Don't be a nodding donkey - how to listen appreciatively

Active Listening as a set of activities

The popular model of ‘active listening’ is often presented as a set of behavioural ‘mechanics’ that if employed judiciously with demonstrate to an audience that ‘listening’ is taking place. The recommended behaviours include: good eye contact; not interrupting, clarifying; summarising; and displaying other visible signs of attending. It is very easy for these behaviours to become de-contextualised; to become a list of ‘to do’ behaviours. At which point it can become the ‘nodding donkey’ school of listening. I certainly have experienced the disconcerting effect of talking to someone who is showing all the right behaviours but behind whose waterfall-mist eyes it is clear that disconnected thoughts are crowding and cascading. I am not being ‘heard’ although he or she may be hearing what I say.

How might the spirit of appreciative inquiry, the desire to ‘grow more of what we want’ help create more effective listening? And how this might help reposition ‘active listening’ as a systemic, dynamic, creative act.


Active Listening as an intention

We need to recognise that listening is always an act of intent: we are listening to some purpose or for some reason. There are many different possible purposes, for example:

    To bear witness

    To provide space for someone to think

    To provide help

    To provide encouragement

    To help sort confusion

    To share an experience

    To find fault or spot flaws

    To appreciate

    To amplify and fan early successes

And so on. Each might require listening for different things. So at a meta-level we could ask ourselves, firstly, what might be our own personal default intent when we listen, and secondly what do we particularly need to be listening for in this conversation, what sort of listening is appropriate here? There is a shift from an emphasis on body language to an emphasis on integrity of intention.


What might help

These things might help in all situations

1    Feeling peaceful in ourselves, aligned in mind and body

2    Not worrying about ‘the next thing to say’ or ‘getting it right’

3    Allowing that whatever kind of listening shows up is the right kind

4    Recognising that intense listening can be full of activity – asking many questions, reformulating a lot, re-acting. It is not necessarily a passive activity.

5    Having the ability to say ‘I’m not able to offer you my full attention, or to listen well right now because…( I’m getting anxious about time, I’m distracted by…)’

6    Recognising that the concept ‘I must to 100% present’ is precisely that, a concept that may be unobtainable at any given time


 In general, in a spirit of appreciative listening we might find ourselves listening for:

What is working?

What are the resources available here?

What good is in this?

What is the broader picture, and how can we connect to that?


We might ask ourselves questions such as:

What arouses my curiosity in this?

What do I connect to?

What excites me in what is being said?

What can we grow from this?


Thanks to the other participants in the source conversation for this line of thought, Madeline Blair, Suzanne Quigley, Pauline Doyle, and Claire Lustig-Roche, which took place at a Blore AI Retreat event hosted by Anne Radford in the UK in 2011. 



More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


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