Recap: Active Listening Workshop

On September 24, 2015, OurSpace hosted an active listening workshop at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto, Canada. The workshop was facilitated by Cameron McKenzie, a registered social worker who sits on the OurSpace Working Committee and is currently completing his PhD in Health Policy and Equity at York University.


After an acknowledgement to the original First Nations stewards of the land was made and group norms developed, Cameron led the group in an exercise where participants collectively defined active listening. The definition created included the following elements:

– being engaged in a conversation;

– taking the time to listen rather than formulating your own response;

– being aware of what’s going on when you’re having a conversation with someone;

– sharing relatable experiences (self-disclosure) as a means of empathizing;

– expressing empathy as opposed to sympathy;

– encouraging/helping the person who is speaking to develop their ideas; and

– paying attention to non-verbal behaviour (e.g., eye contact, use of phones).

Cameron then conducted an overview of active listening. He noted that research shows that, during conversations, people tend to listen only 25% of the time, remaining distracted the other 75% of the time. He went on to provide a formal definition of active listening, acknowledging that active listening includes:

– taking an involved stance during a conversation;

– trying to really understand what one is saying; and

– asking open-ended questions.


The last point, asking open-ended questions, was highlighted as the first step in active listening. To help the group understand the value of open-ended questions, Cameron paired off participants and asked them to have a conversation with each other, alternating between the use of close- and open-ended questions. In debriefing the exercise, the group noted that asking open-ended questions resulted in fuller answers that provided much Moving on, Cameron asked the group the question “how do we demonstrate active listening?” In response, participants mentioned that active listening can be demonstrated:

– using nonverbal cues (e.g., nodding, appropriate posture) that indicate that one is

– offering micro-encouragements (e.g., “mhmm,” “yea,” “right”);

– checking in and seeking clarification;

– reflecting back the words used by the person speaking; and

– ensuring that the atmosphere in which the conversation takes place is appropriate for the nature of the conversation.

To help participants better understand what active listening entails, Cameron played a YoutTube video of a clip from an episode of Big Bang Theory. The group then collectively problem solved around the situation depicted in the video. They noted that, when both people are in crisis, active listening may not be possible on either person’s side. They also noted the need for individuals to assert themselves, telling the person they are talking to what they need from them (e.g., validation, advice.)

Cameron went on to highlight some other key skills involved in active listening, including paraphrasing, which shows that you’ve listened and you understand what the person has said (note: it does not involve giving your own interpretation of a person’s situation).

Cameron then made a connection between active listening and mindfulness. Mindfulness involves being full present in the moment. Thus active/mindful listening means really concentrating during a conversation to refocus on the individual with whom one is speaking when our minds stray.

Cameron summarized the skills outlined during the workshop as follows:

– responding empathically;

– offering positive feedback;

– (re-)focusing; and

– paying attention to non-verbal behaviour.


Cameron then led the group in an arts-based activity where participants were put in groups and asked to create images symbolizing the seven aforementioned skills. The group then created a collage with the images, placing those images reflective of the skill of As a means of encouraging participants to practice active listening, Cameron facilitated two additional activities. First, the group watched the first scene in a YouTube video of a clip from Not Looking. The clip exemplified bad communication/poor active listening. The group then collectively problem-solved to address the situation. Participants emphasized the need to:

– demonstrate mutual respect;

– ensure that basic needs (e.g., hunger) are met before conversing; and

– avoid labeling/making quick judgments.

Cameron noted that in such situations, conflict can also be resolved effectively by using “I” statements and asking “what” questions as opposed to “why” questions.

For the final activity, participants were put in groups of three. Each group was given a case scenario. Two individuals engaged in a role play (one speaker, one active listener) and the third person observed the interaction. Each group reported back to the larger group,discussing some of the unique issues highlighted in their case scenarios (e.g., cross-cultural communication). Thus, after participants had engaged in a conceptual discussion about active listening, they were actually able to apply some of the skills they learned, putting theory into practice.


Sad you missed out? No worries: OurSpace’s next workshop will be taking place on October 24, 2015, from 1-3 pm at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. The topic of the workshop will be internalized homophobia. We hope to see you there!

Written by Ricky Rodrigues

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