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Active listening captures one of the most important aspects of effective facilitation. As an active listener, you feedback (emphasize, restate) what the speaker has offered to the group, and more importantly, why.

Be sure to reflect the rationale, the ‘because’ behind the speaker’s main point. Active listening serves several purposes:

  • Often, the participant is formulating thoughts on the spot and the playback helps one to further develop the thought process. The act of communication affects the content being communicated and shared.
  • Participants experience being heard by others—listened to.
  • Separate the arguments and opinions from the people or the contributing participant so that everyone can join in.
  • To reflect effectively, all need to understand the underlying reason(s) supporting each participant’s message.
  • You express an attitude of openness and listening.

“Talking is what I do, but listening is my job.”
— Ryan Seacrest

Four Steps to Active Listening

People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Active listening requires four discrete steps.

  1. CONTACT—connect with the participant who is contributing; eye contact, open posture, and nonverbal responses.
  2. ABSORB—take in all aspects of the spoken message, implicit and explicit and nonverbal clues. Do not judge or evaluate.
  3. REFLECT & FEEDBACK—mirror, reflect, or feedback what you have heard and why the contributor claims to be valid.
  4. CONFIRM—receive confirmation from the speaker that you heard the participant’s message accurately. If not, start the method over again at the beginning by having the speaker restate their view.

Feed Back

“To listen with understanding means seeing the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, sensing how it feels to the person . . . This may sound absurdly simple, but it is not.”
—Dr Carl R Rogers
The Four Steps to Active Listening - Strive to Reflect Rationale

How Active Listening Relies on Reflection 


Providing feedback or reflection captures the single most important part of active listening. Reflection can be either oral or visual. Reflection distinguishes active from passive listening, where people conversationally move from one statement to the next without verifying that content has been understood.

Strive to capture verbatim but optionally provide feedback and confirm content using one of these three approaches.

  1. Synthesize—shape fragments into a whole, work through the stream of consciousness found in group discussions.
  2. Summarize—much communication occurs without foresight. Often more words are used than necessary. When you summarize, boil it down to its essence or core message, ideally to the point of isolating the key verb and noun components first. Participants more frequently argue about adjectives and adverbs.
  3. Paraphrase—saying, repeating what the participant(s) said using somewhat different words while preserving the original meaning or intention.

When providing reflective feedback, depersonalize the content with your rhetoric. Do NOT say ‘You said . . . ‘  Rather, convert their statements with integrative rhetoric such as, “We heard . . .”

Strive for completeness when providing reflection. Try to avoid the general ‘Does everyone agree with THAT?’ by replacing content for the impersonal pronoun “that”. For example, ‘Does everyone agree that torture can be consciously objectionable?’ works better because participants are clearer about the precise content being reflected.

Why Active Listening Works

Active listening is a powerful tool because it builds relationships between participants. Exercising active listening sets an example for all participants and lays the foundation for clarity and understanding.

Through a confirmation process we are permitted a clearer and potentially deeper understanding about the assumptions that different perspectives embrace in their decision-making. In other words, it makes it easier to see the world through others’ eyes.

We all know that listening is an important skill. Our students thoroughly practice active listening. Embrace the following active listening tip to elevate your facilitation skills beyond most meeting leaders.

Active Listening Tip - Listening for WHY

Active Listening Tip – Listening for WHY

Most listening is the act of being attentive to What the speaker says. therefore, our active listening tip instructs you to listen for Why the speaker is saying what they are saying. Participants have a natural tendency to speak in symptoms (eg, “I’m fatigued”) rather than the cause (eg, “I’ve been working 70 hours a week.”)

WHY is the Cause (or, the “Because”) of the WHAT

The Why is very often apparent in personal conversation. You might ask yourself (while a stranger is speaking to you) about why they are telling you about a particular fact or story. Determining the motivation for the speaking is as important, if not more so, than what is said.

Many of us already know this about our children. Consequently, when a teenager says “I hate you,” he/she is really saying:

  • “*&# frustrated”
  • I didn’t get my way
  • I don’t have power to influence you or change your opinion
  • “*&# embarrassed”
  • I’m going to hurt you because you hurt me

Chances are they do not really “hate” you.

The Active Listening Tip

Without trying to become psychologists here, listen for the why especially when:

  • A workshop participant is angry and/or confrontational
  • A participant waxes on about something seeming irrelevant, or just waxes on, and on
  • A participant is abnormally active or withdrawn

Therefore, our curriculum advises you to confirm WHAT the speaker says. We are also suggesting that as facilitator, you need to confirm WHY the speaker has spoken (in addition to what they said).

The WHY usually represents the most important message coming from the person speaking because consensus and next steps are built around the cause rather than the symptom.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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