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Active Listening: Addressing power differentials and conveying value

by School's Out Washington | | Posted under Opinions

by Jenny Walden, MSW Intern at School’s Out Washington

I had the opportunity to attend the 14th annual White Privilege Conference (April 11th-13th) which was hosted for the first time in the Seattle area. Though I only was able to attend one day of workshops, I left with insight not only about different dimensions of privilege and oppression, but also challenging personal and professional questions that I will no doubt engage throughout my career.  

The first workshop I attended was Active Listening, Human Value, and Solidarity: How to Counter Classism in Everyday Language, presented by Pippi Kessler, the director at Ma’yan which is a nonprofit research and education center in New York City.  The workshop took place in a standard hotel-sized room, but was packed with about 30 participants, with many of us (including me!) gladly squeezing together on the floor so that we could all fit. Pippi led a lively and engaging discussion that introduced the importance of active listening as well as different strategies to utilize when communicating. Upon reflection, my biggest take away from the workshop is that listening can be revolutionary. It provides a space to bear witness to others and communicate their inherent value. Through active listening we can avoid universalism of experiences, and move towards more inclusive communication, relationships, and communities.

I wanted to share some of the verbal techniques presented that address power differentials and convey value and visibility to others. The following information is modified from materials presented during the workshop and can be utilized when communicating with children, youth, and adults.

Why is listening important?

Listening is one of the most effective, efficient strategies available to you. It speaks to our deepest human need to be seen, valued, and unconditionally cared for. Being a witness to someone else’s life is one of the most powerful gifts you can offer another person. 

Active listening removes us from being just cultural observers to being change agents. Humans have inherent value and active listening is a way to communicate that value in everyday conversations.

Active Listening communicates two main goals:

  1. Saying what you see communicates: “I see you. You are not invisible to me.”
  2. Asking open questions communicates: “I’m curious about you. I want to be changed by you.”


When you are actively listening there are 3 layers of information to be thinking about:

        1.      Facts

        2.      Feelings

        3.      Human Needs

Human needs are especially important and can be conveyed as physical or emotional needs, a need for understanding, a sense of safety, a need to be engaged, or a need to connect and receive recognition.

When playing back what you hear, be mindful of the phrases you use. Some phrases have hidden, embedded “guesses” about the other person or shut down possibilities about what their answers might be. Instead, swap out guesses for phrasing that leaves room for variation. 


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