Listening: in place, in pauses and in person

Alastair Somerville
3 min readJun 28, 2020
Full postcard for Listening practice

This is a post about three ways in which you can improve your listening. We live in a culture that values speaking but listening is more powerful in the long term. We practice talking and speaking and our tools are designed around presenting and lecturing. We do not have many resources for listening.

I’m using a three point system that comes on a postcard I will be using in Active Listening and Dissent workshops. It’s based on ideas in books like You’re Not Listening and The Art of Gathering.

The three points are:

  • Hold a place
  • Pause
  • Check your self

These are the points that have come up in both active listening and counselling training as being highly beneficial. There are many, many more ideas that help but these three are the simplest and most useful that I have encountered with people.

Hold a place

Post card folded over — part 1 Hold a place

People aren’t listened to. They’re lectured at. They go to spaces, in physical and digital architectures, that are about being spoken to. Most spaces are not places for listening.

You can change that. By defining a time and location and telling someone that is where they will be heard. This is offering a promise.

The key thing to remember is that it is not your place. You can hold a space but it’s their place.

Be clear with people about how you use what power you have to create places for them.

Also, remember that this place is not merely for you to listen. It’s for a person to hear themself too. Having a place is powerful for them.


Part 2 of folded card — Pause

Frankly, most of my workshops now have a section where I ask people to practice Stopping. In wayfinding, in virtual reality, in codesign: all of them need clear moments where people pause: to listen or to observe.

In listening, the pause is to actually hear what a person is saying.

Most people use these moments as merely silences to prepare how to respond. The four main responses are:

  • Fixing
  • Advising
  • Correcting
  • Distracting

Practicing pausing is to become comfortable not merely with being silent but also lowering the pressure within you to plan a response.

You cannot listen if you’re merely waiting to speak.

Check your self

Part 3 of folded card — Check your self

A lot of corporate active listening training is about Body Language. Watching how you arrange your arms and legs and how much you engage in direct eye contact. This is External Stance.

For better listening, you need to think about your Internal Stance. How your own attitudes and opinions block you from honestly. listening to other people, other experiences and other opinions.

This links back to pauses and responding. You are the barrier because you are criticising a person, rather than yourself.

Checking your self is one of the things you can when preparing to hold a space and in those moments of pausing (your brain is often working way faster than verbal conversation).

To listen well is to critique your implicit biases and hold back from criticism.


These three ideas are only a start but they’re a good foundation.

Recognise that listening well is within you:

  • Your power to hold a place
  • Your ability to pause
  • Your sense of your self

These are things we can all do. It is hard to start out but it is achievable.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX