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Active Listening to Provide Emotional Support

This learning activity is a summary of a workshop on active listening. It was adapted from ETR’s 2003 Wait for Sex curriculum, the development of which was funded by the federal Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs. It includes the following sections:

Rationale

Active listening listening is both common to, and critical to, several important life skills. It is a fundamental part of good communication and effective conflict resolution. In the area of adolescent reproductive health and teen pregnancy prevention, it has been used in teaching parents how to communicate with their teen children about sex and contraception.

In that context, parents are typically taught the skill to improve the accuracy with which they identify the values, level of knowledge and questions and concerns that their teens have about sexual activity, the reproductive system and contraceptive availability and use.

Sometimes other positive aspects of active listening are identified when it is used this way, such as its capacity to prevent parents from lecturing or interrupting thereby making space for their children to share their experiences, values, questions and concerns.

All of these are positive instrumental uses of active listening in a teen pregnancy prevention context. Furthermore, there is no shortage of active listening lesson plans. So why present yet another one here? We have chosen to do so here to emphasize the importance of active listening to increasing connectedness, an outcome that can be inferred in the other uses of the skill described above, but is not explicit.

Good communication, feeling supported, feeling listened to and feeling understood and appreciated for who they really are — these are factors that increase feelings of connectedness for both teens and parents. The experience of these, and other factors can be increased through the use of active listening. Which of us hasn't felt more connected to someone else because they demonstrated the qualities of a good listener? This feeling of connectedness makes teens more open to effective messages and modeling in relation to their choices about sexual behavior and other behaviors as well.

Time Required

One 90-minute session or two 45-minute sessions

Setting and Audience

This activity is designed to be led by an experienced facilitator in any one of a variety of settings, including:

  • A lunch-time workshop series in a work setting
  • Workshops at community-based organizations
  • Workshops sponsored by schools
  • Workshops sponsored by communities of faith
  • Support groups (formal and informal)
  • Weekend retreats

The audience for the activity is parents of adolescents ages 11-19.

Workshop Description

In Part 1 of this workshop:

  • Parents participate in a listening exercise designed to emphasize the importance of, and advantage of, being an active listener.
  • Parents learn a three-part definition of communication.
  • Parents identify a time when someone actively listened to them and connect this experience to increased feelings of trust, validation, emotional support and overall "connectedness."
  • Parents generate their own list of the qualities of a good listener.

In Part 2 of this workshop:

  • Parents observe and analyze a demonstration of active listening techniques using the list of the qualities of a good active listener as criteria.
  • Parents review a list of "conversation starters" they can use to get their teens talking.
  • Parents practice active listening in pairs.
  • Parents identify potential barriers to practicing active listening and brainstorm ways of overcoming those barriers.
  • Parents identify the potential benefits of active listening to connectedness and personalize their learning by anticipating how these benefits may materialize in their relationships with their own teenage children.

Workshop Objectives

At the completion of Parts 1 and 2 of this workshop, parents will be able to:

  • Describe how using active listening skills can increase their teens' sense of being supported emotionally by them as parents and how in can increase their connectedness with their children;
  • Identify barriers to active listening and ways to overcome those barriers; and
  • Practice and demonstrate effective active listening skills.

Materials Checklist

  • Markers
  • Flipchart Paper
  • Paper
  • Tape
  • Pencils
  • "Conversation Starters" Flipchart
  • "Communication Faces" Diagram

Preparation

  1. If you do not have 90 minutes for a single session, you can conduct this activity as two 45-minute sessions. Plan to end the first session at the end of Part 1. Plan to begin the second session with a review of what was learned in Part 1.
  2. Gather the necessary materials for this session.
  3. Write session learning objectives on flipchart paper.
  4. Choose a warm-up activity to conduct at the beginning of this workshop.
  5. The warm-up activity should help create a safe and comfortable learning environment for the other activities in this workshop.
  6. Prepare “Communication Faces” diagram on flipchart paper as described in this session.
  7. Write “Conversation Starters” on flipchart paper.

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Procedure

Part 1

  1. Introduction (15 minutes)
    1. Welcome parents and introduce yourself.
    1. Ask parents to introduce themselves and conduct the brief warm-up activity you have chosen. Outline the following ground rules to help create a safe and comfortable environment for today's discussion:
    • Listen with an open mind.
    • Respect different points of view.
    • Take care of yourself — trust your gut.
    • Share the time with each other — don't dominate the discussion.
    • Ask any questions — there is no such thing as a stupid question.
    • Recognize that it's normal to feel a range of feelings — joy, sadness, anger, guilt, etc. — when discussing your childhood and your own children.
    • Recognize that all parents want the best for their children and are doing the best they can with what they currently know and understand. All parents have both strengths and challenges.
    1. Tell parents that often when people think of communication, they think about how to talk or send a message. Explain that today’s session is going to focus on another equally important part of communication — listening — using active listening skills. Active listening skills are important to effective communication and equally as important to connection.

      By actively listening to your children, you increase their feelings of being understood, of being accepted for who they are and of being supported emotionally. All of these things build trust and have a huge impact on how much connectedness there is in the relationship. More trust and more connectedness often leads to more communication and so on. Your children/teens will be more likely to come to you with questions, concerns or decisions regarding sexuality and other important areas of their development if they trust and feel connected to you.
    2. Review the learning objectives (written on flipchart paper) for this session with participants.

  2. Icebreaker (5 minutes)
    1. Tell the group that before you get started with the session, you would like to play a quick game about listening.
    2. Give each parent a piece of paper and a pencil. Tell parents that you are going to give them a set of instructions. You will read the instructions once only so they have to listen carefully before writing anything down.
    3. Ask parents to answer the following questions:
    • Your spouse asks you to bring home meat, milk, cheese and bread. You bring home milk, bread and meat.

      What did you forget?
    • Your supervisor at work asks you to go to Office 3-1-5, look in the right-hand drawer of the desk, and bring you a blue box that was left there.

      Once you get to the office, will you look in the right or left drawer of the desk?

      Are you going to Office 5-3-1-, 3-1-5, or 1-3-5?
    • You are the driver of a school bus. At the first stop, 13 children get on. At the next stop, five children get on and two get off. At the next stop, eight children get on and one gets off.

      How old is the bus driver?
    1. The facilitator should check the group's answers after reading the four questions.
    • Cheese
    • Right
    • 3-1-5
    • Each participant's own age
    1. Ask parents what they thought of this activity. Take a few responses. Point out to the group that no matter how effective you were at giving instructions, communication could not take place unless they (the parents) were listening.

  3. Defining Communication (5 minutes)
    1. Write the word "Communication" on flipchart paper. Ask the group for their definition of communication. Take a few responses. Be sure that the working definition for this session reads something like this:

      Communication
      Communication is a three-part process where messages are sent, received and understood between two or more people.

      The facilitator may want to draw two faces like the ones below on a dry erase board, blackboard or flipchart paper. Show parents how communication requires one person to give messages about an idea, feeling or problem, and another person to receive and understand those messages. The facilitator can demonstrate this process by drawing arrows (as seen below) from one face to another.

    2. Tell parents that today's session is going to focus on the second and third parts of the communications process — receiving and understanding messages. The technique they are going to learn for receiving and understanding messages is called active listening because the listener (the parent) really has to be "active," that is make a strong effort to receive and understand messages from the person (the child/teen) giving messages.

  4. Defining the Qualities and Behaviors of an Active Listener (20 minutes)
    1. Ask parents to think of a time in their lives when they needed someone to listen to them. This time might be in the recent past or from their childhoods. Maybe they had a problem to talk about, maybe they were sad or angry about something, or maybe they were excited about something that was happening to them.
    2. Facilitate a discussion with the seven questions listed below.


      Question 1: Who did you choose to talk to? Why did you choose this person?


      Question 2: What qualities did this person have that made him/her a good listener?

      The facilitator should record the answers to this question on flipchart paper. The facilitator may need to add some of the qualities listed below to the list generated by parents. Be sure the final list looks something like the following list:
    • Was patient, didn't rush me
    • Let me talk, did not interrupt
    • I know he or she would not gossip and would be confidential
    • Was not judgmental
    • Was calm, warm (body language, tone of voice)
    • I could trust the person
    • Made good eye contact with me
    • Nodded his or her head when I was talking
    • Understood my feelings (i.e., "It sounds like you are feeling worried.")
    • Made sure he or she understood what I was saying by repeating back or summarizing what I said (i.e., "So let me see if I understand. Your friend said she would call you back, but it's been three days and you haven't heard from her.")

      The facilitator may want to emphasize at this point that these are all skills we can learn. Tell the group that this list will become the criteria for active listening that we will use later when we actually practice active listening.


      Question 3: How did it feel to be listened to?


      Question 4: Did you ever have an experience when you wanted to be listened to, but the other person was not a good listener? How did that feel?


      Question 5: What did that person do that made him or her into a poor listener?

      The facilitator should record the responses to this question on flipchart paper. The facilitator may need to add some of the following qualities to the list generated by parents. Be sure the final list looks something like:
    • Interrupted, did not let me talk
    • Used uninviting body language (harsh tone of voice, closed body posture, no eye contact)
    • Laughed at me
    • Minimized what I was saying — "All kids go through this. It's nothing to worry about." Or "You are only a teenager. How stressful can your problems be?"
    • Advised or told me what to do without listening to me — "If I were you, I would …"
    • Put me down, insulted me — "That's a stupid idea."

      Question 6:
      Why is it sometimes difficult for people to be good listeners? What are some possible barriers to listening?

      The facilitator does not have to write these ideas on flipchart paper. Some possible responses follow:
    • Don't know how to listen
    • Don't have time to listen
    • Not understanding someone because of language, unclear messages, crying, etc.
    • Feeling tired or sick
    • Feeling distracted by other problems on his/her mind or by things going on in the background like a phone ringing, baby crying, etc.
    • Wanting to "solve" the problem in order to be helpful
    • Wanting to redirect conversation about him/herself instead of staying focused on the person talking and his/her story


      Question 7: Do you think parents are always good listeners to their children/teens? Why or why not? Do the lists that we've just made apply to parent/child relationships as well?
    1. Tell the group that in part two of the session they will use these two lists as guides of what TO DO and what NOT TO DO while practicing active listening.
    2. Remind parents of how important body language is to being a good listener. Body language includes things like body movements, facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures.
    3. Making eye contact and facing your child shows them you are interested and paying attention. Explain that some psychologists believe that 80% of what a person communicates is through his or her body language rather than the words that come out of his or her mouth!
    4. Tell the group that you want them to note four key skills that help people be active listeners. The facilitator should put a star next to these four skills on the flipchart to help them stand out to the participants. These four skills are:
    • Facing your teen and making eye contact,
    • Letting your teen talk without interrupting,
    • Nodding to your teen occasionally as she or he speaks to show that it's okay for them to keep talking, and
    • Checking to see if you understand thoughts and feelings.
    1. If you are ending your session here, ask parents to give themselves a homework assignment to use these four skills at least once with their teen between now and the next session. Ask them to pay attention to what happens when they practice these four skills.

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Part 2

If you are splitting this activity across two sessions …

    Spend five to ten minutes reviewing the key points of Part 1 as a "warm-up" to the activities of Part 2. (This will require you to shave a little time off of each of the other activities in Part 2.) One or both of the following activities are suggested for this review/warm-up:

    • Use the list of "qualities of a good listener" generated in Part 1 to have participants identify one quality they feel they possess. Encourage the group to affirm/validate each person using applause or verbal affirmations.
    • Identify one or more participants who practiced one or more of the four key listening skills with their teen in between sessions. Ask them to describe what happened when they practiced the skill(s).

  1. Active Listening Demonstration (10 minutes)
    1. Tell the group that you would like to demonstrate active listening. Ask for a volunteer who would be willing to talk to you in front of the room for two-three minutes or so while you demonstrate active listening. The volunteer can talk about anything. Suggest they choose a topic from the list of conversation starters on the next page if the volunteer feels stuck.
    2. Ask the volunteer to start talking to you. In this first simulation, the facilitator should demonstrate as many of the behaviors possible that have been identified as behaviors NOT to do to be a good listener (i.e., interrupt, laugh, look around the room instead of at the volunteer, etc.). Allow this simulation to last about one minute.
    3. After the simulation, ask the group to point out all the things you did that were ineffective. After the group identifies these behaviors, ask the volunteer how it felt when you interrupted or laughed at him, etc.
    4. Repeat the simulation with the volunteer, but now demonstrate as many of the behaviors possible that were identified as behaviors that contribute to good active listening, especially the four skills highlighted earlier (i.e., eye contact, nodding, not interrupting, checking for understanding of thoughts and feelings).
    5. After the simulation, ask the group to point out all the things you did that were effective. After the group identifies these behaviors, ask the volunteer how it felt to be listened to.

  2. Active Listening Practice (25 minutes)
    1. Now tell the group they will have a chance to practice what was just demonstrated. Divide the group into pairs.
    2. Ask one person to be the active listener and one person to talk about something.
    • Ask the participant who is going to talk to choose one of the conversation starters from the list below to help them start talking. (Have these written on flipchart paper and posted in front of the room before the start of the session. The facilitator should also be prepared to read the starters out loud for parents who have limited reading ability or limited English proficiency.)

      Conversation Starters
      • What did you like about going to school?
      • What was really hard about being a teenager?
      • What do you like to do in your spare time?
      • What are some of your plans for the future?
      • What do you find really rewarding about being a parent?
      • If you had five minutes to talk with the president of the United States, what would you tell him?
      • Anything else parents want to talk about!


    Remind parents of the four key skills they should try to practice when listening to each other:

    • Eye contact,
    • Nodding occasionally in the affirmative, o Not interrupting, and
    • Checking for understanding of thoughts and feelings.
    1. Instruct the participant who is going to talk that they should keep talking for at least three minutes, saying anything that occurs to them about their selected topic.
    2. Now ask the listener in the pair to be as effective a listener as possible.
    3. After three minutes, ask the groups to stop and spend 5-10 minutes discussing the exercise:
    • Which of the four key skills did the listener use?
    • Ask them to think about what else the listener could have done to be even more effective, if anything.
    • Ask them how, if at all, the level of connectedness between the talker and listener in their pair changed during the exercise.
    • Ask them what other feelings, if any, came up for each of them during the exercise.
    1. Ask the group to switch roles and repeat Steps C to F.
    2. After the second round of practice and discussion is completed, and if time allows, ask for a couple of volunteers to demonstrate active listening in front of the group. The facilitator and the rest of the group should observe and then give the volunteers positive and constructive feedback on their active listening practice using the criteria for effective listening generated in Part 1.

  3. Bring Active Listening Home (8 minutes)
    1. Facilitate a brief discussion with the following questions:
    • How do you think active listening will help you feel more connected with your kids? Give some examples.
    • How will you overcome some of the barriers mentioned earlier under the "Defining the Qualities and Behaviors of an Active Listener" section?
  • Closing Summary (2 minutes)
    1. Remind parents that active listening is a key skill for parents (or anyone, really) to have. Active listening can help us and our kids feel respected, cared about, validated and connected. Feeling connected to, and respected by, parents is key in helping youth feel supported and avoid risky behaviors. By feeling listened to, young people feel connected to their parents and their parents' values.
    2. Thank parents for their participation and their time.
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