Open Listening

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Open listening is letting go of conventional means of listening. It means listening to and valuing the telling of stories, and letting pauses in conversation extend into silence rather than jumping in to dispute, agree, question or move on. It is an awareness of personal bias or judgment and its effect on one's ability to hear. It is the desire and ability to set aside physical, mental and emotional distractions in order to be fully focused and listening respectfully and openly. It is staying open to the message even when conversations are filled with raw emotions like sadness or anger, and believing that each person's knowledge and reality is legitimate and valuable. Finally, it requires a willingness to reflect upon a story or message and to derive meaning from it based upon the situation in which it is shared.

Why is This Important?

I never met my grandmother, but I feel like I know her because my mom told me stories about her. It connects me to a time I don't know about. If I don't listen, I dishonour the person, their family and those who came before. Telling stories is a way of honouring those who taught us and shared with us. Sometimes one word or phrase or thought won't do it. The story has to be told. It's a way to allow the listeners to learn in their own way and derive their own meaning. If you pre-judge you miss out on the learning. Look for the value in it.

Storytellers have as much to say when not talking as they do when talking. It is part of their patterns, and we need to respect their desire to formulate where they want to go next. Translation of a concept from a native language to English can take time, and one word may not embody the concept. Being mindful of what you want to say that will honour others may require some silence for reflecting and preparing. Let the silence do its work.

Barb Ward-Burkitt, Cree,
Executive Director
Prince George Native Friendship Centre,
Prince George

Demonstrates the Behaviour When

  • Creates mental and physical space to fully listen without distractions
  • Continually seeks understanding of the culture, protocol and communication processes of Aboriginal people
  • Uses silence as a means of communication
  • Listens without dividing attention between listening and another task, such as typing on a computer or texting (multi-tasking)
  • Shows attentiveness, including the use of non-verbal techniques such as nodding one's head
  • Seeks meaning beyond the spoken word
  • Shows awareness of and sensitivity to subtle nonverbal cues
  • Confirms understanding by reflecting, then paraphrasing, repeating or clarifying to ensure proper understanding
  • Balances curiosity and the need to ask questions with a willingness to share silence
  • Builds rapport and introduces questions with a more conversational approach
  • Asks questions in a manner that avoids the perception of an interrogative approach
  • Demonstrates patience and respects the speaker's need for reflection
  • Follows the lead of Aboriginal people in regard to protocol, such as appropriate eye contact
  • Makes a conscious effort to defer bias and assumption when listening and responding
  • Delivers messages clearly with a goal of shared understanding
  • Allows for diversions from agenda as a means for providing background for the larger conversation
  • Shows interest in hearing "stories" and understands their value in their underlying messages. May offer stories of one's own
  • Makes use of opportunities to improve skills in the speaker's traditional or preferred language
  • Demonstrates a complex understanding of the culture, issues and interests of the speaker
  • When feeling ambiguity, respectfully seeks confirmation of intent
  • Responds to concerns in a manner that promotes trust

Needs Development When

  • Interrupts the speaker
  • Multi-tasks during a face-to-face or telephone conversation
  • Makes critical or judgemental gestures or sounds (like eye rolling or sighing with impatience)
  • Makes assumptions rather than listening
  • Rushes to suggest solutions or problem solve
  • Uses interrogative, relentless approach to questioning
  • Interrupts the listening process with well meaning questions based upon curiosity rather than listening and reflecting for the meaning
  • Responds with a literal view when a metaphorical view is called for
  • Minimizes the message by trying to cheer them up or tell them things aren't so bad
  • Criticizing
  • Shows discomfort with or will not allow silence
  • Notifies the speaker that they are "off topic" in their message
  • Unreceptive and slow to adapt
  • Allows personal bias to prevent one from hearing the speaker
  • Shows impatience when others take longer to speak or seem to be off topic
  • Lacks clarity or sends mixed messages when speaking
  • Aboriginal speaker becomes disengaged and is clearly reluctant to continue speaking