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POWERTOOLS: Listening methods

appendix to the Powertools essay on Communication by Els Cornelis

In the essay Communication as Radical Tool in Times of Societal Shift, Els Cornelis tries to capture the essence of truly listening. In doing so, she introduces a number of different listening methods. We have collected all these listening methods on this page to make them easy to use in an assignment or in the classroom.

This essay appeared in the publication Powertools. Read the essay here.


in the Contemplative Dialogue

In regular conversations, an obvious or more subtle pecking order is at work. Who is getting the most speaking time? Who dares to interrupt and when? What is being said, with what tone, with what effect, and in reaction to whom and what? Listening to each other often means already trying to formulate your reaction and to watch vigilantly for the ‘right’ moment to jump into the discussion. So much energy wasted. Energy (and attention) one could also use to listen, carefully, with an open mind and embodied reflection.

A Contemplative Dialogue is a completely different way of communicating. It is based on the insights of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the religious order the Jesuits. Convinced that God is present in all things (in prayer, people, events and daily life), Ignatius of Loyola called for being fully present in everything you do. Living and acting with full attention—contemplative in action.

Although a Contemplative Dialogue can vary somewhat in its implementation, the basics, however, are always the same. It consists out of a few rounds, with precise rules. These rules can be experienced as artificial and strange, especially in the beginning of this way of conversing. At the same time, however, the strict rules provide tranquillity. Tranquillity needed to contemplate, to reflect and to meditate on what is being said and shared. The main question to return to is ‘What does this evoke in you?’ This is a question that can be filled in in various ways: it can trigger thoughts, associations, feelings, experiences, questions… There is no right or wrong, and every answer contributes equally to the shared dialogue.

Most often, I personally use the Contemplative Dialogue within an art educational context to approach texts, including theoretical ones, but it can be used as a method of peer-review or a way of working towards a shared vision for change as well. Experimenting with different forms (such as number of rounds, sizes of groups, content of texts) and different contexts, I found that each variation brings interesting, inspiring and diverse information to the fore.

The Contemplative Dialogue is not difficult to initiate. However, as a workshop leader, it is especially important to provide a safe and quiet environment. Put the tables and chairs in a circle to emphasise the equality and the connection within the group. Take care there is enough time to switch moods: from ‘busy, busy, busy’ to taking time to contemplate on what is being read or heard. If participants become feeling uneasy, or start laughing, explain that is precisely what humans tend to feel or do when they do something out of the ordinary. Explicitly ask if there is a willingness to openly explore this alternative way of communicating with each other, and to see how they experience it. There should be no forcing. Just like the Contemplative Dialogue itself, there is no right or wrong when experiencing this way of working.

For more information and specific instructions to the participants, please refer to:
Contemplative Dialogue - round by round
On the website of HKU Musework, you can find more information on the form I personally use when discussing a text:


In the Socratic Dialogue

The Socratic Dialogue, in which active listening is an essential component, is far from new. It was developed in Greece, around 400 B.C.

Socrates believed that true knowledge can be gathered by exploring, researching, thinking through an issue oneself. Tracking down and questioning blind spots and fixed thinking patterns is essential, and the easiest way to undertake this is in a dialogue with someone else, asking questions. Socrates asserted that by asking questions, one could guide someone in obtaining true knowledge. As there are no writings by Socrates himself, the Socratic Dialogue is found in books by his students—in the dialogues of Plato, for instance. In these dialogues, Socrates was often staged to play the role of the questioner.

In recent years, the Socratic Dialogue found more and more resonance in (art) education and training programmes. Within this essay, I would like to refer to one specific example because of the thoroughness with which this method was implemented into the programme and the didactical vision. And because of the nuanced and clear reflection in the publication by Anik Fournier, a teacher on the Bachelor of Fine Arts at ArtEZ (Base for Experiment, Art and Research—BEAR). In order to stay as close as possible to Fournier’s findings and insights, I will mostly quote directly from the publication.

The Socratic Dialogue comes with a strict set of rules. For instance, the participants can only bring in embodied knowledge—knowledge outside of one’s own experience is not allowed. Once one is given the floor—one cannot jump into the conversation—one can be asked to start by summarising the last 15 minutes of the conversation before adding to it. This guarantees that one is urged to listen very carefully to everything that has been said. A conversation is inherently a slow process in which a ‘plurality of perspectives is put forth and they are constantly reiterated.’ All participants are considered to be equal and in this sense; there is a horizontality within the dialogue—there is no hierarchy.

As Fournier notes, the goal is not to come to a clear answer or a consensus. ‘[…] Throughout the dialogue, definitions, beliefs and assumptions are revealed, questioned, unpacked and sharpened. Group values and positions begin to take shape. The dialogic process creates the conditions for the production of collective thought in which active listening and letting go of individual stances enable the possibility of (self) knowledge to emerge.’

‘[…] Active listening involves an open stance toward what the other has to say so that one can be disoriented, and then reoriented by different perspectives, leading to a questioning of what was thought to be known.’

It is letting go of one’s own assumptions, making space for the other as well as other perspectives.

‘[…] Within the context of increasingly diverse student bodies, the Socratic Design method opens up possibilities of decentering Western modernity, its narratives and its valuation of certain ways of knowing through the embodied knowledge of the students from a range of cultural backgrounds.’

In the Socratic Dialogue, we are all practitioners. There is no hierarchy. There are no masters.

‘If within art pedagogy, we teach students to become practitioners of listening rather than masters of discourse, we can promote a different notion of artistic authorship, foster diversity in learning contexts, and reinvest social subjects at one at the same time.’

All quotations in this section come from:
Anik Fournier, ‘Active Listening, Art Pedagogy and the Safeguarding of Difference as a Way of Working with Diversity,’ Journal of Visual Art Practice 19 (2020).
BEAR: active listening, art pedagogy and the safeguarding of difference as a way of working with diversity


In Nonviolent Communication

Developed by psychologist and author Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s, Nonviolent Communication is based on the premise that our natural state is compassion. Violent (verbal or physical) strategies are considered to be learned behaviours, adopted from the culture we are living in and surrounded by.

Rosenberg states that our communication is regularly more violent than we realise. Often, we are involved in a power fight. We have to learn to connect again. To connect again with each other but also with ourselves. According to Nonviolent Communication, empathy is the key to do this. Through empathy, we can delink ourselves from power struggles and work towards collaboration and trust.

Through practising Nonviolent Communication, ‘we can learn to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others. We will no longer need to use the language of blame, judgment or domination. We can experience the deep pleasure of contributing to each other’s' well-being.’

Nonviolent Communication can be practised not only in our private lives but also at work or in school. Online one can find an ample range of contexts in which Nonviolent Communication is implemented and practised: nursing schools, prisons, conservation science, marital relationships, and so on. Let me take you for a moment to a ‘good example’ within art education to the M.A. Practice Held in Common at ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, where Pascale Gatzen, fashion designer and founder of this M.A., based the programme on Nonviolent Communication and empathic listening.

Gatzen explains the relation between language and the perception of the world, the other, and ourselves: ‘We learned to use language to compare and classify people and their actions, including ourselves and our own. Our attention became focused on analysing and determining levels of wrongness.’ She continues by asking: ‘[…] What if our use of language is structuring our thoughts in such a way that we inevitably perceive the world in dualities and categories? What if our dualistic mind continues to create stories of separation and opposition? […].’

What is needed to reconnect? How can we possibly overturn this dualistic mindset we have incorporated and return to what Rosenberg considers to be our natural state, i.e., a state of compassion?

As Gatzen puts it: ‘Can we imagine a consciousness, a language that is life-affirming? Can we imagine a use of language that emerges as a process always in connection with that which is alive in ourselves and others?’

In Practice Held in Common, Gatzen uses the term ‘Compassionate Communication’ instead of ‘Nonviolent Communication’ in order to stress the compassion and empathy used within this method.

‘Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person and the life that’s alive in them. Empathy involves emptying the mind and listening with our whole being. When we listen to ourselves and to others with our whole being, we focus on listening for the underlying feelings, needs, and requests.

Once we understand and connect to the underlying needs in ourselves and in others, we can create strategies for meeting these needs in ways that create connection, joy, and well-being for everyone.’

Following an entirely different route than the one of competition and individualism we are all too acquainted with, Gatzen stimulates an artistic practice that is entirely embedded in the philosophy of compassionate communication. This creation starts ‘from a framework of shared human needs and values’ and ‘the production of ourselves as a common subject.’

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2015).
This quote can be retrieved on the website of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, which was founded by Rosenberg in 1984:
Pascale Gatzen, ‘TAKE BACK FASHION! FASHION HELD IN COMMON. Searching for the new luxury?’ ArtEZ, 2019. APRIA


In Ubuntu

Mangwanani, marar sei? - Good morning, did you sleep well?
Ndarara, kana mararawo. - I slept well, if you slept well.

While I feel humbled and somewhat hesitant to mention Ubuntu in this context, as a Westerner who is only superficially familiar with some general principles of this complex and layered African philosophy, I feel it is important to mention Ubuntu as a possibility to reverse our neoliberal way of dealing with each other—and therefore, also communicating.

Relationality is considered to be essential in Ubuntu, an African philosophy that is not only social but also deeply ethical rooted in different geographical areas and cultures.
‘I think therefore I am’ is a phrase in Western philosophy most of us are familiar with. In Ubuntu, this individualism is replaced with relationality: ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.’ A person is a person because of others (Nguni, referring to Bantu-speaking groups in Southern Africa).

We belong to a collective. As the recently deceased Desmond Tutu puts it in his book No Future Without Forgiveness: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.’ Ubuntu means humanity; a humanity with relationality at its core. This philosophy is completely at odds with the neoliberal ideology we live daily, in which we are responsible for our own success, as well as for our own failure. According to Ubuntu, ‘no one can be self-sufficient and interdependence is a reality for all.’

‘[...] A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.’

The morning greeting of the Shona Culture in Zimbabwe with which this section began manifests the extent of the interdependence tangible. Obviously, Ubuntu greatly influenced everyday language and communication—more correctly, they are Ubuntu. In addition, the use of language and way of communicating—using, for instance, story-telling and proverbs, emanating from Ubuntu—largely shapes how people construct their self-image, their lives and their communities.

Listening is deeply related to interconnectedness and how to live harmoniously with each other. Interestingly, according to Bantu cultures, listening is related to much more than hearing with our ears. It also includes smelling, touching and feeling, as well as understanding each other within a practice of reciprocity, relationality and dialogue. Listening can be considered as co-constructing with others who are part of the conversation and come to common grounds.
There is a re-appreciation of Ubuntu and indigenous education in African culture. Among others, Letseka stresses the importance of transmission of culture from generation to generation. In that context, he considers it important to depart from his own native knowledge. But perhaps educational institutions in general and art schools particularly could embrace some of the core principles of Ubuntu in order to explore an alternative way of being-in-relation and communicating and complement the Western paradigms.

Although Ubuntu does not offer an easy and structured quick-to-apply method, one can get practically inspired by Ubuntu to think and act differently. In this respect, Nussbaum describes Ubuntu as ‘flexible fluid stream, a fountain, to do hundreds and thousands and millions of acts to really affirm our fellow human beings and build community.’

Barbara Nussbaum, ‘African Culture and Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African in America,’ World Business Academy, Rekindling the Human Spirit in Business 17 (2003): p. 4.
I am using the word ‘Ubuntu’ throughout this section, although I am aware that in different geographical areas or cultures of Africa, other words are used.
Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2000), p. 31.
Cecile Garmon and Mandhia Mgijima, ‘Using Ubuntu: A New Research Trend for Developing Effective Communication across Cultural Barriers,’ Communication Faculty Publication Paper 1 (2012).
Moeketsi Letseka, ‘Educating for Ubuntu/Botho: Lessons from Basotho Indegenous Education,’ Open Journal of Philosophy (2013), DOI: 10.4236/ojpp.2013.32051.
joan.Osa Oviawe, ‘How to Rediscover the Ubuntu Paradigm in Education,’ International Review of Education 62 (2016): p. 1–10.
Barbara Nussbaum, ‘Sprinkling Ubuntu on Capitalism,’ TEDxStellenbosch, YouTube, 2011, 07:26.


In Deep Listening Practices

Deep Listening is a term used in various contexts. In this section, I will briefly discuss two practices that have developed Deep Listening in their own way and will elaborate on a third practice in which Deep Listening is specifically applied to collectively re-democratise.


Composer, performer, educator and pioneer in electronic music, Pauline Oliveros, coined the term ‘Deep Listening’ to describe a practice of profound attention to the sonic environment. The sonic environment consists of the sounds one can hear outside, as well as the ‘sounds’ within. The practice combines sound and kinetic bodily and meditative exercises.

‘How many sounds can you hear all at once?’

‘Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.’

Deep Listening exercises originated in the time of the women liberation movement. Oliveros decided to initiate the Sonic Meditation Group for women only. They called themselves the ♀Ensemble because of the fact that ‘women were held down, musically, so long.’

‘Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is.’

Practising this kind of attention, opens up a world of possibilities and layers of existence. It is ‘exploring the relationships among any and all sounds whether natural or technological, intended or unintended, real, remembered or imaginary.’

Furthermore, listening as a kind of meditative practice was not isolated from action nor from activism. On the contrary. From within this listening, one could take action. After all, ‘Deep Listening takes us below the surface of our consciousness and helps to change or dissolve limiting boundaries.’

Oliveros herself listened in order to speak up. In 1970 she wrote a passionate article in which she not only denounced the subordinate position of female composers, but also called for concrete change.

Subsequently, she introduced herself in the following way in an avant-garde music magazine in 1971:

‘Pauline Oliveros is a two-legged human being, a female, lesbian, musician, composer, among other things which contribute to her identity.’

Well aware of the importance of this coming out, she related listening to speaking up and making public one’s inner experiences. In 1974, she wrote: ‘How many of you out there think you are in the minority? If everyone came out of the closet the world would change overnight.’
Considering healing possible when the utterance of inner experiences is accepted by others, Oliveros pleads for ‘an atmosphere of opening for all to be heard, with the understanding that listening is healing.’


Deep Listening is also used to refer to a technique developed by psychotherapist Rosamund Oliver in 2003, which is based on humanistic psychology and the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and compassion. In this technique (in full, Awareness Centred Deep Listening), awareness is central. You are attuned to yourself as well as to the speaker.

Three specific aspects are of importance using the technique of Deep Listening.

Embodied awareness. When listening, listen as a body/with your body. Your body is the sounding board of what is being communicated.

Ask yourself, what do you feel now, at this moment?

Supportive presence. When emptying the mind, you create a space in which you are entirely present and can support the other.

What is present in your mental space? What influences what you are hearing?

Compassionate connection. As the listener, you intend that your listening contributes to the process of the other. Take a moment in the time before the session starts to connect with that intention and feel this through and through. During the session, you go back and forth between attention on the speaker and attention on yourself.

How does your body feel at this moment, now this is said? What do you think? Can you let go of distracting thoughts? After having emptied your mind, return to the speaker with your attention.

Practising this method entails that you first learn to listen to yourself. It is important to discern between the own needs and interests and those of the other. If you are not able to do this, you cannot deeply listen to another. You are in the way. Deep Listening is listening without feeling the urge to advise or rescue someone. It is not filling in the silence gaps that may fall. If you do not project expectations onto the speaker, and you do not judge in any way, you are creating a safe space in which the speaker can explore openly what is present. This process of discovering oneself in the presence of someone else can be experienced as liberating.

A small, but possibly transformative, exercise:

Agree with the speaker that you will listen to them for 10 minutes. All you are going to do is listen. You don’t give any comments nor advice.

As a listener, you just let the words come in and you feel what this does to you.

After 10 minutes, thank the person who spoke. This may feel a little awkward at first, but if you practise this with the same person more than once, it will be extremely valuable to both of you.

If you also feel the need to listen intently, switch roles and talk for 10 minutes while the other person listens.

After this exercise, feel what this exercise has done for you, as a speaker or listener or both.


That our world and the Earth are in bad shape is, as suggested in the beginning of this essay, old news. How, then, to fundamentally change the direction of more crises and catastrophes we are headed towards? And how to do that collectively?

Recently, numerous initiatives exploring how to return power to the citizen and to rethink and renew current democratic principles have sprung up in various contexts and at different levels of power. These initiatives are not seldomly situated in the art or cultural field. Think, for instance, of the New World Summit, initiated by visual artist Jonas Staal, which is an artistic and political organisation that develops parliaments with and for stateless states, autonomist groups, and blacklisted political organisations. Or Netwerk Democratie, a platform for democratic innovation co-founded by Josien Pieterse, co-director of Framer Framed, a platform for art and culture based in Amsterdam. Netwerk Democratie provided in collaboration with Pakhuis de Zwijger a publication series based on a long-term public programme focusing on the transitions towards a new democracy based on commons, digital democracy, deliberation and other forms,

Although there are many initiatives worthwhile elaborating on, I would like to highlight one that explicitly applies Deep Listening (or as they call it, Engaged Listening) in its way of working towards system change.

Grass Roots to Global (G2G), which originated in Scotland but embraces international collaboration, aims at ‘re-democratising democracy’ and ‘reclaiming our world’ by ‘collectively creating decision making processes that are compelling, fair, transparent, morally legitimate, emotionally intelligent, decolonized and culturally diverse.’

As Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick, two of the founders of G2G, explain:
‘We need to find new ways to gather, to make decisions, to organize, and to take responsibility for each other, so that we can respect and nourish all life, since those tasked with this responsibility have so disastrously and inevitably failed, since the dominant system’s purpose is not to respect and nourish but to control, co-opt and exploit.

We also need to re-imagine how we rediscover, create and maintain the enduring or emergent alternatives. Too often they unintentionally include (or fail to challenge) assumptions based on our dominant lived experience of (mostly) patriarchal, racist, hierarchical cultures. The growing understanding of personal and cultural trauma—its ubiquity, its unconscious nature, its debilitating effects, and, most crucially, our ability to learn and heal from it, provide radical possibilities for uncovering and shifting those unconscious (traumatized) assumptions and for (re)discovering genuinely fresh and emancipatory ways of being and working together.’

The stress on de-traumatisation is not a coincidental one. G2G believes that when acting and reacting from trauma, it is impossible to empathise, nor is it possible to make clear decisions. Furthermore, G2G also points out that ‘when we reach positions of power in our dominant systems we come to embody (actively or reactively) the sense of having to be something other than who we are, having to marginalise our lived experience to fit with its demands.’

In the process of collectively re-democratising, listening deeply to oneself and to the other is key. Specifically, the approach, which we are all invited to use and share, consists of four stages of listening, meeting, proposing and making decisions. The first stage focuses on listening in one-on-one interviews. In the other stages, which are (or will be) situated in various forms of assemblies, listening is considered to be central as well.

In the first stage, listening is used to connect, restore trust and to gather a shared understanding on how the system works and impacts people’s lives and views. The G2G toolkit offers three core questions that can structure the interview:

WHAT do you see as the biggest challenges facing the world?
And how do they affect you and yours?

WHY is this problem happening?
Who benefits from it, and is anything being done about it?

If we were serious about tackling this problem, HOW would we?
And where would we start?

G2G stresses the importance of listening across differences with respect to building up inclusive and collective decision-making processes. This means not only initiating contact with people ‘who aren’t like you,’ but also avoiding reactions when you do not agree. Instead, you want to know more about how the system has affected the live of the interviewee, and how this has led them to the current view, especially if you do not agree with this view. The attitude advised by G2G is a practical as well as a very effective one. ‘Giving space to another person, with an attitude of genuine curiosity and an assumption that even if we deeply disagree with what they’re saying, we are able to really get why they think how they do.’

In order to fully embrace this ‘genuine curiosity,’ it is important to be aware of yourself in the conversation. In the G2G guidelines on listening, the following steps are advised:

BEFORE: What do I need to do for myself to feel ready to put my opinions (or judgements, preconceptions, prejudices etc.) aside while I’m speaking to this person?

DURING: What else do I need to know to fully understand why this person thinks the way they do? It is easy to disagree with opinions. It is, however, impossible to disagree with experiences. Ask about experiences, an example, a story to illustrate a view.

AFTER: How do I see connections between what has been said and other systemic impacts (violence, climate change, inequality etc.)?

I would like to finish this section, as well as this essay, with a quote by Ben Okri, a Nigerian poet, novelist and cultural activist, from whom I borrowed the title of this section.

‘It is easier to be clever than to listen. There’s about 3 layers of listening: there’s ordinary listening; there’s deep listening; and there’s shockingly profound listening. You have to listen to the sound of people’s voices, to what they’re really saying and what they’re not saying. Listening is profound attentiveness.’

Let us shockingly profoundly listen to change the world.

Kerry O’Brien, ‘Listening as Activism: The “Sonic Meditations” of Pauline Oliveros,’ The New Yorker, December 9, 2016,
Oliveros, quoted in Joep Christenhusz and Sharon Stewart. Listen to the Radio ArtEZ podcast Deep Listening®: Pauline Oliveros and the Sonosphere This is one part of the Radio ArtEZ podcast series on Deep Listening.
The podcast published by Radio ArtEZ introducing Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening is also highly recommended listening: Listening to the In-Between Part 1: Introducing Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening
Pauline Oliveros on Deep Listening on website of The Center for Deep Listening:
Pauline Oliveros, ‘Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practice Practice).’ SoundArtArchive, December 1999.
Pauline Oliveros, ‘And Don't Call Them “Lady” Composers,’ The New York Times, September 13, 1970,
ACDLT, Awareness Centred Deep Listening training, founded by Rosamund Oliver.
Mike Janssens, ‘Mindful luisteren,’ January 14, 2019,
Jonas Staal, New World Summit, January 29-31, 2016, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Commissioned by BAK, Utrecht.
Netwerk Democratie, Pakhius De Zwijger, ‘New Democracy,’ 2020. Netwerk Democratie
Grassroots to Global (G2G) website is
Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick, ‘Ending Systems of Domination: Reclaiming Our Bodies and Politics from Global Trauma, Radical Ecological Democracy,’ October 26, 2012.
G2G project overview. See: