Effective Listening Skills

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During social gatherings, we often see lots of people who have opinions that are different from our own. To help us prepare for those conversations and practice our listening skills this training is geared to helping us understand the phases of the communication process, and learn the seven key skills of effective listening.  Effective listening is a foundational skill for more advanced work in communications, including Motivational Interviewing.
Related Trainings
Effective Listening Skills is part of the Effective Communication Skills series.
TOC and Guide Section
Overview of the Communication Process

To start, here is an overview of the essential phases of the communication process.Naturally, in real life, communication does not always follow a linear process, but the following phases provide a way to think about the overall process. This training focuses on the second phase, listening, but an overview of the process is helpful to provide the bigger picture before the seven key skills of effective listening are highlighted.

1. Prepare

You need to establish safety, by finding the right time and place for the conversation. Here, you focus on what you want from the communication.  Do you want to:

  • prove that you’re right and the other person is wrong?
  • vent your anger?
  • accomplish something productive?
2. Listen

In listening to another person there is a whole skill set related to listening, and these specific skills will be reviewed in detail below. The great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado said: “To converse with someone, first ask a question, then…listen.”

3. Consider

After you have listened look into yourself and ask - what filters might be impacting how you interpret a conversation? We all have our own filters or lenses that distort or oversimplify what we are receiving from the world.  What are yours? Examples:  stereotypes, planning what you’re going to say next, etc.  As human beings we try to make sense of the world by making up consistent stories about what we perceive.  Slow down to be present.

4. Talk

When you are speaking, remember to think first. Facts are a great place to start.  Sometimes “communication problems” are just two different incomplete sets of facts. “I statements” mean that you speak first hand from your own experience.  For example “I feel…” or “I need…”  Then make a request.  The request form shows respect for the other person’s freedom to choose. Seek the other’s view sounds something like: “That’s how I see the situation.  I may have missed something.  How do you see it?” Seek alignment.

5. Check

When we talk about challenging topics it is common to react in the following ways:

  • masking – “I’m really fine.”  (when you know they’re not)
  • avoiding – “Nice weather we’re having.”
  • withdrawing – “Oops, look at the time!”
  • silence, passivity, placating
  • labeling – “That’s what those tree-huggers usually say.”
  • fighting/attacking – “Just try it, and see what happens to you.”

If you sense any reactivity in you or the other person, stop trying to talk about content.  Nothing productive is going to happen at this point.  Your next move now is to adjust what you are doing. If both of you are receptive, continue.

6. Adjust

Skills for Adjusting:

  •  Clarify your meaning/intent by using clear parameters: “I don’t mean X; I do mean Y.”
  •  Reaffirm mutual purpose
  •  If you have made a mistake or spoken out of line, apologize.
7. Continue

If you and the other person are both receptive to any adjustments then continue. Naturally, in real life, communication is not this linear. This list gives you the main phases and general sequence to keep in mind as you interact. 

Warm-Up Activity

Recall a time when a listener thoroughly understood you and accepted you for who you are. Take turns sharing with your partner:

  • How you felt when being listened-to so well.
  • The circumstances and the behaviors/actions of the other person that brought this about.
  • What happened as a result?

Debrief together to observe what you shared. These are the skills involved in good listening.  These are the tools that will help you construct your own “mental map” of the person you are speaking with. Let’s go through them one at a time.

Active Listening Skills


“I see...”  “Uh-huh...” 

[body language: e.g. nodding]

  • Conveys interest and keeps the conversation going.  
  • Don’t agree or disagree with the person.  
  • Use non-committal words and positive tone of voice.  
  • Often used on the telephone.
Asking Questions

Open-ended: “What, Why, Where, When, How?”

Closed-ended: Aims at only a yes/no answer or specifics.

  •  Opens discussion
  •  Gets information
  •  Open-ended generally preferable
  •  Avoid more than three questions in a row

Sentences like these are not true questions

“Isn’t it true that…?”

“Wouldn’t you agree that…?”

They are really statements with a “hook” at the end or “loaded questions” (loaded like a gun). Don’t use these.  (They make the other person feel manipulated, consciously or unconsciously.)

Restating facts

“In other words your idea is...”

“If I understand you, you’re saying...” 

  • Restate the content of what the other person said using your words. 
  • To test the clarity of your understanding, not to show agreement or disagreement.
  • Especially useful to clarify their thoughts or perceptions.
Reflecting feelings

“You feel...” 

“You were pretty upset" 

  • Lets the other person know you understand how they feel, their emotions. 
  • Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are.
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. 
  • Again, you are not showing agreement, just empathy

“These seem to be the major points you’ve discussed...”

“So the bottom line, is...” 

  •  Pulls key ideas, facts, feelings, together. 
  •  Reviews progress. 
  •  Builds a basis for further discussion.
Hypothesis Testing

“Since no one returned your call, I’m wondering if you thought we weren’t interested in your input and if you are angry about that.” 

  •  Your best guess about what’s going on.  
  •  Like a summary, but stated tentatively, as a hypothesis.
  •  Can help create safety.
  • Be Clear that Hypotheses are Tentative

“I’m wondering if…”

“When I hear that, the story I make up in my mind is…”

“Trying to make sense of this, I think…  Is that accurate or am I missing something?”

Receptive Silence
  •  Allows the other person to collect thoughts.
  •  Introverts especially appreciate this.  
  •  Also allows you time to think. 
  •  Draws out details, nuances.


Putting it all together

Practice Listening Breakout Activity & Roles

  • Speaker – Talk about something you care deeply about.  If your partner is up for a challenge, have them take on the persona of an identity that conflicts with supporting climate action. 
  • Listener – Use as many of the above active listening skills as helpful to draw out the Speaker
  • Observer (if a third person is available)– Take note of the listening skills used by the Listener

Goal: Speaker feels seen, heard, felt, and respected. No responses other than active listening techniques.  This is not a dialogue.

After five minutes of practice, debrief among yourselves…

  • Speaker – How well were you listened to?
  • Observer – What listening skills did you observe?  Were any missing?
  • Listener – How was this experience for you?
Press play to start the video (29m 13s)
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Intro & Agenda
(from beginning)

Phases of Communication

Warm-up Activity

Active Listening Skills


Chris Hoffman 

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Press play to start the audio (29m 13s)
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Audio Outline
To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda 
(from beginning)

Phases of Communication 

Warm-up Activity 

Active Listening Skills


Chris Hoffman
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