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Active Listening

Motivation and Rationale

Selective hearing through disconnection, lack of knowledge, or highly charged emotions have been highlighted in previous days as barriers to effective communication. Listening skills can be developed in a number of ways. The purpose is to promote more honest and effective communication among the participants, based on respect for the speaker and a willingness to hear and understand the full message being transmitted. The facilitators’ responsibility is to help all involved feel that they are being heard, through keeping the group focused, encouraging parties to speak out, clarifying key concepts, asking questions and summarizing main points periodically. They should also validate the willingness of participants to share concerns, fears, needs, values or experiences that may have gone unstated prior to this stage. These concerns are often deep and personal. Therefore, a sympathetic and sensitive atmosphere should be constructed.

Exercise: Robbery Report

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Before discussing the active listening techniques, it is useful to demonstrate how the converse works: when one does not actively listen, the results can be quite detrimental. In this exercise, three volunteers are chosen and asked to wait outside. After they have left, everyone in the room is given copies of a robbery report. A volunteer is asked to enter and listen as someone reads the report in a voice that conveys urgency, but so that the volunteer can clearly understand what is said. The next volunteer is then asked in, and the report is repeated to him by the first one; the same follows for the last participant, as he/she repeats it to a “policeman” investigating the crime. The Partners should all be taking notes to see how communication can be mixed up and even wrong, if one does not pay close attention to what is being said (UNICEF, 1997). It should be stressed, however, that the volunteers should not be made to feel as though they are terrible communicators but rather that they have now aided in deciphering the factors that make effective listening a difficult act for anyone.

Discussion: Principles of Active Listening

Active listening involves paying attention, eliciting additional information and reflecting back the messages received (UNICEF, 1997). Factors such as atmosphere, body language and patience are also crucial (see box 10.1.).

Box 10.1 Techniques of Active Listening

In order to practice active listening, three approaches may be considered. The Partners can be consulted about which of the following exercises they would prefer. If there is not sufficient time to practice and illustrate the three approaches in consecutive rounds, the Partners may break into pairs or groups of three and explore the different types of active listening simultaneously and then share the experience with the others. The exercises on “nonviolent communication” may also be practiced or at least reviewed at this stage.

Exercise 1: The group is divided into groups of three, and people are asked to speak in rotation. As the first participant speaks, the second listens and then repeats back what was heard to the speaker, avoiding criticisms or passing judgment through changing the use of certain terms. The third member of the triad acts as a coach, paying close attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues, and in this manner helps both the speaker and the listener listen actively. Repeating the exercise three times allows each person to play each role and to feel the benefits that active listening can offer. All the participants then sit in a circle, and one member of each group is asked to report its main findings.

Exercise 2: The teams sit close together, each forming a matching half-circle. Partners on one team listen to what those on the other have to say concerning their experiences and motivations in the conflict, then summarize the needs that were expressed, using fewer words than the original speakers. The roles are then reversed. Paraphrasing can in fact assist in organizing the thoughts of the original presenter and clarify some poorly expressed concepts. During this phase, the Partners’ voices tend to be lower, as they fall into a more introspective mood. Since participants are inclined to speak softly of their concerns, the circle should be close. Each talk should last only about five minutes. Suggested topics for discussion might include a problem at work that was resolved successfully or unsuccessfully, past personal experiences in the current conflict, or an example of when the speaker mediated a conflict between others (UNICEF, 1997).

Exercise 3: The goal here is for team members to use counseling skills and reflective phrases to increase understanding. The Partner is encouraged to express feelings that she/he might hesitate to say out loud. Participants from one team speak of their experience and motivations in the current conflict while the other group encourages them, using phrases such as “Tell me more,” “I understand but what do you mean when you say humiliation?” or “We all have fears, but what characterizes yours?” Such listening may be therapeutic for the speaker, but it has also been rewarding to see how much more information and insights Partners are able to gain when asking questions in a concerned, helpful manner.

Applying Reflexive Listening

Once the rules of the reflexive phase are clear and the principles explored and understood, they can be applied to the conflict as a whole using at least one of these active-listening approaches. Allow at least one hour for the small group role-rotation, with an additional hour or more for the debriefing in plenary. The rotating coaches in each group have been taking notes during the exercise recording the underlying needs. Presenting their observations to the larger group is an important step toward understanding the group’s co

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