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Skills for Youth

All Skills for Youth

Listening Skills

A key developmental task during adolescence is establishing intimate relationships outside the family unit. In order to do this successfully, young people have to learn to communicate effectively. Many pregnancy prevention programs cover assertiveness and refusal skills as part of effective communication. But in order to establish healthy relationships, teens need to learn not only to express themselves effectively but also to listen attentively to other people.

Description of the Skill

Communication is key to any healthy relationship and being a good listener is a key element of good communication. Most teens focus on expressing their ideas but not necessarily on listening to what others have to say. When it comes time to listen, many teens think there's nothing to it. The truth is, young people can learn skills that will help them become better listeners. The primary three listening skills are non-verbals, active listening, and neutrality. Each of these three skills is described below.


Non-verbal communication gives the speaker signals that you're paying attention without interrupting what he or she is saying. Non-verbals, including body language, communicate interest and respect for the speaker. Non-verbals include nodding, eye contact, facial expressions (smile, grimace, pucker, etc.), and posture.

There are non-verbals that convey paying attention and those that show inattention. The following examples can help illustrate this clearly to youth:

Being Inattentive or Disrespectful

  • Shrugging your shoulders
  • Looking away from the speaker
  • Crossing your arms and/or legs
  • Sitting slouched over
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Tapping your fingers

Paying Attention

  • Making eye contact
  • Smiling
  • Nodding your head
  • Sitting up straight
  • Leaning towards speaker
  • Uncrossing your legs and arms

Active Listening

Active listening is a way of eliciting information and emotions from a speaker, thereby gaining intimacy with him or her. The more a youth knows about the person with whom he or she is developing a relationship, the more information s/he will have upon which to build that relationship. Two important active listening skills are: Asking open-ended questions and reflecting what the speaker is saying, thinking, or feeling.

Open-ended questions

require more of an answer than a simple yes or no. They are conversation encouragers, inviting the speaker to say more about a subject. The following examples of the same question asked in both open and closed-ended manners should help young people understand this concept:

Closed: Are you feeling bad today?
Open: How are you feeling today?
Closed: Do you think he likes me?
Open: How do you think he feels about me?
Closed: I think it's okay to have sex at age 15, don't you?
Open: When do you think it's okay for a teenager to have sex?


Reflection is a process whereby the listener checks to make sure s/he is understanding the speaker correctly. The listener can reflect by occasionally putting what the speaker has said into his or her own words. (This is also called paraphrasing.) The listener can also reflect what s/he thinks the speaker is feeling or thinking. Another technique is to summarize the main points from time to time. All these techniques of reflection let the speaker know you're listening and you understand.


Speaker: I wish I had someone to talk to about sex. My boyfriend, well, you know, he doesn't talk much. And my parents would kill me if they knew I was having sex, or even thinking about it!

Listener: It sounds like you're frustrated because you can't talk to your parents and you don't have anyone else to talk to about sex.


In order to increase communication and develop intimacy, young people need to learn how to remain neutral when another person is speaking. If a listener expresses his or her own opinion, it may serve to shut down the speaker. To remain neutral, the listener needs to convey objectivity by using neutral language and varying voice intonations.

Here's an example of remaining neutral when another is speaking about a controversial subject:

One young person is speaking about age for first sexual intercourse to another young person who either has already had sex or has made a pact to abstain until marriage.
Speaker: When do you think it's okay to have sex?
Listener: Well, I have my own ideas, but I wonder what you think. What's your opinion about a good age to have sex?

Listener: I think it's a very personal subject. What age feels right to you?

Listener: Since it's different for everyone, why don't you tell me more about what you think?

Demonstration of the Skill

Start by explaining effective listening skills and their benefit for communication and developing healthy relationships. Write the three parts (non-verbals, active listening, and neutrality) on newsprint and briefly review, giving examples of each. Check for understanding by asking the group for more specific examples.

Next, youth can demonstrate listening skills for each other. Ask for volunteers from the group to act out examples of effective use of each technique. Encourage them to exaggerate the skills in order to make it more fun. Possible topics to help youth demonstrate the skills include:

  • Jealousy
  • Lying
  • Kissing
  • First time you heard about sex
  • Gossip and rumors
  • Talking to your parents


Behavioral Practice of the Skill

The best method for learning a new skill or technique is to practice it. One great way to practice listening skills is to interview another person.
  1. Break the group up into dyads, or ask the youth to pair up themselves. Ideally, each team will consist of two young people who don't know each other very well.

  2. Give instructions as follows:
    • Each person will interview his or her partner for three to five minutes.

    • The goal of each interviewer will be to elicit the following information from his or her partner: Who s/he lives with, his/her favorite subject in school, and his/her thoughts or feelings about teenage pregnancy.

    • The interviewer's job will be to encourage his or her partner to share information and feelings by using non-verbal signals and active listening, while remaining neutral about his or her partner's opinions.

    • The interviewer will be responsible for reporting the results of their interview to the rest of the class.

    • After five minutes, each dyad will switch roles (listener-speaker).

  3. After explaining the instructions, ask if anyone has any questions.

  4. Once the activity has started, use a timer to keep things moving. Give students a "heads up" when they have one minute left to their interview.

  5. When time is up, have everyone come back together as a group. Go around the room, asking each person to report the results of interviewing and listening to his or her partner.

  6. After each person has had a chance to report, ask the young people to evaluate the process of listening.
    • Did they find themselves paying attention to their partners? If not, what was distracting them?

    • Did they feel heard by their partners? If yes, what made them feel like their partner was paying attention?

    • Ask students how they felt in each role (speaker and listener). Do they think their feelings might have impacted upon their listening skills?

    • Do they feel like they know their partners better because of this exercise?

  7. Ask students to add any skills that might have been omitted from this discussion — anything they noticed during the lesson that made them feel their partner was listening to them.


To maximize your effectiveness in teaching listening skills, we suggest that you:
  • Model listening skills yourself by using non-verbal, active listening, and neutrality techniques when describing the activities, answering young people's questions, etc.
  • During the behavioral practice, circulate among the youth, giving positive feedback and encouragement as well as tips to improve their listening skills.
  • Record any questions that may come up during the interviews for later large group discussion.
  • Debrief after the dyad activity identifying what went well and giving suggestions for improvement in overcoming any stumbling blocks or barriers to good listening.
  • Connect the interview activity to real life. Use examples such as going on a first date or making new friends. Ask the youth when they could imagine using listening skills in their day-to-day lives.
  • Follow up in subsequent lessons with youth. Ask them how they are using their listening skills and if the new skills have made any difference in their relationships. Provide additional practice as needed.