Active Listening

(This is a continuation of: How to share this process with a friend of a group).

Here, I will describe Active Listening. When you first try it, you will likely feel a little awkward. This feeling is normal because it’s different from what you’re accustomed to. After you try it, you will probably appreciate the result. Here are a few pointers on how to do it.

In the following, I will describe the process as if there were only two of you, in which case you alternate being Talker and Listener. If there are more of you, it is easy to adapt. For instance, if there are 3 of you:
– First, A is the Talker, and B is the Listener. C witnesses in silence.
– Then B is the Talker, and C the Listener. A witnesses in silence.
– Finally, C is the Talker, and A the Listener. B witnesses in silence.

Taking turns

A defining feature of Active Listening is that the two of you take turns, one being the Talker while the other is the Listener. And then you switch.

In ordinary life, we tend to multitask. That is, we prepare our arguments while we are listening. This approach might work well enough in everyday conversations, but it is not enough when there is more emotional content.

It takes a deliberate plan to override the usual way we function. For instance, if you’re going to be talking for half an hour, you decide that one of you will be the Talker for the first 15 minutes, and the other will be the Talker for the next 15 minutes. An effortless way to avoid any feelings about who starts is to toss a coin.

Focus on understanding

Another defining feature of Active Listening is that the Listener focuses on trying to understand the Talker. Keep in mind that understanding somebody does not mean giving up your own opinion. As the Listener, you are just trying to understand the Talker’s point of view from their point of view. You don’t have to agree.


The third characteristic of Active Listening is that, as the Listener, you give the Talker a summary of what you’ve heard. You don’t wait until the full 15 or 20 minutes to do that. You do it every couple of minutes. Sometimes it could be just a minute or so. There’s a natural rhythm that the two of you develop over time.

Taking it in

The fourth characteristic is that the Talker pays attention to the summary and takes it in. The Talker either nods in approval, says yes, or amends it by adding something that the Listener did not pick up.

By the way, it’s OK if the Talker adds something to what you, the Listener, have said. Very often, this helps the Talker better understand what it is that was important to them.

So, either way: either the Talker keeps nodding to what you’re saying, or it’s an opportunity for them to find something else. In both cases, it’s fine. And you continue this way: talking, listening, summarizing, taking it in, until the end of the allotted time for the Talker. Then, you switch.

Pausing and making space

The fifth characteristic of Active Listening is that it involves pausing. This is not a rapid-fire, yackety yack, type of conversation. Both the Talker and the Listener are engaged in making space. It is what allows the new, the unformed, to come up.

As the Listener, you pause before giving your summary to the Talker. You don’t jump in with your summary as soon as the Talker pauses. You give them a chance because maybe they’re just waiting to say something more.

As the Talker, don’t feel like you have to fill the air with words. It’s OK if you take time without words while you’re trying to sense what comes up next. Let yourself be curious about the felt sense of it. In other words, be prepared that much of what comes up may be murky. It’s not a problem. It’s actually a good thing. “Murky” is an invitation to explore further, as opposed to “case closed.”

What about advice?

One thing is missing from these instructions: how to give advice. For a simple reason: you neither give nor receive advice.

Remember that this is a peer group. You are together to help each other find space to hear yourself think.

As you read this, it probably seems obvious. However, sooner or later, as you get involved in the process, there will come a moment when you find it unbearable not to give advice. Why let this person suffer needlessly when you could so quickly tell them what to do? Not all the time, but just this once, when it would be so easy and so helpful!

When that time comes, and it will, please remember to take a deep breath and resist the urge. You are not failing the other person by refraining from giving advice. You are helping them be face to face with what they need to face.

You might be reading a degree of suffering on the other person’s face. At such a time, what I call “spaciousness” in this description of the process probably feels like terrifying emptiness to the person you are listening to.

I am not asking you to be heartless, just to express your compassion differently. Keep in mind that, by being present, you make it easier for the other person to confront this void than if they were on their own. You may want to express your support by making small sounds, showing that you are present.

You don’t have to do it right

A final point about Active Listening is that you don’t have to do it right. The format encourages thoughtful give-and-take as part of the process. Over time, the two of you will learn, by trial and error, better ways to do Active Listening.