Active listening resource
This protocol is a draft. It has not yet been accepted as protocol and may be incorrect or poorly cited. Please do not use this in your work until it has been accepted.
Please see #protocols on Slack to discuss this protocol further.
Active listening is the process of engaging with someone in an open, non-judgemental way to reach an understanding of how they are thinking and feeling.
This is often relevant when you are supporting someone who is in distress. Giving a person space to express their thoughts and emotions can be a form of support in itself. It is also important to make sure you understand their situation before you attempt to offer any other support.
The most important thing is that you actually listen to the person. If you are communicating and building your understanding, these is no need to conform to any particular model of interaction. Active listening training is often used in harmful ways to impose neurotypical and culturally-specific norms as if they were universally relevant.
We have included some possible techniques which you may find helpful if you are unsure how to begin. However, these are only suggestions; you should never feel pressured to use any particular 'active listening skills’ if other forms of communication work best for you and the person you are supporting.
- 1 Active listening principles
- 2 Active listening techniques
Active listening principles
Listen from a perspective of 'not-knowing'
It’s important to remember that everyone reacts to experiences in a different way, and that we can’t assume how someone will be feeling. While mentioning shared experiences can sometimes be a form of validation, our own experiences can also lead us into misleading assumptions. Listen from a starting point of curiosity, with the goal of discovering what things mean to each individual person.
Listen for the untold story
We want to think about what’s not being said as well as what’s being said. Looking at the bigger picture, we can listen for how someone has learned to tell the story in this way - what assumptions do they have about themselves, their experiences and other people?
Listen for the person's worldview
Think about what has informed their perspective, e.g. past experiences (including trauma), their background, what other people have told them.
Validate what the person is saying
It may not be helpful to jump immediately into problem solving - often what people want is not to be ‘fixed’, but heard. Validating statements show you care about the person - some examples might be, ‘That sounds really overwhelming’. Even if you don't agree with the factual content of what they are saying, you can still validate the emotions they are experiencing.
Make space for complexity
Sometimes a person might say things that seem to contradict comments they have made previously - they might have changed their mind, and/or both things might hold important truths for them which they are expressing in different ways. It’s not about trying to find one objective truth, but about understanding the whole picture as best you can.
Active listening techniques
There is no single 'correct' method of achieving these goals, but there are various techniques which you might sometimes like to draw on. These can be useful if you are looking for ways to - encourage the person to expand on what they are saying - reassure them that you are listening - respond to the person when you are having difficulty thinking of what to say
It's important to be aware that some people may react negatively to these suggestions; for example, if they have had experiences of mental health professionals using these methods in a harmful context. If the other person seems to be finding a technique unhelpful, you should not continue to use it.
We have created an acronym, PROBLEMS, to summarise some common suggestions. This is a toolkit, not a step-by-step protocol. It does not need to be done in any particular order, apart from ‘Summarising’ which can only be done after listening to the person. You do not need to use all the techniques mentioned: you can pick and choose whichever ones seem most appropriate.
- In some contexts, pausing for a few seconds before you respond to a person's comment may help to prompt further discussion. However, it may be read as a lack of engagement in other cultural settings which favour a more overlapping style of conversation.
- If you are working in a context where this would be appropriate, the pause may encourage the person to reflect or expand on what they have just said.
- In particular, if a person appears to be working through difficult or complicated feelings, it can be useful to give them space to put their thoughts into words, rather than immediately filling the silence.
- It can also be helpful to use pauses alongside the techniques below. Techniques such as 'labelling emotions' or 'rephrasing' often work best if you wait and see whether the person wants to respond to them before you continue speaking.
- For example, rather than saying ‘It seems like you’re feeling stressed’ and then immediately suggesting a solution to their difficulty, you would pause after ‘It seems like you’re feeling stressed’ to see if they want to expand on this.
Briefly paraphrase, using your own words, a point that the person has been making. For example, if a person says "They’re all just using me", you could rephrase "So, it feels like people are taking advantage of you".
- This can be useful if you want to reassure the person that you are listening and taking on board what they are saying.
- If you’re unsure of your understanding, make sure to phrase it in ways that recognise you may be mistaken, for example ‘It seems like you’re thinking…’, or ‘Am I right in saying…’
- You don’t have to agree with them or endorse their interpretation of the situation. For example, you can say "So, it feels like people are taking advantage of you" rather than "So, people are taking advantage of you".
- However, be careful to keep a neutral tone. In this example, putting the emphasis on ‘feels’ ("it feels like people are taking advantage") could come across as invalidating their perceptions.
These are questions which do not have "yes" or "no" answers. They can help to get the person talking, and give you a better understanding of where they are coming from. Answering your questions may also help the person to feel calmer, by encouraging them to think through the situation rather than feeling overwhelmed by their emotions.
- They often start with words such as "What" or "How"'
- You should use a calm, non-judgemental tone, making it clear that you are asking a genuine question, not a rhetorical question.
- Be careful with questions starting with "Why", such as "Why did you do that". These can easily come across as critical or challenging. As a consequence, the person may feel pressured to justify their behaviour, rather than answering honestly. Consider alternative phrasing such as "How did you end up deciding to do that?"
- This doesn't mean that 'yes or no' questions must always be avoided when you are supporting someone in a crisis. If a person is feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty speaking, they may find it helpful to be asked simple 'yes' or 'no' questions to address their immediate needs, or to help them get started with discussion of a difficult topic.
It is important to recognise that there is no universal norm of body language. Some active listening resources suggest that you monitor a person’s body language for clues to their emotional state. However, these are often based on ableist, racist or classist assumptions.
Similarly, active listening is often taught in ways which force the listener to meet neurotypical and culturally specific standards of body language in order to "prove" that they are listening (for example, by demanding a certain level of eye contact).
When you are supporting someone who is distressed, you can consider ways in which you might adapt your own body language to help the person feel comfortable. However, you should not feel pressured to do this if it causes you discomfort or affects your ability to listen.
- When possible, try to follow the person’s preferences for level of eye contact and amount of personal space between you.
- Try to avoid positioning yourself in ways that may make them feel trapped, for example by backing them into a corner or blocking their exit.
In this technique, you acknowledge and name the emotions which the person seems to be experiencing. Unlike ‘Rephrasing’, this refers to emotions which the person has not yet explicitly verbalised. This can be a useful way to validate people’s feelings and show that you are listening, even if you don’t agree with the content of what they are saying.
- Make sure to leave room for the person to correct you if you have misinterpreted their emotions. For example, you could say "It sounds like you might be feeling disappointed?" rather than "I can tell you’re feeling disappointed."
- This can often be effective when used alongside pauses: label the emotion, then leave a space so that the person can speak, rather than immediately proposing a solution.
- Don’t push people to acknowledge emotions which they might find embarrassing. For example, if you say "It seems like this might be pretty frightening", but the person does not engage with this, you should not keep pushing them to admit that they are scared.
- If you do use this method, it's also important that you base your comments on what the person is actually saying, rather than attempting to guess their emotions from their body language. This is likely to feel intrusive, and, as discussed above, may lead you into ableist or racist misperceptions.
- Some people may still find the whole technique intrusive, and may prefer that you don't try to guess emotions which they have not chosen to explicitly disclose.
Encouragers (often called ‘minimal encouragers’) are brief, neutral comments or gestures to acknowledge a person’s words, such as "uh-huh", "I see", or nodding your head.
- In some cultural contexts, verbal encouragers such as 'uh-huh' are only used as a response after the person has finished speaking, while in other contexts it may be considered supportive to use them while the person is still speaking.
- If you use these, you should only use them in ways which make sense as a response to what the person has actually been saying. If you use them out of context – for example, replying "I see" when they are asking you a question - it may create the impression that you are only pretending to listen.
- If your only responses throughout the conversation are "I see" or "uh-huh", this may also come across as if you are not genuinely listening. Encouragers are often best used alongside other active listening techniques which involve more engagement with the person.
In this technique, you repeat a few words from the person’s sentence, either as an affirmation or as a question. Here, you reflect back their actual words, as opposed to "rephrasing" where you repeat the person’s idea in your own words. For example, if they say "People never listen, it's so frustrating", you could respond "So frustrating?"
- This is a technique which is stereotypically associated with therapists; people with negative experiences of therapy may find it unhelpful if you frequently respond in this way.
- However, it can sometimes be a good way to encourage the person to expand on what they mean.
- It may also be helpful if you are temporarily stuck for anything else to say.
After listening to the person, you should check that you understand the problem and how they feel about it before discussing any next steps. One possible way to do this is by giving a summary. Whereas "rephrasing" refers to one specific comment or idea, "summarising" means that you give a brief overview, in your own words, of the whole situation.
- You should avoid rushing to conclusions. Make sure you have listening for long enough to get a good understanding of where the person is coming from, before you attempt to summarise.
- As with rephrasing and emotion labelling, you should always leave space for the person to correct you if you have missed out or misinterpreted anything.