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Mark Goulston, M.D. Headshot

Promoting Self-Esteem With Active Listening

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What do you wish your parents had told you as a child? What difference would it have made to your life and how you feel about yourself?

I have been having wonderful conversations with Phyllis Hendry, CEO of Lead Like Jesus, the Ministry founded by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges. Recently she told me of an exercise that they use to help people get in touch with and come from their hearts, before they start coming from their heads.

In this exercise you ask people: "What do you wish your parents had told you as a child? What difference would it have made to your life and how you feel about yourself?"

I recently asked that to a client who was raised in the not so unusual setting of one parent who was overly critical and one who was overly emotional.

He paused for a good chunk of time and responded: "What I wanted to hear is different than what I needed to hear."

I asked him to explain. And he did...

"What I wanted to hear more of was 'It will be okay,' when I messed up or was upset about something and 'That's terrific, you're great!' when I did something well. That would have helped me feel protected and certainly would have been better than feeling put down which happened a lot.

But what I needed to hear was, 'I see that you're upset about something, tell me what happened (said with compassion),' or 'Wow, I see that you're really excited about something, tell me what happened (said with enthusiasm).' By having my feelings seen and validated and by being able to tell the entire story of what led to my feeling that way and then have my parent talk with me about it, I would have learned to be competent and confident.

I think the reason I have low self-esteem is not actually that they didn't say great and reassuring things to me, but that they didn't care enough to take the time to listen to me."*

Caring comes not from what you say to your child, but what you enable them to say to you that's weighing on their minds, hearts and souls and and then how you hear them out so that instead of their feeling dismissed and not worth your time, they feel understood, feel felt, feel less alone and feel worthy.

* I can't think of a better story to emphasize how important listening is. It's another reason I am so glad that I wrote "Just Listen" and am so pleased that it is being translated into Chinese (this month), Russian, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Vietnamese.

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