“I’m all ears!” Active Listening as a tool to reflective thinking

story with images

By Dr Pollie Barden (University of Sussex) and Professor Eva Roberts (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)  evarober@iupui.edu

Our Grounding:

Across all sectors of human activity, there has been a growing interest in narrative, in storytelling. We all know that storytelling is a form of communication that human beings have used since ancient times, drawing on cave walls or sharing around campfires. With the expansion of electronic communication shifting how we communicate, allowing us to communicate from virtually anywhere, and making communication almost instantaneous, 21st century business and other leaders are paying attention to narrative, to the need for stories and so, to the need for individuals who can tell them. Many of us do not think about narrative, even though all of us tell stories. But purposeful and intentional use of narrative is a powerful tool for design and innovation. Narrative can stimulate our creativity and lead to more meaningful design outcomes; narrative can help us communicate ideas more effectively—to individuals, communities and organizations; narratives can aid in gaining a deeper understanding of an audience—those folks who will interact with a solution.

The goal of the workshops

As facilitators of learning in design, we have become aware of the lack of narrative skill building in design curricula. Professor Roberts has become aware of this need in her work with design students in the United States. Dr. Barden has noticed the same in her teaching at design programs in the United Kingdom.

The design process does encourage storyboarding as a means to communicating how a user will engage with a product and/or design. However, this is typically developed at the end of the process and is seem as a means for describing the final design. The challenge educators face is to nurture in students an appreciation of the value and use narrative a tool within the design process. Narrative can be used as a way to help uncover issues and to build empathy for the audience for which one is designing.

This challenge is not unique to the design process. Film making also utilises storyboards and narrative. Like novice designers, novice filmmakers can also struggle with developing a narrative and the storyboard as part of their pre-production process.

In our narrative workshops, we worked with a diverse group of educators ranging from those who teach in classrooms, to workshops, and to those who support teaching staff. The subject matter various faculty teach includes philosophy, history, design, humanities, and technology.  It was through this rich array of experience that we explored how narrative might be used as tool.

developing words

In narrative creation the students often focus on the telling and the illustration of the story. However, an important part considers ‘what’ is the audience hearing and how are they interpreting the message they are receiving. This is where active listening comes into play. We are all guilty of not “actively” listening. Whether in a meeting or in casual conversation, often we are formulating our response instead of listening to what is being said.

With these workshops, we aimed to explore the practice of active listening techniques through exercises in collaborative narrative building. In our workshop, collaboration while creating the narrative is important in that all participants gain ownership of the story. The workshops were designed as narrative activities working with structured resources and within a limited limited time frame. These limitations are intentional and critical. In design, it is the constraints that force us to make decisions and think around corners.

There were two exercises. One was creating a 6-word short story. The other was to create a visual narrative based on 6 images. In both exercises, the participants were given limited  materials to use.


In the 6-word story exercise, participants could generate their own words but they were directed to consider specific parts of speech, constrained further as a certain number of nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives and adverbs. The words were written on blank cards, allowing the group to have the opportunity to pool their words and freely move them around. To provide some further freedom and the unexpected, participants could also write any type of word on the back of their cards. The groups were given a defined time frame in which to create at least one short story. It could be funny but had to have proper sentence structure. The stories were then shared among the groups.

For the image story, participants were given a range of printed images, presented face down and numbered. The participants only knew they had end up with a set of images numbered 1 through 6. The group then used their images as a prompt from which to build a narrative. Each part of the story needed to correspond with one image and that text was written on the back of the image. The groups then showed their images and read the part of the story on the back of each image, passing the next part of the story to a group partner. The participants had to “actively listen” to their team members in order to smoothly tell their story.

Importance of reflection

After each reading of the stories, 6-words and 6-images, the participants then wrote a reflection of the story. Those participants who heard the story were to write about what they heard or how they would extend the story. The participants who had created a story reflected on their thinking and ideas in the collaboration. This reflection is important for two reason.

One, it is was important for the participants listening to know that they would need to respond. This serves to encourage the practice of active listening while listening to the stories. Secondly, it was important for the co-authors to individually reflect on their contributions to the process and what they were thinking in the formation of the stories.

collaborative story with words 2

Overall, the reflection sought to reveal how much we fill in when given a limited information. This is an important understanding for students to develop in honing their own listening and narrative skills. Using techniques such as these helps to highlight gaps that students may leave in their stories. It can be used to prompt discussion around understanding what is explicitly said and what is implied. It would be useful for students to be aware that such assumptions need to be addressed. Developing the capacity for active listening will help students listen to their peers and actually focus on what is said rather than thinking about how they are going to respond.


We are in the process of reviewing the data and analyzing the results of the workshop. The obvious outcomes were that 2-hours was a short amount of time to get through both activities. In this limited time, there was more focus on the visual techniques than reinforcing the active listening techniques. From applying the techniques, using one activity within a two hour sessions would be advised. The maximum size for the groups is 4 people per group. More and  you have people who can easily disengage from the process. Whether or not it is possible to have each group share their story would depend on the size of the cohort and how much time you have in the session.

The activity would benefit from repeated applications. With a large cohort (our largest was 12), you might demonstrate in class and then have groups use the activities as formative work in the process. They could bring in their narratives. We haven’t try these activities as self-directed learning outside the sessions, so it is a suggestion of something to try.

Future Workshops

The participants found the work engaging and would be up for doing a half-day or longer workshop. We are planning additional workshops at other venues and will update on the outcomes from the data and analysis. We would like to thank all the participants who shared their time, talent and expertise with us.


Participant Experience


A reflection on the active listening workshop by Dr Wendy Garnham, University of Sussex

So, what does it feel like to experience an active listening session? This week I got the chance to find out by participating in a workshop run by Dr. Pollie Barden from University of Sussex and Professor Eva Roberts from Indianapolis University. On entering the room, I noticed that names of participants were already allocated to tables and each table accommodated a small group of four. The small group nature of the tasks that lay ahead reminded me of my own experience in teaching undergraduates that the number of people in a group can make a significant difference to the outcome of the activity. It also meant that we could not just sit in our comfort zone with our colleagues but were, by nature of the task, immediately in a position to broaden our social circle by working with people from a range of disciplines. On my own table, I worked with a freelance consultant, a lecturer in Product Design and a member of the Technology Enhanced Learning team.

iterative stories with words

We were introduced to the key components of Active Listening and then asked to complete a short, timed task. Small cards were provided on which we had to write specific types of words, for example, on one, a noun, on another, a verb, on another an adjective, etc. The short time allocation provided meant that we were spontaneously using words that came to mind without having to think too much about why we were choosing them or without the chance to anticipate next steps. Having completed this task, we then shared our words as a group and again, within a second short time limit had to construct at least one six word “story” by selecting some of the cards we had made. Predictably, some of the sentences were pretty crazy and stimulated a lot of laughter. The next step was where we all felt our creativity was unleashed as each table read their sentence aloud and the rest of us had to actively listen and write a response to this, again within a short time constraint. Even though we all heard the same sentences, our responses were drastically different. Discussion of how we had responded to this task, what we felt we could take from this task to use in our own teaching and how we had embraced the active listening requirements was thorough and informative. It is not difficult to see how a simple task that is founded on the principles of active listening can bolster not only creativity, depth of understanding and reflective thinking in undergraduates but also encourage compassionate learning and a sense of rapport.

The second task involved visual cues to aid learning. Four pictures were selected from a series laid out on a central table. Each group then had a timed opportunity to create their own narrative which linked the four images. This again led to a high degree of co-operation and of course, the essential active listening skills being utilised. Not only did the same level of enjoyment come through with this task but again it enabled a degree of creativity and teamwork that made learning fun and effective. Each group presented their story in 1 minute following which all participants then write a response to it, using what they had heard as the basis for stimulating their own thoughts around the narratives they had heard. Again, even though we all heard the same story, our responses differed significantly. Some took one aspect of the story and elaborated on this, taking the narrative in a whole different direction, others wrote a response akin to a review, for others it stimulated further questions. Discussion of the activity enabled a reflection not just about how we had found the task but on how we felt this had extended us as learners.


Reflecting on this experience, I can see so many applications for my own teaching. Essential reading tasks on my module for example,mean everyone is required to read the same journal articles. I am always advising students to try and work out what the story is behind the research they are reading about. I now have new tools to try and get more out of this task. How do we tap into the different interpretations of these that students bring with them to the seminar? The tasks described above give an easy way to do so. How do we learn to value each other’s perspective and opinions about the research we read about? The tasks above can help with this too. And how do I get my students to think on a grander scale about the value, significance and wider implications of the research they are reading about? For this also, tasks such as those I experienced in this workshop could prove invaluable. Lets get students to create, to actively listen and to respond in a way that fosters creativity and reflection.

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