What We're Thinking


Listening. It is important for philanthropy and business and parenting and just people.

No problem. I’m good at listening.

(At least that is what I thought until I took a deeper dive into facilitation at a workshop led by David Barkan at the Hewlett Foundation last week.)

My new self-assessment: I’m good at parts of listening. But to listen and truly hear the other person’s perspective – and especially to make them feel heard – is a particular skill. Done well, it is particularly powerful both in meetings and in one-on-one conversations. The facilitator-ese name for this is Drawing People Out.

Try this exercise. Listen to someone for ten minutes with the goal of truly understanding what they are thinking. Have them start by telling you about an issue they are facing. When they pause, briefly paraphrase what they said in your own words. In our training exercise, the speakers (those being listened to) were clear that the paraphrasing felt powerful, since it shows that the other person is processing what it being said. The listener is paying attention and cares that they understand the other person’s point of view.

Now comes the tricky part. After paraphrasing, ask the other person a question or make a comment that follows their lead and helps them clarify and refine their thoughts without intruding into them. The trick is to not ask questions that lead them toward a solution or that reflect your own interest. “Have you thought about this?” or “What about that?” or “Wow, I had a similar situation and I wonder about… ” don’t work.

Instead, try things like:

  • Can you say more about that?
  • What do you mean by …?
  • How so?
  • What else can you tell me?
  • How is that working for you?
  • Tell me more.
  • Can you give me an example?
  • What’s your thinking about that?
  • Have you thought about that differently?
  • What is at the root of that for you?

These questions help to drill down deeper into what the other person is thinking, and can actually help them develop their own ideas. Keep going, paraphrasing and asking these kinds of questions, for ten minutes. In our group, we agreed that it is a rare experience to be truly listened to for that period of time (at least without paying the other person to do it!).

Clearly, many times it is appropriate to have a conversation where you ask questions that reflect your point of view. But as a staff person in a Foundation that strives to respect people and believe in their leadership, rearranging the conversational priorities toward drawing people out can pay dividends.

In my experimenting with this practice over the last few days, I have been impressed by what I have learned by letting the facilitative listening style take over for longer than I would have before.

Try it sometime, and let me know what happens.


P.S. The workshop textbook is “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.” This post doesn’t even scratch the surface of the information provided there!

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