out a newsletter to the parents of the school and includes some parenting thoughts and tips. This week he focussed on ‘listening’. I’ve included his post below, and while it’s aimed at parents and children, his thoughts apply to any conversation, no matter how old the ‘conversersationalists’ are…..

Truly hearing is a skill that can be learned, practiced and improved. The late Dr Ralph G Nichols, regarded as the father of listening, once said that good listening was a skill we could use in our daily lives — as parents, in our workplaces, in our education, with our friends and relatives and in many other areas.

Professor emeritus of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in the United States, Nichols was emphatic about listening being a window for seeing what is on the inside. He was a pragmatist and simplified listening. He wrote that if any parent wants to understand the role that listening plays in interpersonal relations, he or she needs to picture a child standing in front of his father and trying hard to tell him about how his day went at school, while his dad is engrossed in reading a newspaper.

The child looks up at dad and says: “Daddy, you have to listen to me with your eyes as well as your ears. I have to see your face.” When dad drops his newspaper and makes eye contact, the child’s face lights up and he starts telling his story with enthusiasm. Although the child’s story is sad, being listened to eases his pain and dad learns how to be attentive.

This says almost all there is to say about listening. It says we can learn lessons from children as they become vocal and aware of whether or not they are being listened to. So, every time you listen to someone, think about the child who taught dad to be attentive. We now have learned that listening can be simple and rewarding to the listener, too.


1. Always look at the child

Looking at a child while he or she talks to you means your eyes pick up non-verbal signals. Generally, by making eye contact the listener says that he or she cares about what is being said and that, as a parent, he or she is attentive to the story, no matter how sad.

2. Your face cannot remain expressionless

Your face should display a range of feelings that indicate that you are following what the child is saying. Show some emotion. This can be comforting, especially for a child who is dealing with trauma.

3. Keep quiet

It is extremely difficult to receive information when you are speaking at the same time. A good listener will stop talking and use receptive language such as “I see”, “mmm”, “oh”, “okay” or “really”—words that encourage the child’s train of thought. Always remember that the child’s story is important to him or her and, as a parent, you must treat it as such.

4. Give the child an opportunity to finish what he or she is saying

Children appreciate having the chance to say everything they would like to say without being interrupted. When you interrupt, it appears as though you are not listening, even if you really are.

5. Have an open mind—do not be judgmental

Concentrate on what the child is saying. You cannot fully hear his or her point of view when you have a major argument with yourself mentally or are already judging what the child is saying before he or she has finished talking.

6. Finish listening

You cannot really listen if you are busy thinking about what you want to say next. Yes, the children are young and as parents we have an idea of where their thoughts are going but, even so, give yourself permission to finish listening and then make your contribution—one that shows courteousness and consideration of the child’s feelings.

7. Listen for main ideas

The main ideas are the most important points a child wants to get across. They may be mentioned at the start or the end of what they are saying and repeated a number of times. After the child has had his or her say, try to repeat the points they made. They will let you know if you heard them. Take their guidance—it could be useful for future communication.

8. Only ask questions when it is appropriate

If you are not sure you understand what the child has said, ask him or her. Give the child the opportunity to clarify issues.

9. Give feedback

Look directly at the child and, every now and then, nod to show that you understand. At appropriate times you may also smile, frown, laugh or be silent. These are ways to let the child know that you are really listening. Remember, you listen with your face as wellas your ears.

10. Avoid emotional outbursts—always establish facts

Sometimes, when you are too emotionally involved in listening, you tend to hear what you want to hear and not what is actually being said. Try to remain objective and openminded. If your child comes home with a sob story, remember to comfort and empathise while trying to establish the facts. Always stay
with your goal of listening.