Active listening and cross-cultural communication
Listening is the basic form of respect for others.  Through listening, we put ourselves aside for a moment and try to understand, and if possible empathise, with another person.  Active listening is both an art and a critical skill.  We must learn this skill to be good at our work.
Listening to others, like many other things, is influenced by culture.  In some cultures, people talk directly to each other, expressing themselvesactive_listening2 .jpg verbally.  In other cultures, people communicate indirectly, conveying messages through a third party, or through symbols, metaphors, or silence. 
Body language is central to communication.  It includes what we do with our bodies, our faces, our eyes and our tone of voice.  Every culture has its own style of body language, and foreign visitors must learn to use body language to communicate that they are eager to hear and understand.  Listening respectfully and not interrupting is key.

When listening cross-culturally, it is invaluable to have a trusted cultural interpreter, who  knows the subtle rules of the host culture and can verbalise them to foreigners.  This helps us understand not just the words being spoken but also silences, body language, and tones of voice.  The interpreter can also help us communicate in a way that will be understood by local people. 
Unfortunately, listening takes time, which is a scarce resource in an emergency.  There is always more to do in an emergency than time to do it.  Decisions must be made quickly and tasks must be accomplished to prevent loss of life. 

The cost of not taking the time to listen to people’s wants, needs and fears, though, is high.  Misunderstandings that result from not listening carefully can stir up anger and, at worst, paralyse an emergency operation.  Communicating successfully across cultural lines is therefore extremely important in any community-based psychosocial approach.
Active listening is a communication technique used by facilitators to aid communication.  It helps people deliver clear messages and know that their messages were understood correctly.
Among those who can benefit from better communication skills are conflict resolution practitioners.  Human rights advocates can also benefit from these skills, as can negotiators and interviewers.  For all of these activities, development of people skills (such as empathy, understanding and patience) helps professionals do their job better.   

Objectives of active listening:

  • To show the speaker the message has been heard.
  • To help the listener gain clarity on both the content and the emotion of the message.
  • To encourage speakers to explain, in greater detail, their understanding of the situation and their feelings.
  • To encourage an understanding that expression of emotion is acceptable and is useful to understand the depth of feelings.
  • To create an environment in which the speaker feels free and safe to talk.

Procedures for active listening:

  • Acknowledge that you are listening through verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Attempt to distinguish between the content and the emotion of the message being delivered.
  • First, focus on the emotion of the message.  Assess the intensity of the speaker’s emotion   and reflect that level of feeling back to the speaker.
  • Let the speaker acknowledge whether you have reflected the correct emotion and its intensity.  If not, ask questions to clarify the emotion and reflect a modified emotion to the speaker.
  • As the speaker realises you are hearing their emotional content correctly, the intensity of their emotion tends to decrease and the content of the message becomes more important.
  • When this starts to occur, switch to the techniques of paraphrasing and clarifying, such as "am I right in thinking that _____?"
The key thing with listening training is to stop the listener (and the interpreter) talking.


Active listening techniques

Mastering the art of active listening is hard because it requires the listener’s strict attention
and ability to be objective in situations often clouded with strong emotion.  Using the techniques
 illustrated below does not mean listeners agree with what is being said, or are coming across as soft. 
Rather, it means they are working at keeping communication channels open and at building trust
between the speaker and the listener.  
Do not use stock phrases like “It’s not so bad”, “don’t be upset”, “you are making too much out of it”, or “just calm down”.
Try not to let your biases interfere with what you hear being said and don’t jump to conclusions or judgments.
Surprisingly, one powerful tool is silence, perhaps for as long as a minute.  Too many interviewers ask questions as though it were a multiple-choice test, rather than keeping quiet and waiting for a spontaneous response.  Learning to tolerate silence is hard to train, but it is worth learning.


Ways to listen effectively:

  • Create a positive atmosphere with your body language.
  • Make appropriate eye contact.
  • Nod your head, use facial expressions and gestures.
  • Orient your body towards the speaker (head, arms and legs).
  • Watch your tone of voice.
  • Be encouraging: “Tell me more” or “I’d like to hear about….”
  • Summarise the speaker’s main points.  Use summaries to focus on terms of issues and solvable problems, instead of personalities, and to keep parties on track.
  • Make brief notes on your pad to keep track, but don’t bury yourself in them.
  • Paraphrase or restate in your own words.
  • Use open-ended questions rather than yes-or-no ones.  



Giving feedback is beneficial in many ways, as it may reduce uncertainty and help solve problems; builds trust and strengthens relationships.  It can,also, improve work quality.
Feedback should be specific and descriptive, not evaluative.  It is important that it is timely and continuous.  Also, ask for feedback from others.  Get as much information as possible and use the feedback you receive rather than becoming defensive.


For more information please see the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Action Sheet 4.1 ‘Identify and recruit staff and engage volunteers who understand local culture’, Geneva, September (2007), pp71-75.