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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Jun 28, 2023

How to listen actively (rather than deeply) in difficult or vulnerable conversations

By Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

How to listen actively (rather than deeply) in difficult or vulnerable conversations

By Candace Brown

I don’t listen well…at least, not naturally.

As an educator and adult with ADHD, attention threatening to pull away from the person talking to me every few seconds can be quite damaging to the relationships I try to build with students. I’ve noticed as more things demand my focus, I am listening less. Last fall, I decided to improve my own listening by signing up to teach a workshop on it (deadlines are an excellent motivator for my learning).

My workshop was titled “How to Listen ‘Actively’ rather than ‘Deeply.” Researching for the workshop helped me to identify my own weaknesses in listening quickly. It still takes practice to use what I’ve learned, but recognizing where I was standing in relation to a mountain peak of “Great Listener” was a helpful first step.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t listening deeply important?”

Absolutely! Deep listening is a popular term across educational communities and beyond as good practice for engaged listeners. However, let me propose a visual:

You and a friend are waiting in the ocean for the next big wave to surf. Your friend is talking to you while they gently paddle alongside their surfboard. Suddenly, your friend tenses up. You sense something is wrong so you quickly dive the deepest you can go in the water. You are searching the ocean floor for signs of danger. While you are doing this, your friend is coping with a jellyfish sting meters above you as wave after wave crashes over them and their surfboard.

This is what can happen when our only focus is deep listening. What’s the disconnect here? You dove deeply to find the cause of the friend’s pain rather than paying attention to what was on the surface (or very close to it). This sounds counterintuitive for listening to someone, but it’s something we are missing (I say “we” but I really mean “I”). Jesus once told Martha that Mary had found the “one thing worth being concerned about:” sitting at his feet and listening to his words (Luke 10:38-42, NLT). Steve Covey writes this in his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Rather than listening to someone to figure out what you’re going to do about it, listen actively. This isn’t the opposite of deep listening, per se; rather, it’s taking deep listening— to pardon the ocean metaphor-turned-pun— deeper.

Take your listening deeper by noticing the surface

Dr. Roger K. Allen describes the “Art of Deep Listening” from his research. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be exchanging what he uses to describe “deep listening” for “active listening” since deep listening has somewhat lost meaning as a term in education circles.

Dr. Allen defines deep listening as “suspending judgment & being fully present with another person to understand his or her experience or point of view.” From what I have found in other sources, deep listening— especially with students— requires active listening, checking what is happening on the surface of the conversation as well as looking for what is happening underneath.

The United States Institute of Peace defines “Active Listening” as “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.” The institute points out that active listening “is an important first step” to calming tense situations and finding solutions, an important first step that we are sometimes skipping in our attempt to “really understand” what others are saying.

Here are some of the ways that I have found to listen not just deeply but actively.

1. Pause, seriously.

Wait a few seconds after someone finishes a thought to see if they have more to add. You might be surprised at how people are more likely to fill in their own blanks when given a few seconds (consider counting up to 7) to think back through what they just told you.

“Don’t rehearse your response while the other person is talking. Take a brief pause after they finish speaking to compose your thoughts. This will require conscious effort! People think about four times faster than other people talk, so you’ve got spare brainpower when you’re a listener. Use it to stay focused and take in as much information as possible.” (Harvard Business Review)

The United States Institute of Peace calls this concept “interested silence.”

2. Take notes, especially when you notice the person is opening up in an unintended way.

You could try saying, “I want to be sure I don’t miss what you’re telling me- is it ok if I write this down?”

This communicates to the other person that their words matter to you, that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. Sometimes, apparent interest alone is enough to bring more important details to the surface.

3. Repeat the person’s words back to them at appropriate times (trying to leave it in their words rather than rephrasing it).

Use sentence frames such as “What I think I hear you saying is ____________________. Is that right?” or “So it sounds like ____________________. Is there anything I’m missing?”

These communicate that you are open to having your understanding so far adjusted for nuance. Oftentimes, nuance is the reason behind misunderstandings; with tenuously-balanced relationships or teetering conflicts, this can be vital.

5. Maintain attention.

Abrahams, Robin, and Groysberg in The Harvard Business Review suggest that “If you often find yourself distracted when trying to listen to someone, control your environment as much as possible.”

The article describes you setting intentions before you begin, using a written agenda (a more formal version of the notetaking strategy above), or even a whiteboard. I use the last method when helping a student brainstorm their Common App college application essay. For some students, this is the first time that they have to think seriously about their life narrative. Writing down their thoughts as they come out can help them see patterns.

Abrahams, Robin, and Groysberg add this:

“ If you do have a lapse in attention, admit it, apologize, and ask the person to repeat what they said. (Yes, it’s embarrassing, but it happens to everyone occasionally and to some of us frequently.)”

Admitting when I lose focus has been simultaneously difficult and freeing. It enables me to fix smaller mistakes in understanding that could have compounded to something much more difficult to surpass later such as losing the speaker’s trust.

6. Don’t impose your own opinions or solutions.

In many areas of our lives, we are required to both tell and listen to difficult topics. The British Heart Foundation offers suggestions for talking about health-related problems. Their suggestion: ask if the other person wants to hear your thoughts at all.

“In other areas of life too, most people prefer to come to their own solutions. If you really must share your brilliant solution, ask first if they want to hear it – say something like “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”

In Chapter 1 of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elain Mazlish, the authors give a list of possible ways to show children that you are really listening. These reasons work for adults as well.

  1. Listen with full attention.
  2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word—”Oh”… “Mmm”… “I see.”
  3. Give their feelings a name.

Give them their wishes in fantasy. [The authors later explain this as a process similar to imaginative rehearsal, an opportunity to play out scenarios with possible decisions to see the end results.]

6. If the other person is getting more emotional, thank them for the effort it took to share. 

This was something I learned in a lecture on helping students feel safe in conversations with their peers in a controlled environment such as a socratic seminar. The speaker said it can really help to simply say “Thank you” when someone shares, regardless of the emotions of their words. Now, this can come across as cheezy if the context doesn’t fit, but if we are reading the room right, this can be a useful tool. It can teach the listener to be grateful for when others open up or share when it might seem more difficult to share their ideas at all.

Active listening has to be a choice

We have a running joke in my family about a vacation we took to Chicago a few years back. Every few minutes, one of us would point out a beautiful piece of architecture or an art installation; inevitably, moments later, someone else would point out the exact same thing, and we would laugh because we were all so engrossed in the sights as to not hear each other’s observations.

While this story makes me laugh, imagine if I had been on a field trip with students. Imagine if those students had vitally important things to talk to each other about while we were on that trip. Conflicts might have manifested simply from not being heard, the kind that could be seemingly insurmountable for a student.

While the “Deep Listening” model is a popular one for teachers to study, going back to basics- actively watching what cues the speaker is giving to us, seeking more information rather than a solution right away, even offering silent engagement as an indicator of processing- might be just as worthy.


Abrahams, Robin, and Boris Groysberg. “How to Become a Better Listener.” Harvard Business Review, 21 Dec. 2021.

British Heart Foundation. “10 Tips for Active Listening.” 10 Tips for Active Listening – Heart Matters Magazine, British Heart Foundation.

Covey, Steve R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

What is Active Listening? (n.d.). What Is Active Listening? | United States Institute of Peace.

Allen, Roger K. “The Art of Deep Listening.” Dr. Roger K Allen, Conflict Management, Listening Skills, Self Empowerment, 27 Jan. 2021.

Testa, Italo. “The Imaginative Rehearsal Model – Dewey, Embodied Simulation, and the Narrative Hypothesis.” Pragmatism Today, 10 July 2017.

Faber, Adele, and Elaine Mazlish. “Chapter 1: To Help With Feelings.” How to Talk so Kids Will  Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Lagom, London, 2022.

Candace Brown

Secondary ELA

Candace Brown is a Secondary English and Yearbook teacher at an international Christian school in Taiwan. She has been published in literary magazines with the University of Arkansas, The Sagebrush Review, and Sonder Midwest. She has helped students publish their...
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