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Tool: Active listening

As we come to understand ourselves and our relationships with others better, we rediscover that "communication is not just saying words; it is creating true understanding." Active listening is an important skill in that process. Chances are that those who influence us most are powerful listeners. Whether instinctively or through practice, they have developed the skill of empathy. This activity comes from the Center for Rural Studies.

This exercise will help you practice some of basic active-listening skills:

  • Attending Skills (verbal and non-verbal)
  • Questions, Reflections, Summarization
  • Skills of Self-expression: "1-2-3 Pattern"
  • Practice Session on Effective Confrontation

The group should be divided into subgroups of three. There will be three roles in each subgroup: speaker, listener, and observer. Everyone will take each role once in this practice, so divide into your subgroup and decide who is going to take which role first.


Objective - The point of the practice session is to give each person the opportunity to learn how to use verbal and non-verbal minimal encouragers and become a better listener.

To the speaker - Your task is to talk about something that is important to you: your job, your family, a decision, or a question. The practice will be more helpful if you talk about something you really care about, although role-playing is possible. You may find yourself in the midst of discussing something important when the allotted time runs out. If this happens, you could make an agreement with the person listening to carry on later, after work or during a break.

To the listener - Your task is to practice the skills of the session: eye contact, body language, silences, and verbal minimal encouragers. Don't panic! Just concentrate on following the speaker's train of thought. Try to limit your responses to the skills discussed in this session.

To the observer - Your task is to observe the listener's verbal and non-verbal skills. Observe and count only as many behaviors (eye contact, body posture, verbal minimal encouragers, topic jumps) as you can manage and still be relatively accurate.


The first speaker will talk with the listener for three or four minutes. The listener will then discuss the listening experience with the two other members of the subgroup. (To the listener: What was comfortable? What was difficult? Did you stay with the speaker?) Then the speaker will share his or her feelings about the listener's listening. (To the speaker: Did you feel listened to? Was it helpful? Did the listener have any habits you found distracting?) The observer will then share observations. This sharing process should take about three or four minutes.

Now everyone change places. Have the listener become the speaker, the speaker the observer, and the observer the listener. Go through the five minutes of talking and listening and five minutes of exchanging remarks twice more so that each person takes each role once. The entire practice session should take about 25 minutes.

When you are finished, form a large group. Your facilitator will help you share your practice experiences. How are these skills relevant to your work? Where else would they be useful? Go around the group, so that the participants have a chance to share at least one thing they have learned about themselves in this practice session.