Active Listening

Closely related to NVC, active listening is a further fundamental mechanism for elicitive conflict work.

Active listening refers to a kind of listening that is not simply limited to hearing. The listener empties his or her mind and listens with his or her entire being. This means that prejudices, scientific theories, intellectual understanding, and even pity are obstacles to active listening. Active listening is not about doing, understanding, choosing, or repairing something, it is simple presence with all of one’s attention and senses.

In order to unpack this type of communication in more detail, we take the main insights from Carl Rogers, whose groundbreaking work in client-centered therapy has made him an important figure in peace studies and conflict transformation. For Rogers (Rogers and Farson, 1987), active listening basically entails that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp from his/her point of view what he/she is communicating to us:

  1. Listen for total meaning: besides listening to the content of the message, we try to understand the attitude or feeling underlying the content.

  2. Respond to feelings: frequently, the feeling or attitude underlying the content of the message is more important than the content. Remain sensitive and respond particularly to the feeling component. What is the speaker trying to tell me? What does this mean to him/her? How does the speaker see the situation?

  3. Note all cues: Pay special attention to other forms of communication besides the verbal. The volume and inflection of the voice are relevant, and so are the speaker’s facial expressions, body posture, and hand and eye movements, just like his/her breathing. 

Active ListeningActive listening changes the quality of the relationship because by consistently listening to a speaker we convey the idea that we respect, value and are interested in him/her with our actual behavior. Having and demonstrating respect for the person by listening to him/her further carries a high risk: if we sense deeply the feelings of another person, understand the meaning his/her experiences have for him/herself and see the world as he/she sees it, we risk being changed ourselves. In this line of thinking, the skills of active listening for the elicitive worker are vital to engender empathy and thus resonance.