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In this activity…

Students learn that listening is a five-stage process and identify specific strategies for becoming a more effective, active listener. They then have the opportunity to apply and practice these active listening skills with the SLANT tool.

And the point is…

Listening is like paying attention in that it’s something that students are often told to do without being taught how to do it. Listening is a skill that students can learn and which they must consciously invest time, effort, and attention into practicing. This lesson helps students of all different listening abilities understand why active listening is important, what barriers get in the way of active listening, and what strategies they can use to become a more active listener. By practicing these strategies in class, students are then able to deepen their understanding and apply their learning.

Materials: Projector, Chart paper or whiteboard


Start this activity by explaining that listening is a five-step process that starts with hearing. From the SET activity, students should be able to explain that hearing is a physical process that involves the perception of sound waves. Use the information from the READY section to teach students about the remaining four listening steps: understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding.

Next, explain that active listening can be thought of as listening at its best. With a show of hands, ask students if they have heard the term “active listening” before. Many students will likely raise their hands indicating that they have heard of it, which is great.

Ask these students to keep their hands raised if they think that they can describe what active listening is. In response to this prompt, most students will likely put their hands down. If any student keeps their hand raised, give them the opportunity to explain active listening before letting students know that active listening involves listening with all the senses (i.e. with their whole body). Rather than passively hearing the words of the speaker, let students know that active listening involves fully concentrating on and attending to what the speaker is saying and deriving meaning from more than just their words (ex. body language, facial expressions, tone).

Given this definition, ask the students to help you make a list (on the white board or on chart paper) of suggestions or strategies to become a more effective, active listener. Challenge students to think about how their body language and facial expressions, words, mindset, engagement, and environment all factor into the “listening equation”.

Continue this list until every student with an idea has had the opportunity to share, or until there are at least 10 strategies (see the READY section) for how to become a more effective, active listener. For each strategy, ask students to explain why that strategy is important for active listening and to provide an example of its application.

Now, introduce the acronym SLANT, by explaining that this acronym summarizes some of the most important parts of active listening. Students who address each of these five points are well on their way to becoming an active listener.

Tell students that SLANT reminds them to Sit up, Lean forward, Acknowledge the speaker, Nod, and Track the speaker (i.e. eye contact).

Ask students to practice SLANT(ing) towards you while you move around the classroom and speak about using the acronym. For the next five students, ask students to practice applying this acronym in pairs. Each pair should find a comfortable spot where the two students can sit facing each other.

This time, both students will have the opportunity to practice listening and speaking so it doesn't matter who takes on which role to start. Ask the speaker to describe their happiest memory (or any other topic) and ask the listener to practice SLANT(ing) towards the speaker.

After 3 minutes, have students switch roles and let them practice for another 3 minutes. Remind students that each of the five SLANT strategies should not be exaggerated. Instead, students should try to communicate genuine and appropriate engagement in the conversation. After both students have practiced applying the SLANT strategies, ask students to return to their desks for a brief discussion.

Before starting the discussion, let students know that you would like them to practice active listening during this discussion and encourage them to SLANT towards students who are speaking throughout the discussion. Then, spend the next 8-10 minutes engaging in a discussion. Feel free to use any of the following prompts:

  • For students who were speakers in the ‘SET’ activity, how was your speaking experience different as a result of your partner practicing active listening? How did you feel? Was it easier to share your story?
  • For students who were listeners in the ‘SET’ activity, how was your listening experience different as a result of practicing active listening? Were you able to understand the speaker’s story? Were you able to pick-up on non-verbal cues? Did you feel more empathetic towards the speaker or more connected to what you were hearing?
  • In our day-to-day conversations, we don’t count “ing” words, but we do let things get in the way of our listening. What thoughts, feelings, or environments may be a barrier to practicing active listening? Explain. What can you do to minimize those barriers before a conversation?
  • Is it possible to misuse* the SLANT acronym? If so, how would you be able to tell when SLANT is not being applied properly? *NOTE: Answers to this question should focus on exaggerated responses and how each SLANT strategy needs to be applied at the appropriate time and with the right intensity.
  • Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. What do you think he means? Do you agree or disagree?
  • What behaviours or thoughts might indicate that you are listening with an intent to reply? The intent to understand?

Isn’t it annoying if I am always nodding my head and saying “uh-huh” while someone is talking?

It probably would be. When you are using these skills, it is important to use them at the appropriate moments and with the right intensity. These skills are not something that you should do when you’re not listening, but you want it to look like you are. That doesn’t work. Instead, these should be genuine gestures that you are naturally inclined to practice if you are truly engaged in a conversation. For example, if your best friend is very emotional and sharing a sad story, you will probably find yourself leaning into the conversation, nodding her/him on with encouragement, acknowledging their sadness or pain, and turning off your phone so that you are more present. Alternatively, if you really didn’t care about what your friend was saying and just wanted them to get it over with so that you could do whatever it is you had planned for that afternoon, then you might nod along encouragingly and say “uh-huh” to make it seem like you care when, in reality, your thoughts are thousands of miles away. This comes across and it is just as disrespectful and degrading for the speaker as it would be to talk to someone who is entirely unresponsive. At the end of the day, what I am trying to say is that these skills cannot be used to “get out of” active listening. Try to stay aware of your environment and the speaker and let these things direct the timing and intensity of your actions.

Does the last step of the listening process – responding – involve giving feedback and advice?

No. In fact, giving feedback and advice can get in the way of listening. If you find yourself thinking about how you are going to respond to the speaker while the speaker is still talking, then this means that you are no longer listening to the speaker. Thinking about the feedback and advice you want to give while the other person is still speaking interrupts the natural flow of the conversation. Moreover, when people try to give feedback or advice, they also tend to project their own experiences onto the speaker and use these experiences to make predictions about the future. This can make the speaker feel like they are not being heard and they may think that you are trying to discredit their experience. Unless the speaker tells you otherwise, assume that they do not want feedback and advice. Instead, focus on acknowledging their feelings and experiences by saying something like, “that must be really hard” or, “it sounds like you have had quite a day”, and ask the speaker to clarify what they need from you by saying, “I want you to know that I am here to support you. What do you need from me?”. If you have feedback or you want to make a suggestion, then ask the speaker first. They might be very emotional and prefer if you give your feedback at a later time or they might welcome your feedback. Instead of giving feedback and advice, responding to the speaker might involve nodding your head, leaning in, and asking clarifying questions. These things demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation.

I am working on my active listening skills but keep making mistakes (ex. interrupting people). What should I do?

That’s normal and you will find that you need to practice these skills over and over again before active listening becomes more natural. Something that you could do is to be open with the speaker about what you are experiencing and to ask for their patience. For example, if you and your dad had a huge fight the other day and he asked to speak to you about it, then you might start the conversation by saying: “Dad, I just want to let you know that I am trying to practice my active listening skills but I still find myself getting defensive/judgmental/interrupting sometimes. I hope that you might be willing to help me by kindly and respectfully bringing any of these things to my attention if you notice them. Then, we can circle back and maybe try again. I know that this is going to be a challenging conversation and I want to make sure that I am really listening to what you are saying”. By saying something like this, you are setting yourself up for success because the speaker (or any other person) can hold you accountable and because your honesty and transparency automatically builds a sense of trust.