10 things I learned during Active Listening Week

Ben Mann
4 min readAug 14, 2018

Friends! I’m running an experiment. Let’s chat for an hour about whatever’s bugging you lately. You bring the topic, I’ll bring non-judgmental curiosity and my experiences. It’s like therapy, but I have no formal qualifications. I’ve been doing this occasionally with friends and want to see what it’s like with more intentionality.

That’s what I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago. I was inspired by Daniel, who did a very similar exercise a few months ago. I often find myself providing support for my friends, but I only did it once a week or two. At that frequency, it’s hard to see patterns, experiment with techniques, and reinforce what works. Daniel’s experiment seemed like a great way to improve my skills and hopefully help some friends in the process.

To my surprise, 10 people responded and set up sessions with me. Some I’ve known for 15 years. I’d met others for only a few minutes at a mixer. Since then I’ve had a session with each of them. They talked about everything: how to express love, breakups, marriage uncertainty, quitting and changing careers, self-criticism, conflicts at work, exercise, fun vs ambition, friendship… I learned a lot, both about giving support and getting a bigger perspective on life. Now I feel more confident when I say, “Everyone struggles with that!” I rode emotional roller coasters with them, laughing, crying, bursting with love, seething with hate, feeling around in uncertainty. I carefully shared my own experiences when they seemed relevant. After some tough sessions, I felt drained. I read a book or meditated to recharge. Some sessions were energizing and I put that into writing or working. My friends granted me a small, unusual window into their lives and minds. I felt like I understood them more.

In the early sessions, I made mistakes like letting the conversation stay in small-talk land too long, accepting a request to try tough love, trying to take notes, and trying to tackle too many subjects in a short time.

Strategies for listening better

  1. Set intentions for the discussion early and explicitly. Cut them off gently if necessary. Emphasize “I am at your service. Take what you need. What’s been bugging you? What’ve you been struggling with lately?”
  2. Ask what support they have now: therapist, journaling practice, meditation, coach, friends, significant other, family…? If it seems limited, did they used to have support and now don’t? What worked in the past? It’s easy to forget that you have options, and they help.
  3. If struggling to do/feel X, “When was the last time you did/felt X? How’d you do that? How did it feel? How is this time different from the last time?”
  4. After a long speech, say “I’m going to make sure I heard you.” Summarize what they said. Give them a chance to correct or add. Really listen. Don’t worry about what you’ll say next or how what they say relates to your life. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Bring your curiosity. Consider extrapolating a little to make sure you didn’t overfit your model.
  5. Help unlock emotions: “How did that feel? How do you feel about it right now?” If they mention a primary color feeling like “good,” “bad,” “okay,” ask them to dig in and be more specific. How about fuchsia or ochre-level detail? If they don’t mention an emotion at all, call them out. If they say one emotion, but their body, face, or voice shows another, call them out.
  6. If you want to relate a story, make sure they’re done talking. Don’t interject. Don’t say “me too!” Count to 10 seconds of silence to verify if you’re unsure. Silence is good. Nod if you want.
  7. For advice, frame it as, “Here’s something I did when I was in a similar situation. Here’s a framework I think about. I’m not sure if it’s applicable.” Let them draw their own conclusions.
  8. Validate emotions. Match emotional valence as much as possible.
    “I feel so hopeless.” → “I think it’d be hard not to in that situation. It sounds really difficult!”
    “He never gets it.” → “That sounds frustrating.”
  9. Role play. Asking them to step into the shoes of the person they’re conflicting with often opens up new perspectives and thought patterns. “What do you think he’d say if you did X.” “What would you do in her shoes?” “Why do you think she did that?” “Pretend I’m your boss. Tell me the thing.”
  10. Be present. Silence your phone, lean in, find a quiet spot, don’t try to take notes.

Resources I used to learn these: Nonviolent Communication, Search Inside Yourself, Tiny Beautiful Things, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Feeling Good, Tools of Titans, Crucial Conversations, SF Suicide Prevention Hotline training, Google manager training, life.

Since the experiment I’ve been more intentional when I support my friends. When it seems like they’re interested or in need, I drop into coaching mode and try to use the lessons I learned. Some people who hadn’t heard of this experiment noticed that something was different and thanked me. What do you think? Anything you’d add? Will you try it?

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Ben Mann

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist