My husband and I recently attended an Imago marriage retreat and learned A LOT. The theme that bubbled to the surface was listening and being heard. How many times have we- as a parent or a child or a spouse- thought, “They just don’t hear me.” Feeling ignored, feeling misunderstood, not feeling free to express your own unique opinion and preferences…how isolating. And oh how healing is it when someone looks you in the eye and genuinely says, “I hear you.” Without criticizing, correcting, cutting you off? You feel safe. Understood. Heard.
Come to find out, we are learning that this is a LOT easier said than done. Especially with children. Four of them. The time it takes for Micah and I to actually listen to their thoughts- choppy and disjointed and insignificant as they may appear- without assuming we know what they’re trying to say and how we can direct them…HARD. But oh how crucial for their growth, for our growth, and for the unity of our family. Don’t we all want a safe place to express ourselves? And don’t we want to be that safe place for our children?
Imago Therapy offers a tool to help us listen. It’s called Mirroring, and basically it’s when you listen to another without judgment or reaction by (1) Mirroring what they are saying (2) Validating what they are feeling, and (3) Empathizing with their experience. An example might look like this:
Anonymous 6-yr old: [clenched fists, clenched jaw, yelling] I’m so mad!!
Me: You’re feeling mad? Is that what you said?
Anonymous 6-yr old: [annoyed] Yes.
Me: Is there more?
Anonymous 6-yr old: [look of shock as he realizes I’m still allowing him to talk]. Well…yeah…I’m mad because my brother knocked down the ramp I was building.
Me: Oh, so you’re mad because your baby brother knocked down the ramp you were building. Is that right?
Anonymous 6-yr old: [a little less mad] Yes.
Me: I can see how frustrating that is. You worked so hard on that ramp. And I imagine you might also feel like giving up on building or not playing with your brother anymore.
Anonymous 6-yr old: Yeah [big sigh and calmed down]. But I think I’ll give him another toy to play with and ask him not to destroy my ramp .
Me: I think that’s a great idea. Will you let me know how it goes or if you need more help?
Anonymous 6-yr old: Sure!
Tedious, yes. Far easier to just say (while not making eye contact and continuing what you’re doing), “Oh don’t be so upset. You can rebuild it. And your younger brother doesn’t know any better.” But what does that communicate? Not much that strengthens your relationship, that’s for sure.
As we embark on this journey of becoming receptive and fertile soil for our children to express the full range of their emotions and experiences, we’re finding some absolute treasures just below the surface. Like the other night when 7-year old Silas said he’d rather talk than watch a movie before bed. So he and I sat at the dining room table and I practiced Mirroring, Validating, and Empathizing. Which lead to him asking me to dictate the following letter:
Let’s talk about investing money. I plan to have $1000 when I’m 18, and I’ll use it to buy a house for the wife I’ll be looking for. We’ll have a baby and we’ll celebrate by going to Disney World. My baby son will ride all the rides! Unless he’s a girl. Then we’ll go inside the Disney Castle because there’s lots of princesses there. When he grows up he’ll want to travel all around the world. And he’ll go to the same school as me- Classical Conversations. When he turns 18 he’ll marry and make me a grandpa! I’ll come visit him every 100 days and see how his baby is doing. It’s going to be great for our whole life. Please keep this computer so I can show my son this message when he can read.
your Dad Silas