How to Be an Active Listener
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How to Be an Active Listener

To introduce the students to the idea and component steps of active listening and give them practice applying those skills.

Time commitment:

40 minutes 

What principles, ground rules, or concepts are at work here?

  1. Listen – it’s as important as talking
  2. Listen in the way you want to be heard
  3. Redefine the win

How to do the exercise:

Give students this background: (15 minutes total)

Read the following quotes to the students:

  • “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” -- the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace
  • “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood (Listen Before You Talk)” – Stephen Covey, Habit 5 of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Tell the class:

These two quotes come from very different people, in very different contexts.  The first is from a religious leader and is focusing on a general life skill.  The second is from a book that was on the business book best seller list for over 5 years. 

Uet, they are both talking about the importance of something we often take for granted, something they viewed as essential to being a good person or a successful one.

Ask: What do you think each is getting at?  What do you think gets in the way of listening the way they think is important?

Through discussion, you might want to ask follow-up questions such as:

  • When you  talk with people,  do you always give them your full attention?
  • Are you  more intent on judging what the other person is saying rather than trying to  understand it?
  • Are your emotions getting in the way of listening and understnaing?

Each of these things can interfere with effective listening – for example, we might just tune out, or we might jump to conclusions about what the other means – and that can damage our relationship with other people.

Active listening is a method that helps us avoid these pitfalls.

Review with students The Components of Active Listening:

  • Focus attention: Look at the speaker; lean forward, don’t fold arms, frown or roll eyes, make gestures of impatience. Don’t talk except to offer expressions of encouragement or understanding.  Pay attention to the other person’ body language,  tone of voice, facial expressions.
  • Listen to connect; strive to understand what the other is saying.
  • Test your understanding of what they say by asking questions for clarification or asking "build-upon" questions to check your understanding. For example, questions like:
    • I’m not sure I understand you there, can you say that another way?
    • Is _____ an example of what you mean?
    • Is that related to __________?
    • That reminds me of ______?  Is that accurate?
  • Acknowledge the speaker’s point of view by summarizing what you heard them say and what you think was meant.  Let the person know you appreciated hearing  their point of view.  Do this before offering your viewpoint or relating a story about something similar that happened to you. (People are much more likely to listen to you if you’ve shown them that you’ve been listening actively to them.)

Part 1: Paired activity to practice the four components of active listening (10 minutes total)

Put the students into pairs.

  • Student #1 has 1.5 minutes to talk about:
    • “Some strong feelings I’ve been having about school lately…” or
    • “A highpoint of this week…” or
    • “Something they are hoping to do this weekend…”

Student #2 cannot talk (imaginary Band-Aid over mouth) until time is up. Teacher will announce time; wait until time is called to switch.

  • Student #2 paraphrases, restating content and reflecting feelings.  You don’t have to be a tape-recorder, just report back what struck you: “So, I heard you saying…” (45 seconds)
  • Student #1 gives feedback to Student #2 about how they felt during that summary.  Express  appreciation if it felt like you were really heard.  (15 seconds)
  • Now Switch

Part 2:  Small group activity to practice the components of active listening (10 minutes total)

 Put the students into groups of 4 or 5.

  • Tell the students their task is to decide which of three issue prompts they’d like to discuss in class in the future.  During the conversation you want them to practice the four components of active listening.  Stress that the goal is not to discuss any of the issues in depth, but to discuss which ones they’d most like to discuss in a future class, and why.
  • The prompts are:
    • As you may know, many parents’ groups and lawmakers are putting pressure on public school systems to limit which works of art, which books, which contested ideas, and which viewpoints on American history may be included in curriculum or even mentioned in class. As current high school students, how does this trend strike you? A good thing, a worrisome one, or it depends.? Why?
    • In a 2018 poll, 46 percent of Americans under the age of 30 disagreed with the statement: Democracy is the best form of government. Meanwhile, in another 2021 poll, 32 percent said they expect to see an American civil war in their lifetimes. What about you? What’s your confidence level in the American system of government? If it’s low, what system would you prefer to see? And do you glimpse civil war on the horizon? Please share the “whys” behind your answers.
    • In a recent survey, about two in five college students said they hesitate to discuss controversial topics, for fear of how either their classmates or their professors will react. How about you? Do you think this is an issue in high school?  Do you feel you hear diverse views in class? Do you ever soften your statements to avoid bad reactions - or stay silent altogether? If not, why not? If so, what would have to happen for you to speak up more in class?

Plenary Discussion (5 minutes)

Ask the students to reflect on how the how the conversation went.  Were they satisfied with the way it went?  Why/why not?  Were they able to practice the four components of active listening?  Is so, did it make a difference in the conversation and the way they felt heard? 

Follow-up ideas

  • The next time you are in a conversation with a friend, family member, or someone at work, and that person tells you about something that bothered them, try to use some of the active listening skills:
    • Make good eye contact
    • Lean in gently to give them your full attention
    • Notice their body language and their tone of voice, to get some of the emotional tone of their experience
    • Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand
    • Summarize what you think they are getting at and ask if you’ve gotten it right.
  • The next time you are in a conversation with a friend, family member, or someone at work, and that person tells you about an enjoyable experience, try to use some of the active listening skills above.

PA State Standards

  • 5.2.U.D. / 5.2.W.D / 5.2.C.D. - Evaluate and demonstrate what makes competent and responsible citizens. 
  • CC.1.5.9–10.A - Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.