Topic 2 Listening


  • As we have explained the purpose of this module is to outline the foundational elements that allow the educational work of ‘unpacking’ extremism to happen.
  • These elements include listening, reflective practice and self-awareness and together they allow the practitioner to develop a learning space for dialogue. While listening implies listening to others,  it also requires that we  listen to ourselves as practitioners.
  • Our dialogues with practitioners underlined that engaging with hate speech and behaviour is affective or emotional in nature and if not acknowledged emotion/s, like denial or defensiveness, can impact on practice.
  • This is why it was seen as essential for practitioners to engage in self-reflection to understand our own assumptions and commit to developing awareness of our reactions (and perhaps defensiveness) when certain topics like someone’s experience of racism is raised.
  • The topic will outline theory and activities to promote self-reflection and support practitioners to listen to themselves and others.

In this section we will cover the following elements:

  1. What is Reflective Listening?
  2. Why Is Reflective Listening Important?
  3. Influences on Reflective Listening
  4. Activities to Develop Reflective Listening

What is Reflective Listening?

Egan (1994) distinguishes between ‘listening’ and ‘attending’. While listening refers to a practitioner’s capacity to hear, understand and respond to verbal and non verbal communication.  Attending is more active in nature and is linked to the capacity of practitioners to build empathetic relationships with young people. To understand young people, practitioners are required to be open and curious about the social and psychological experiences of young people, and their quest for meaning, existence, so they can come to answer the big existential question ‘who are you?’.

For Egan, it is important for practitioners to physically (physical attending) communicate and embody this understanding. An example of ‘physical attending’ is when a practitioner displays an open, collaborative  and relaxed demeanour. This can help to alleviate anxiety and present a message to (young) people that you want to listen to their experience. 

To understand and communicate the perspectives of young people, practitioners need to listen to both the young person and to themselves. This reflective quality to listening is captured in the following definition from ‘Training for Transformation’ (Hope and Timmel, 2001)

“Listening is an art, a skill, and a discipline. As in the case of other skills, it needs self control. The individual needs to understand what is involved in listening and develop the necessary self-control to be silent and listen, keeping down their own needs and concentrating attention on the other with a spirit of humility”.

Why is Reflective Listening So Important?

Reflective listening supports practitioners to build relationships with young people that allow the work of, for example, unpacking extremism to happen. The importance of reflective listening for practice is outlined in Transforming Hate in Youth Settings (2018)

“Working on recognising, tackling and transforming hateful behaviour involves a lot of personal emotions. Youth workers – and trainers – cannot stand apart from their own identity, and as such have to develop competencies around tackling their own emotions when faced with instances of hateful speech and behaviour. When emotions are not acknowledged, they can cause resistance so it is important to address them”.

Developing the capacity to listen in a reflective manner can seem daunting.

Take heart; it takes practice and an acceptance that as practitioners, our role is to work with young people to unpack ideas, beliefs, feelings and values, including, in this case, extremism.

This short quiz from ‘MindTools’  is a creative way to reflect on your listening Skills

Influences on Reflective Listening

Practitioners are not ‘blank slates’. They bring their feelings, assumptions and beliefs to practice.

The DEPAL project (2019) employs the helpful metaphor of ‘filter’ to highlight how personal and professional experience influence our capacity to listen. ‘Our life story, attitudes, cultural values, political ideologies, religious beliefs, professional training etc. can all influence what we actually hear. These act as filters through which we hear the other person. When we are listening to other people we are generally listening through the filter of our own experience’.

Source: DEPAL Project (2019) Understanding Participatory and Digital Learning: A Guide for Adult Educators

In essence, reflective listening is the capacity to understand the influence of our ‘life story’ on our practice with young people. It requires practitioners to reflect on the experiences they bring to practice and how these ‘filters’ have the potential to ‘trigger’ emotional and behavioural responses in both parties. The activity explored later in this module,

‘The Practitioner in Context’ is a tool to identify the personal, professional and wider system experiences we bring to practice.

Remember the purpose of reflective listening is not to engage in ‘filter-less’ listening, As some filters are unconscious, this is not possible.  The DEPAL Project (2019) offers some helpful guidance:

“What is possible, is to become aware of one’s own filters and the impact they are having on one’s listening. I can then decide if the filter is helping or hindering the conversation.

I can choose to engage in the dialogical practice of suspending judgement. Our filters often invite us to make value judgments quickly: we make assessments that what someone said is good or bad, right or wrong. Suspension of judgment isn’t about ceasing to exercise judgement. Rather, it’s about noticing what our judgments are – and then holding them lightly so that we can still hear what others are saying, even when it may contradict our own judgments”.

In our EDURAD project, our workshops with practitioners highlighted how language, in particular hate speech, micro-aggressions and ‘othering’ someone, triggers emotion.

This was the experience of both practitioners (and young people).

When presented with hate speech, for example with racism, practitioners are faced with a decision to either ‘close things down, or open things up’.

The decision to ‘close’ conversation can be linked to concerns about, for example, young people getting hurt.

But the act of closing conversation may hurt rather than protect young people who experience this as ‘being silenced’ or shut down if hateful speech by others is not addressed.

The dilemma of whether to ‘close things down’ or ‘open things up’, and unpack the meaning of language with young people, is an example of ‘Red flag listening – words that cause emotional reaction’ (Hope & Timmel, 2001). Such words are like a ‘red rag to a bull’ and we often react automatically.

Words triggers the ‘filters’ of the listener, for example, ‘I do not have the experience to deal with this’ (competence), ‘somebody will get hurt’ (risk/harm), ‘this racist remark could be directed at me’ (resonance with own experience). In terms of behaviour, we stop listening to the speaker and take defensive steps to manage the impact of the trigger on self.

The next slide offers steps to support  practitioners to remain in reflective listening mode.

Source: National Youth Council of Ireland (2018) Transforming Hate in Youth Settings An Educational Tool and Practice Manual for those working with young people, Dublin: NYCI.

Available at

The exercise can be completed by an individual to support reflection. It can also be competed and shared as part of group development.  

Please complete these sentences: 

  1. I find it easy to listen when …
  2. I find it hard to listen when…
  3. The people I find it hard to listen to are ……
  4. I really like listening to people who …
  5. I never listen when…
  6. I get excited when I listen to…
  7. My heart sinks when I listen to…
  8. Don’t ask me to listen when…
  9. I listen best when…
  10. I react when I hear….

Adapted from DEPAL Project (2019) Understanding Participatory and Digital Learning: A Guide for Adult Educators.

Thinking about listening as an ethical practice reminds us of the complexity of listening.

Julie Tilsen (2018: 65) describes different kinds of listening, and says we should move beyond ‘active listening’ and we should listen for what is ‘absent’ or unspoken. Here are some examples. You may have more.

She asks us to think about what listening does, what is its purpose and value is, and what it makes possible. What ways of listening inspire you?

  1. Digging back into your memory and experience, describe concretely a moment where you felt listened to. Try to remember all the details of it as though you were painting a landscape – the time, your body posture, the other person, the specific quality of being listened to. Does an image come to mind? Speak/write in the present tense.
  2. 2. Now, digging back into your memory, describe concretely a moment of feeling that you were not being listened Again provide a rich concrete description. You can also do this with another person, preferably sitting side by side, or through writing. If speaking take 3-5 minutes, if writing take 10 minutes.
  3. Can you identify what the other person did in each case to leave you with that experience?
  4. How can you listen in a way that helps someone else feel that they have been listened to?
  5. Describe other different kinds of listening that might be needed in different situations and contexts.

Practice listening in everyday life to everyday sounds, from voices and accents, the sound of the wind or scratching surfaces, to sacred sounds. Sounds are experienced directly by the body and can be the cause of bringing together or of dividing us from one another (“they’re too loud”). Bring awareness and curiosity to responses to different kinds of sounds can support listening.

  1. Silence: John Cage’s composition 4”33’ involved listening to the sounds of silence with an open and attentive attitude. . Try this yourself and with young people.
  2. Embodiment: Listen to sounds in faith and cultural traditions from mantras to sacred song.
    • Become aware of the feeling of them in the body, and the feelings that emerge from listening.
    • You might invite young people to do blind drawing exercises while listening.
    • Explore philosophically/imaginatively why sound, music, song, and chanting is so important in different traditions. What does it do? You might imagine explaining its significance to a Martian Anthropologist.
    • This might also help greater awareness of how affects or emotions are experienced in the body. 
  1. Mapping: Map the soundscape of your life. Perhaps try recording different sounds that are features of your life, or listen out for surprising sounds. Perhaps create recordings on your phone, or try to take images that express certain sounds.
  2. Assemblage/Map: Create an ‘assemblage’ or multi-modal collage: What sounds relate to what gestures, rituals or practices? This might be dance, prayer, touch.. It could be the ritual of waiting for a bus.
  3.  Love: Ask each person to bring and share a sound that they love.