The Core Practice of Active Listening

Participants in a training session demonstrating active listening

In her classic book, "Facilitating with Ease," Ingrid Bens identified "active listening" as one of a dozen core practices for meeting facilitators. We believe "active listening" is one of the most important because so many of the other practices require active listening as a prerequisite.

See if you agree. As you go through the list below, ask yourself if "active listening" is necessary in order to achieve that task.

Ingrid Bens' 12 Core Practices of a Facilitator:

  1. Stay neutral on content
  2. Listen actively
  3. Ask questions
  4. Paraphrase to clarify
  5. Synthesize ideas
  6. Stay on track
  7. Give and receive feedback
  8. Test assumptions
  9. Collect ideas
  10. Summarize clearly
  11. Label sidetracks
  12. Park it

Active listening is really very simple:

All you need to do is look people in the eye, use attentive body language, and paraphrase what they are saying. Eye contact is important both when the other person is speaking and when you are paraphrasing what they have just said. Attentive body language may include sitting up straight or perhaps even leaning forward, nodding your head, or raising your eyebrows. Paraphrasing means repeating or summarizing what the speaker said without placing an interpretation on it. When paraphrasing, you might begin with, "If I understand you correctly, you believe (or feel or understand) that ..." This opens the door for the speaker to clarify their position or feeling where necessary.

But just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's easy. Conversely, there are many "natural" barriers to active listening. It is only natural for us to try to solve problems or try to change someone's mind if we have a different idea. But that is not the goal of active listening. The highest goal is simply to paraphrase what the speaker has just said. One common barrier to "active" listening comes when the listener believes they already know what the speaker is going to say. Other times, the listener is so single-minded in their purpose that they simply do not believe it matters what the other person says. Worse, if the listener disagrees with the speaker, they may well spend all their "listening" time coming up with their counter-response. Other times, the listener may be preoccupied with other legitimately important matters.

Any of these challenges are only natural and easily rationalized but they are killers in any solid attempt at active listening. The credible facilitator will be distinctly diligent in avoiding any of these dynamics for themselves and they will also be keenly aware of the impact they have on the interaction between others in the group.

How good a listener are you? Try this shortened version of an exercise that we do in our Herding Cats Facilitation Skills public seminars:

  • Find a partner and pick a topic for debate.
    The topic may be a civic one, such as "Dogs should be allowed on all restaurant patios," or a personal one such as "Frankie's is the best breakfast place in town." Don't pick a topic so sensitive that it causes disruption in the office, but it is important that you genuinely disagree.

  • Take three minutes to listen to and paraphrase what your partner just said.
    Remember, paraphrase only! Do not try to solve their problems, change their minds, or highjack the conversation.

How did you do?  How hard was it to listen to someone you disagree with?

Listening partner, rate yourself.  How well did you:

  • Focus on the speaker?
  • Ignore your opinions, beliefs, and judgments?
  • Pay attention to the purpose of the communication?
  • Capture the essence of what was being said?
  • Listen with the intent to understand and join up?
  • Use paraphrasing skills?
  • Ask open-ended clarifying questions?

Speaking partner, rate the listener.  Was the listener:

  • Interested / curious?
  • Present (clear of distractions)?
  • Relating to you?
  • Hearing your words?
  • Understanding you?
  • Asking questions to show interest?
  • Did you feel valued, respected, encouraged?

Active listening is worth the practice. Facilitators must hone their listening skills in order to help the group stay on track, hear each other, clarify issues and concerns, make effective decisions, and resolve conflicts.

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