10/24/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The (Other) 3 Words Your Child Needs to Hear

My friend Jenny recently attended a two-day course on "Deepening Mindfulness" in which Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was a featured speaker. Always one to cut to the chase, I asked Jenny about the most life-changing lesson she learned from him, and she told me the following (which I'm paraphrasing). In our culture, when someone tells us something, we tend to label the info "right" or "wrong." When it's the latter, we start building our case immediately to persuade this person why they're incorrect and should come over to our side, even if there is no right answer. What if, Thich Nhat Hanh proposed, we forgot about taking sides and asked ourselves only, "What can I learn from this conversation?"

My jaw dropped. It is so simple and yet enormous. Imagine how much kinder -- and wiser -- we would all be if we approached conversations this way, without the need to come out on top. What if when our child told us what happened in his/her day, we responded, "Tell me more." Isn't that what we all want: to share who we are and be accepted without anyone trying to change us or explain why we're dead wrong?

I began using this phrase with my 9-year-old daughter, responding "tell me more" when she mentioned that so-and-so was rude during recess or that she thinks certain hairstyles are weird or that her gym teacher was "mean" for making her class run laps "until we almost died." In the old days, a couple months ago, I would have come up with all sorts of teaching lessons that showed her why her thinking was basically wrong. Now, I try to understand what she is saying. Why does she think the person was mean or rude or pushing too hard? Can she imagine another way of seeing the situation? Can I learn something from her thinking?

I don't always agree with her responses, and often bite my tongue. Sometimes, I reply "that must have been hard"; other times, I say, "That's interesting what you just said. Would you like to hear another way to look at it?" Sometimes she wants to hear my thoughts; other times not so much. Occasionally, she changes her mind about what she says as she hears it aloud. Other times, we just disagree. Like it or not, that's part of the deal when we help our kids think for themselves -- they get to have their own opinions (darn it).

I noticed changes right away. My daughter takes more time articulating how she is feeling or why something upset her now that I give her space instead of cutting her off to preach my lessons. She is more interested in my point of view now that she knows I'm not going to try to win her over. (It should be made clear here that I don't say "tell me more" when she doesn't feel like doing the dishes or finishing her math homework or brushing her teeth. Not everything is a discussion.)

I find myself using "tell me more" with friends and family members too. I slip up sometimes, thinking "wrong!" and building my case to "inform" them. But now when I catch myself doing that, I clear my mind and try again to just listen. It's hard work, I'm finding, but it's also a softer and gentler way to live. It's amazing how much you can actually learn when you toss out the need to be right. Imagine if the Republicans and Democrats tried this strategy? And siblings? And bosses and employees? And you... how would it change your relationship with your own family? Tell me more.