Award winning author and parenting expert, Sandra R. Blackard, has been teaching parents and teachers the Language of Listening® for over 15 years. Sandy’s down-to earth perspective helps adults see the world through the child’s eyes, making sense of what children say and do.
As a leader of the S. Austin chapter of Attachment Parenting International, I have the good fortune to work with many parenting experts. Over the past few years, Sandy Blackard has presented for our group multiple times and continues to be one of our most requested speakers. When she presented on “The Push for Independence: What to Do When Your Children Say No!” I discovered that in addition to giving the Austin parenting community techniques that help us communicate and connect better with our children, her book SAY WHAT YOU SEE For Parents and Teachers: More hugs. More respect. Elegantly simple is a 2012 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) gold winner. Some previous NAPPA Gold Winners include two books I’ve reviewed on this blog and recommend for parents: Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen and Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.
This is the first installment of my interview with Sandy Blackard. For those of you who haven’t heard of Sandy, Language of Listening, or her Say What You See (SWYS) techniques, this will give you an introduction. In part 2 of our interview, she offers more examples of how to use SWYS.
What is the Language of Listening®?
Language of Listening is the parenting and personal growth training company I founded for parents who want more than just well-behaved kids — “more” as in a loving and respectful relationship with their children and themselves. The name came to me as I was explaining to a parent what I teach. It eventually became the name of my company as well as the name of the approach we use for all of our training. The heart model is our primary teaching tool:
My parenting approach can be summarized like this: First SAY WHAT YOU SEE to connect with children. When you see a behavior you like, add a STRENGTH. When you see a behavior you don’t like, add a CAN DO. It’s that simple.
What to say varies with the child’s age and situation. Suppose you are driving in the car, and your young son is strapped into his car seat behind you. He drops his toy tiger on the floor and can’t get it. When he starts to whine because he wants it back, if you try a typical fix like, “You have other animals. Play with one of those,” every parents knows what will happen next. It will likely be some version of, “I don’t want those toys! It’s my favorite tiger. I NEED it!” accompanied by tears, throwing other toys, and/or kicking your seat. We’ve all been there. That’s what an escalation of an unheard communication looks like.
You can avoid the whole thing by saying what you see (SWYS) first and matching the child’s feelings with your tone like this:
SWYS: “You really want your tiger, and, Oh no! It’s on the floor and you need it right now!”
Child: “I was playing tiger jungle, and it was jumping off a big tree and fell!”
SWYS: “You were having so much fun, and then it fell, and we still have five more minutes before we get home. Of course you have to have a tiger to play tiger jungle! Rats!”
CAN DO: “Hmm. You can’t get it, and I’m driving! Must be something you can do. Hmmm.”
The depth of understanding tells the child you are on his side. Even though you don’t know how he’ll handle the situation, the all-purpose CAN DO demonstrates your confidence in him. Different children respond differently at this point depending on their skill level, self-confidence, etc. Some may look for something to reach the toy with and spend the next five minutes engaged in the tiger retrieval process; others may say, “I know! It can be elephant jungle instead,” and switch to a different toy. Either way you get to name the strength:
STRENGTH: “You kept trying different things to reach the tiger. You really wanted it, and you didn’t give up. That shows you are persistent!”
STRENGTH: “You changed the game so the elephant toy would work. That shows you are flexible!”
Adding a strength makes children aware of their innate abilities so that next time a problem comes up, they have more strengths to draw on.
If instead of taking the CAN DO challenge, the child says, “No! There is nothing I can do,” and starts to pout, you simply return to saying what you see and explore the child’s wish as a CAN DO fantasy. When you do, don’t be surprised if the child joins in and outruns your imagination. For example:
SWYS: “No other toy will do. Only a tiger can play tiger jungle, and that’s that! And it’s on the floor, and you don’t like to wait! Even five minutes is wa-a-ay too long!”
CAN DO (fantasy): “You wish it was in your hand right now, just scampering through the jungle. It could do a great big leap, or even jump from seat to seat!”
Child: “Or jump into your lap and drive! Then…”
Sharing fantasy tiger stories could easily get you home without a whimper and maybe even add some laughs! Kids are all about games and connection with you. SAYING WHAT YOU SEE and adding a CAN DO provide both. And of course you can end up adding a STRENGTH like:
STRENGTH: “Telling a story with all of those twists and turns shows you are creative (clever, funny, etc.).”
One other interesting thing about children is that if they have a communication they don’t feel is heard, especially about something they like or don’t like, such as waiting, they will unconsciously create situation after situation where it comes up. For instance, if the unheard communication is, “I don’t like to wait,” even if you found a way to get the tiger back for the child, chances are good that something else would go out of reach before you got home. Getting children heard not only prevents escalation, but it also prevents communications from going underground and becoming recurrent issues.
What is the difference between Language of Listening® and SAY WHAT YOU SEE®?
SAY WHAT YOU SEE is the first step of the Language of Listening. Always starting with one thing keeps you cool and calm and builds a strong connection with your child, because it is based on what you see, not what you think.
By observing and saying what you see objectively, you step out of your head into the child’s world — the physical world of here and now. This is the missing step in parenting — the step of listening first, before providing guidance. It’s the critical step that makes the difference in how your child relates to you now and in the future.
What if we say what we see and our observation is inaccurate?
One of the great things about saying what you see is that when you make a statement about what you see without judgment or criticism, kids know you are trying to understand, so they make sure you do. When you simply say, “You are mad about that,” children are free to say, “No, I’m not! I’m sad,” to which you respond, “Oh, you are sad. Something didn’t go the way you wanted,” or whatever is appropriate for the moment. Saying what you see is following the child, not arguing.
When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense to argue with children about what they are doing, saying, feeling or thinking; they are the ones who truly know. Plus, when you argue or try to prove your point, they dig their heels in and do the same. The reason for this is clear from our first premise: “Everything children do and say is communication; and children must continue to communicate until they are heard.”
Does that mean parents must respond to everything a child does? How does this work when parents are driving, cooking, taking care of another child?
It would be exhausting to feel like you always had to say what you see, especially when you have other things you need to do! Role-modeling an ability to prioritize and focus on your own tasks is an important aspect of your relationship with your child. Saying what you see is a tool you can use whenever you want or need to listen to your child.
Realizing that kids must continue to communicate until they are heard will help you recognize when it’s time to listen. Of course, it’s definitely time when you hear, “Mom, Mom, Mom,” “Dad, Dad, Dad,” or begin to see an escalation. “Acting out” is way past time! That phrase is perfect, because it really is a child acting out a communication that wasn’t heard, not just trying to annoy you. When children know you will be there to listen when they need you, the insistent urgency drops. It only becomes constant when the need to be heard is not met.
To learn more about Sandy’s techniques or see videos and class offerings, go to Language of Listening. Or buy her book. Check back for Part 2 of our interview. And if you have any questions for her or for me, post them in comments and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Happy parenting!