The magic of listening: tips for facilitating listening online and offline

Written by
Franziska Kohn
August 16, 2021
Digital Facilitation

The magic of listening

For us at Unity Effect, listening is a core capacity for facilitators and leaders. It supports us to create spaces and cultures of trust and appreciation, to discover new insights and ideas, and to connect with others on a deeper level. It is also an ongoing practice and requires us to pay attention to our own patterns of communication. Often when we listen we are already preparing the next thing we want to say in our head because we want to appear helpful or get our point across, or we are quick to jump in with advice, opinions or ideas. The invitation is to play with being fully present and simply listening to the other person, and see what happens.    

As a facilitator, you have the opportunity to set the standard for how communication will happen in the session. This not only includes if they should raise their hand or not if they wish to speak, but also how they then communicate. It is also your role to remind them and bring them back if they fall into old habits and don’t respect your communication ground rules.

Why should we pay attention to listening practices and use group methods for listening online? 

Listening supports clear, effective and empathetic communication and it enables each voice and perspective to be heard equally.

Tips and methods for bringing listening into groups

Set the tone from the beginning

At the beginning: Invite people to listen with curiosity & openness, leaving aside judgement, assumptions and advice. As a facilitator going into an exercise or a sharing round with the group you can remind them about this throughout the session.

Speak to the essence

Invite people to get to the essence of what they want to say when they speak (especially in larger groups when there are a lot of voices to be heard). As a facilitator you can invite them to first take pen and paper and take 1-2 minutes to write down their thoughts and answer for themselves before sharing afterwards in the whole group. This supports people to gather their thoughts and discover key aspects and the essence of what to share in the group in the next step.

Time the exercises

Use timed speaking and listening exercises to create and practice a culture of listening in your group: e.g. put people in pairs and give them each two minutes to share while the other only listens without interrupting or needing to prepare an answer in their head. To deepen the practice of listening, online as well as offline: Invite the group to reflect on how it felt to listen and be listened to after the exercise.

Use a listening circle

Use methods such as a  listening circle to make sure people speak one by one. Online you can use the list of participants or an imaginary circle to go through the group one by one, or you can engage participants and ask them to nominate one another. As a facilitator you support the sharing round with a powerful question they should reflect on, instructions on how much to share (e.g. one sentence or one minute per person) and that it is ok to pass and not answer in case someone does not want to. Tip: keep an eye on who shared already to not forget someone, and, often most challenging, keep an eye on the time. For the latter you are also in the role of reminding people about time limits to allow everyone the space to share. As a rule of thumb we normally plan at least 1 minute per person to share and a few minutes buffer time for this exercise. And as you often get to know your group throughout the session you learn and adjust timings.

Invite silence

Use pauses. Invite your participants to take a silent moment sometimes to gather their thoughts, notice what is present for them and calm down if needed.

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Communication Ground Rules

If supportive to your sessions and group experience you can also set up and share  communication ground rules with the group in the beginning. Here an example what these could include from our Unity Effect Communication Ground Rules:

  • Be present and connect with yourself and the others
  • Speak and listen openly and without an agenda
  • Share the essence of what you want to say
  • Give the others space to share
  • It’s ok to not say anything

Inviting listening into an online space, practicing it and applying the methods around listening spaces deepens the conversations we have and connections we make in person and online. We have been practicing listening over the past years within our team work and meetings, our Journeys and workshops. Yet we are still often in awe about the spaces, connections and experiences one can create simply by giving one another a few minutes where we listen with an open mind and heart.

This being said, a special thank you and shout out and hug to Raquel Ark from for bringing this to Unity Effect. Deep active listening, as well as methods such as the empathy walk supported (and probably saved!) our teamwork more than once. But more on this in another blog post. Stay tuned and sign up to our updates via our newsletter 

About the author
Co-founder of Unity Effect. Conceptualisation and facilitation of interactive online events, workshops and learning series. Passionate about personal development and leadership.
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