The active listening and speaking model

Senior Pacific Islander woman and her mature daughter preparing food together in their kitchen at home.

To have successful and constructive conversations try active listening and speaking. 

Sometimes when we communicate, we expect the other person to be on the same wavelength and to understand what we are thinking – in most cases they aren’t and they don’t.

We have a tendency to ask half questions and forget that the rest of our thinking is still in our head. 

If that sounds confusing, here is an example:

This sort of conversation can be very typical between couples – we want to avoid it. 

Imagine if partners took turns explaining their thoughts while the other person focused on understanding. 

With a little structure, conversations don’t need to be so hard.

By using defined speaker-listener roles, conversations can be more productive and arguments limited. 

This process can take a while to feel natural or become second nature, but it is effective and definitely worth a go.

Read through ‘How it works’ (below) fully before trying it out.

How it works

The speaker and listener roles are distinct – sticking to the different roles is critical for the success of the discussion. 

  1. Start by selecting one topic or a shortlist of topics, that you and your partner agree to discuss and stick to.
  2. Then, one person will start the conversation as the speaker, while the other person listens without comment or interruptions.
  3. The speaker is free to talk until he or she feels like they have said what they want. This may only take a few minutes and shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes.
1. Start by selecting one topic or a shortlist of topics, that you and your partner agree to discuss and stick to.
2. Then, one person will start the conversation as the speaker, while the other person listens without comment or interruptions.
3. The speaker is free to talk until he or she feels like they have said what they want. This may only take a few minutes and shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes.
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The speaker is the only person who is speaking at one time, and the listener actively listens while the speaker explains their feelings and position.

If you’re struggling to take turns, using a ‘talking stick’ can be helpful – and can be a bit of fun! This is when the person who has the stick does the talking and passes it on when they are finished.

Active listening role

Listening is often thought of as a passive role, but it is actually an active process and hard work. 

The idea is to listen without interruption, while showing that you are paying attention at the same time.

There are lots of things to consider, not just the words being said but also the feeling that is being expressed.

Responding to what the other person is saying through positive body language is an important part of active listening. It shows the other person you are paying attention. 

Here are a few ways you can respond through positive body language:

Keep your arms unfolded - crossed arms can show lack of interest
Try leaning in a little
Nod if you agree
Use minimal encouragers such as: "mmhmm" "sure" or "okay"
Keep arms relaxed - hands behind your head is often used as a power position
Be aware of your facial expression
Wait your turn
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Monitor your own behaviour and make sure you don’t confuse listening with waiting for your turn.

If you find yourself having a strong desire to respond before your turn (perhaps because you can see where the conversation is going and already know what to say), try and focus solely on what your partner is trying to communicate. Stay open to the idea that their perspective is real and valid – even if you see it differently or disagree.

Active speaking role

When you’re speaking it is most effective to use ‘I statements’ to talk about your feelings. It avoids language that can imply blame or judgement and focuses on the facts.

For example:

Less effective

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"You always take our money and spend it on stupid things!"

Effective

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"I don’t like it when we dip into our savings. Every time we go out we are spending money and we just don’t seem to be saving like we used to."

Body language is important for the speaker as well. 

Your choice of words, tone and body language will all be interpreted as part of the message you trying to get across. 

Find more information about body language and facial expressions here.

Let's see it in action

We’ll use the example from above to illustrate the active speaking and active listening model of conversation. 

The speaker starts:

Here the listener is identifying a feeling and querying if they have identified it correctly.

Speaker: If your partner doesn’t quite grasp what you are trying to say, clarify and expand some more until they do. Think about the feeling identified and acknowledge if it was correct or not, if that’s helpful. 

Listener: Don’t worry if the suggested feeling (worried) wasn’t correct – it still opens up the opportunity for the speaker to reflect on the feeling they want to convey so they can express it more clearly. This method is about understanding each other, so there is no need to defend any views, but rather mirror back what is said to show you clearly understand. 

The speaker can then say if he/she feels like they have been properly understood.

Now it’s the listener’s turn to respond from their perspective or choose a topic and discuss – using the same process.

This method of safe and defined speaker/listener roles can serve as a great starting place to ensure all parties are heard. 

However, as time goes on, the process will become less rigid so you can find your unique way to express, listen and move forward.

Notice in the conversation, the couple discussing their spending didn’t actually get things sorted straight away, they just needed to start a constructive conversation. 

They didn’t even change their spending, however, they were both able to express their concerns, feel understood, and agree to review their budget.

This kind of conversation will be hard at first and may not always achieve the result you hope for. 

That’s OK – the point is to start talking to understand each other’s point of view so that you can work together. 

If things get heated, take a break, reschedule and try again – focus on the problem, stick to the facts and try to understand the feelings.

At the end of the discussion, if it feels like there is an opportunity, it can be useful to share some positive thoughts about the discussion.

For example:

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"You had some good points I hadn't thought of."
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"It was good to have that conversation and hear your thoughts."
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"That was really useful - let's keep talking about these things."

© Good Shepherd NZ and AUT, 2021

Good Shepherd NZ has built this toolkit in collaboration with Dr Ayesha Scott of AUT’s Finance Department.