Winthrop University: Family Programs - EFC February 2014
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February Edition

Conversations with Your College Student: What's Your Listening Position?

As published in

There are many kinds of conversations that you need to have with your college student. Some conversations come easily, and at other times it's a struggle to get your student to make time and/or to participate in the conversation. Some students share readily and others seem to resist our attempts to communicate.

Are you listening?

One of the first questions we, as parents, need to ask ourselves is how much we are actually listening to our students? Do we see these important conversations as simply opportunities to give our opinion? Is our definition of a "conversation" too one-sided? We may ask for reactions or opinions, or for students to share information, but do we actually listen to what they say? If we aren't listening, are we surprised that they are less willing to share?

We've written some earlier posts about the importance of listening to your college student, and about some good habits to develop as a listener. If you want to hear more from your student, these earlier posts may help you get started.

OK, you're listening, but how?

What we'd like to consider in this post is not whether you are listening, or even whether you are listening well, but how you listen. What's your listening position? What's your attitude as you listen? Not all conversations call for the same type of listening. We actually need to listen differently depending on the subject or the situation.

Leading sound expert Julian Treasure suggests three different "listening positions," and we think they are worth considering as you think about conversations with your student. Think of each of these as a sort of tuning dial. You won't necessarily be at one extreme end of the spectrum or the other, but you might move each dial a bit one direction or the other in order to engage in the type of listening, or listening position, best suited for each conversation.

Active/Passive listening

Good listening takes effort. But some kinds of listening require more effort than others.

Active listening takes work and requires that you put in the effort. Listening actively means that you give deliberate attention and focus to the other person. You listen to understand what is being said and to let the speaker know that he has been heard. While listening actively you might nod, ask questions, summarize, clarify something you don't understand and respond.

Passive listening does not require much effort. It is the kind of listening that we do when we listen to music or have the TV or radio on in the background. We're listening, but the listening does not require any interaction or response from us. Passive listening is important and can be appropriate in certain situations, but doesn't build much of a relationship with the other person.

Critical/Empathic listening

Critical listening is what Treasure calls "listening for the gold." As we listen critically, we listen to evaluate what we hear, to gauge the value of the information, to separate out facts and opinion and to form our own opinion of what we hear. It is the kind of listening that we might do in an interview or as we listen to a debate or lecture or to gather facts to solve a problem.

Empathic listening is intended to support the speaker's feelings and to help him feel safe, open up and share freely without any judgment on the part of the listener. As an empathic listener, your role is to show the speaker that you are in tune with him, that he is valued and respected.

Obviously, there are times when we need to listen critically to evaluate what our student is telling us, but are there also times when we just need to let our student know that we hear her and resonate with her feelings?

Reductive/Expansive listening

Reductive listening is listening for the bottom line. We want the speaker to get to the point and let us know what's needed. We listen to find the solution, fix the problem and move on. This is listening that is results oriented. It's an important type of listening, but can leave a speaker feeling frustrated or unappreciated if we are too anxious to get to that bottom line.

Expansive listening is listening with someone. In this type of listening, the listening itself is the journey. It is the point. This is creative listening, chatting for the sake of connection, brainstorming or listening without an agenda. Expansive listening may do nothing more than help create trust and goodwill between communicators. Of course, expansive listening may take more time than reductive listening, so we need to be prepared.

Make your dials flexible

Keeping your listening positions in line with the needs of the conversation will open up new ways of communicating with your student. Remember that these are dials, not on/off switches. You'll move the dial a bit one way or the other. If your student is looking for an analysis of a problem and a solution, he doesn't need empathic listening right then. He needs you to be active, critical and reductive. Help him solve his problem. But if your student wants to vent and needs to share, then it's important that you're ready and able to listen empathically and expansively. Knowing where to place your dial can make the difference in how the conversation goes.

As a listener, you have more control over the conversation than you realize. Naturally, you may already do much of this without even realizing it, but thinking consciously about employing different listening approaches may enhance your communication.

Experiment with your dials and see what you hear.

The Flu Has Arrived and is Your Young Adult Ready?

Being on a college campus brings so much fun and adventure, but closeness can also be a place where illness can spread.  Cold weather, enclosed areas and togetherness all promote the spread of germs.  How can your student be prepared for the flu or other illness?

First of all, prevention is key.  The CDC recommends "Take Three" to prevent the flu. First, get the flu vaccine. The vaccine is recommended yearly for anyone over 6 months of age, and this is one of the most important steps in protecting self and others against the flu.  For those individuals with other health issues such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or pregnancy - it is especially important to get vaccinated because these people have a higher risk of complications. Winthrop's Health Services has the Quadrivalent Vaccine, which covers 4 strains of influenza.   Students can walk in to get the vaccine, and the $25 fee goes on their student account.

Step two is "Take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs."  With the fast paced college-life, hand washing is often skipped. This is an extremely important step and hands should be washed with soap and water. If that is not available, an alcohol- based hand solution can be used.  With all the objects we touch each day, it is imperative people wash their hands frequently. Also, folks need to avoid being around sick people.  Winthrop follows CDC guidelines and "recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)"  Covering a cough or sneeze with a sleeve or tissue versus your hand can help prevent the spread of germs. If the student gets sick with the flu, it is important to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids to stay well hydrated.

Step three for flu prevention is to take antiviral drugs if they are prescribed.   Antivirals are not a must but can decrease the length of time the person is sick and make the symptoms milder.  Antivirals should be taken within 48 hours of symptom onset. 

Make sure your young adult knows the symptoms of the flu versus a cold.   Influenza usually has a sudden onset of fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills, fatigue, and a stuffy nose.  Some people will have these symptoms plus nausea and vomiting. Others may have the respiratory symptoms but not have a fever. Many say they feel as if they have been "hit by a truck."

A cold usually starts as a minor scratchy throat, and then some nasal congestion, runny nose, then may also develop into a cough. The person may or may not have a fever and the illness came on more gradually. 

If your student is sick, have them come in to Health Services to be seen or to call and be triaged over the phone by a Registered Nurse. The Nurse may make suggestions of treatment or may have them come in to be seen by one of the Family Nurse Practitioners. 


Raising Successful Children

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on August 5, 2012, on page SR8 of the New York Times edition with the headline: Raising Successful Children.

HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It's easier when they're young - tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children.

What kinds of risks should we tolerate? If there's a predator loose in the neighborhood, your daughter doesn't get to go to the mall. But under normal circumstances an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends. She may forget a package, overpay for an item or forget that she was supposed to call home at noon. Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids, for toddlers, it's the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks - the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate - that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.

So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, "I can't stand to see my child unhappy." If you can't stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn't bring you running) present the opportunity for "successful failures," that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.

While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.

There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn't want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks "helping" his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a "gotta get into" school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how "we're applying to Columbia.")

In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological ("we're applying.") It is psychological control that carries with it a textbook's worth of damage to a child's developing identity. If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside. Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends' children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents' need for status or affirmation and not the child's needs.

So how do parents find the courage to discard the malpractice of overparenting? It's hard to swim upstream, to resist peer pressure. But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.

A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child's psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child's job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn't get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.

Parents also have to be clear about their own values. Children watch us closely. If you want your children to be able to stand up for their values, you have to do the same. If you believe that a summer spent reading, taking creek walks and playing is better than a specialized camp, then stick to your guns. Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.

Madeline Levine is a clinician, consultant and the author, most recently, of "Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success."

Last Updated: 7/13/22