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3 Active Listening Co-Parent Skills That Benefit You and the Kids

If you are reading this, you know well that co-parenting is a complex and often challenging endeavor. You may feel at the end of your rope trying to get through to your co-parent. You may have found that disagreements drain your time and energy, in a world where there is not enough of you to go around (work demands, home demands, kids’ needs and, if you are going through a divorce, the consuming process of many meetings, gathering financial information and looming uncertainty).

One of the most powerful tools in the co-parenting toolkit is free, fairly easy and absolutely the place to begin if you have a strained co-parenting relationship: active listening. Largely, co-parents tend to reciprocate this under-utilized and under-appreciated aptitude. However, you still have much to gain by honing your skills as an active listener — even if it is NOT reciprocated. Genuinely listening to another actually soothes the nervous system of the person speaking. (Yes, be your best active listener to your kids!) Conversely, our nervous system is activated into the fight-flight mode by the mere perception of combative communication. That means that things like interrupting, eye rolling or looking at your phone when your co-parent is talking can indeed trigger old defenses, like feeling unimportant or insignificant, and old responses like withdrawal or anger from our co-parent.

This blog will explore how you, just you, can diffuse conflicts and foster agreements through simply listening by incorporating insights from Bill Eddy's EAR acronym. This one step can have great impact when you use it over and over again. It creates a more harmonious environment for you and your children. It models positive communication tools and prosocial behaviours for children.

Bill Eddy's EAR Acronym

Bill Eddy, an expert in conflict resolution, developed the EAR acronym to help people manage difficult, even acrimonious, situations and relationships. EAR stands for Empathy, Attention, and Respect, and these principles are particularly valuable in co-parenting.

Empathy: Empathy involves understanding and acknowledging the other parent's feelings and perspectives. For instance, if your co-parent is frustrated about a last-minute schedule change, acknowledging their frustration can diffuse tension. This doesn't mean you have to agree with their viewpoint (maybe this is change is due to something beyond your control), but recognizing their feelings can pave the way for more productive conversations. As you may know from child rearing, soothing an upset person is much more productive than denying the upset or becoming upset yourself.

Empathetic responses build trust. When people feel that their emotions are acknowledged, they are more likely to feel relaxed and less likely to react defensively or angrily. 

Attention: Most communication is non-verbal. Providing the other attention during conversations is crucial. This means listening without distractions, positive eye contact, relaxed facial expressions and, most importantly, avoiding interruptions. 

Paying close attention helps you understand your co-parent’s perspective accurately, minimizing the risk of misunderstandings that can lead to conflict. By focusing on what they are saying and clarifying points when necessary, you prevent misinterpretations that could escalate into arguments. ChatGPT listed 10 benefits to the listener (you) of giving attention to someone during a conversation! 

Respect: Treating your co-parent with at least minimal respect, even during disagreements, will pay you back in dividends. A respectful tone is calming to the others’ nervous system and sets the stage to reduce conflict and encourage cooperation. On the other hand, derogatory remarks, name-calling, or dismissive attitudes engender more conflict and mistrust because they can trigger our amygdala, the fight and flight region of the brain. 

Putting It All Together

Your behaviour, yours alone, can reduce the chances your co-parent gets triggered and foster cooperation, especially if it is habitual. However, it is a tough road if your co-parent doesn’t reciprocate or even notice you are doing such great job of listening to her/him/them!

If you find you are the Lone Listener, do consider reaching out for support from a therapist, co-parent counselor or communication coach. Though you will reap benefits as a Lone Listener, it is not as naturally satisfying as receiving empathy, attention and respect from your co-parent in return for your efforts.

EAR reduces triggers in your co-parent such as defensiveness and offensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings and miscommunications because at least one of you has really understood the other. It promotes collaboration and problem solving in the co-parent as stress is reduced and a sense of safety is provided. In the best of circumstances, you can use EAR to create a positive feedback loop: when you show EAR, your co-parent is likely to reciprocate.

EAR doesn’t end conflict or transform a difficult co-parent. It does make your life a little easier though! Most importantly, just one parent using EAR over and over promotes your kids’ emotional and psychological well-being, fostering a sense of security and stability in them. You will be actively doing your part to minimize conflict and you will be modeling healthy communication. Ultimately, reducing parental conflict ensures that kids’ developmental needs are prioritized and supports their emotional well-being. 

Bill Eddy’s EAR method brings to light some of the underpinnings of attunement, a fundamental human need and crucial element in building interpersonal connections and emotional well-being. I hope developing these listening skills in regards to your co-parent empowers you to make a difference for you and your kids, even when communication difficulties run deep.

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