Facilitation: Listening Strategies

Relating Skills — Listening Skills

Listening Strategies to Use When Working with Groups

As people talk in a group, some ideas catch people’s attention while others are forgotten as if never spoken. Ideas that are expressed in an acceptable way will be taken more seriously by group members than those presented in a less appealing style: repetitious vs. succinct; shy or nervous vs. outgoing and confident; exaggerations or unsupported statements vs. realistic and documented information; or strongly emotional vs. matter-of-fact. In these cases, many listeners ignore the substance of the ideas being expressed because of the way in which it was said, regardless of the value of the contribution.

The facilitator’s job is to use strategies that highlight the main idea, in essence removing it from the “unacceptable” way in which it was delivered.Kaner (1996) suggests the following strategies:

  • Paraphrasing 
  • Drawing people out 
  • Stacking 
  • Tracking
  • Balancing 
  • Making space 
  • Listening for Common Ground 

Paraphrasing has both a calming and clarifying effect. It reassures the speaker that his or her ideas are worth listening to and it provides the speaker a chance to hear how others are hearing his/her ideas. The facilitator begins by saying “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” or “This is what I’m hearing you say…” or “Let me see if I’m understanding you….” The facilitator then restates what he/she heard, followed by a question asking if the paraphrasing was correct.

Drawing people out is a way of supporting people to take the next step in clarifying and refining ideas. It is particularly helpful in two situations: when someone is having difficulty clarifying an idea or when someone thinks that she/he is being clear but the thought is vague or confusing to the listener. The facilitator first briefly paraphrases the speaker and then asks open-ended, non-directive questions (e.g., Can you say more about that? What do you mean? How so?)

Stacking is a procedure for helping people take turns when several people want to speak at once. It lets everyone know that they are, in fact, going to have an opportunity to speak and when. This enables them to focus on what is being said rather than trying to get a turn. Stacking involves a four step process: 1) ask who wants to speak and have them raise hands, 2) create a speaking order by designating who will be first, second, third, and so on, 3) call on people when their turn has arrived, and 4) when the last person has spoken, ask if there are others who want to speak. If yes, repeat the process.

Tracking means keeping track of the various lines of thought that are going on simultaneously within a discussion. Participants may be focusing on different aspects of a specific topic. For example, in a discussion of the need to replace a pool car, two people could be talking about the type of car that is needed, two could be expressing concerns about the price and how to pay for it, and several could suggest ways to postpone the purchase until next year. The facilitator needs to step back and summarize the different trains of thought and then check for accuracy. It is important to capture all the tracks, not just the ones that seem most important.

Balancing is used after a few people have expressed their thoughts. To assure that the discussion doesn’t lead down one road, the facilitator invites others to contribute. For example, balancing questions might include the following: “Okay, now we know where three people stand; does anyone else have a different opinion?” “Are there other ways to look at this?” “We’ve heard two views, ‘A’ and ‘B’. Is there a third perspective?” “Let’s see where we stand on this. I’m not asking for a vote, just a sense of where you are right now. How many of you think it would be good if…? Balancing helps to draw people out and reassures people that they are encouraged to state their opinions.

Making space sends the quiet or reflective thinkers the message that what they have to say is important and that the facilitator wants to give them an opportunity to speak. Body language and facial expression can let a facilitator know when to say, “Was there a thought that you would like to express?” or “You look like you were going to say something.” If they decline, move on.

Listening for common ground is a powerful intervention when group members are polarized. It validates the groups’ areas of disagreement and focuses on their areas of agreement. When participants differ on strategies for how to solve a problem, they often forget that they still share the larger goal in common. Listening for common ground has four steps: 1) indicate that you are going to summarize the groups’ differences and similarities, 2) summarize them (use visual aid), 3) point out areas of common ground, and 4) check for accuracy.

S. Kaner, L. Lind, C. Toldi, S. Fisk, & D. Berger. (2007). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-making. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Adapted with permission from Soil and Water Conservation District Outreach: A Handbook for Program Development, Implementation and Evaluation. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Soil and Water Conservation, 2003.