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What is Listening?

Active listening helps you gain a deeper understanding of the motivations, desires, sources of pride, challenges, histories, pain points and needs of others. You will be able to build empathy and understand their experiences.

Why is it important?

Listening helps you gain a deeper understanding of your community and stakeholders will help you build ideas for the educational future of the community.

If your community has not come together to discuss educational services available in the community, you will want to start here -- the Listening Module - before shaping a plan. You can also review the Trust and Healing module for additional guidance on ways to practice listening and host sessions designed to cultivate trust and promote healing.



Gathering in-depth information by observing and listening to people in their context


The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” Therefore, the best way to understand people’s behavior is to directly observe them in their context.  

Physical spaces, such as a school, playground, library, or a community hall, are rich with information and experiences, and one of the best ways to understand a community is to directly observe members in these spaces Anything from how the furniture is arranged to the signs on the walls, or even the state of the building may be useful information gathered through observations.

Use the AEIOU Observation worksheet to help you record your observations.


These exercises could involve dropping in on a community meeting to listen and hear about the important topics OR organizing an event to draw these topics out.

  • List internal stakeholders you could observe when considering the future of schools in the community
  • External stakeholders?
  • Locations?

Observations May Help You:

  • Understand why certain behaviors are persistent.
  • See how a service, product or facility is used and how much this differs from its originally intended use.
  • Identify stakeholders who you may not have considered before.
  • Observe who signs up, shows up, and how they contribute are all valuable learnings.
  • Listen more closely to see if comments directly related to the role of schools broadly, curriculum, approach, teaching staff -- or are they reflecting other concerns.

Risk of Not Doing This

  • You might draw conclusions and make recommendations and plans based on assumptions but not facts or actual real-time observations.
  • You might begin planning without hearing key voices or those who may have been historically left out of planning which can jeopardize the legitimacy of further planning efforts.
  • You might incorrectly assume you know how people interact with other people, physical spaces, services and products.

Required Inputs

  • Understanding of current efforts, issues and key stakeholders in the community.
  • Permission to observe a public space, if necessary.
  • An understanding of what you’re trying to learn and what you are going to observe.

What Comes Next?

  • You may use observations as an input before conducting interviews. For example, your observations may help you identify people to interview. They may also help you determine what questions to ask.
  • To analyze, find patterns and deeply understand your data using methods from the Sense Making module.


  • Make a plan before beginning your observations whether you are leading the meeting or simply attending. Determine which location is best and obtain any necessary permissions, especially if you plan to record video or take photographs. Ensure that you and your team aligns around common goals so everyone looks for information related to the same themes.
  • Always pack a “field kit.” Include printouts of any tools you are planning to use, pencils and notebooks. Double check that your recording device(s) - likely your mobile phone(s) - are fully charged and that they have enough memory available.


  • Do not let your presence become a distraction. This is particularly important if you are planning to take photos or videos of people and need their permission. You can put people at ease simply by introducing yourself and stating the goal of your observation. If your goal is to be a fly on the wall, then do your best to blend in and not stand out.
  • Do not be self-conscious about your observation activity. Once you are in place, people will notice you a lot less often than you think..
  • Do not forget to debrief after a session at your observation site. Observations are best conducted in teams of two or three people at the same time.

Documentation Tips

Zoom in and zoom Out with your observations to pick up nuanced details as well as the bigger picture.

  • Zooming in means paying attention to the details. For example, if you are watching a conversation between two people, pay attention to how they are placed, whether they are sitting or standing, if there are any physical barriers between them, what objects are they using, etc.
  • Zooming Out means paying attention to the broader context in which an action or interaction is happening. For example, pay attention to who else is there, what other interactions are happening, what attributes of the physical environment stand out, etc.


Gathering in-depth information through honest conversation


One-on-one interviews are a powerful way to get honest, in-depth information from community members, families, students and administrators. The aim of these interviews is to solicit detailed stories from people about their activities and experiences related to your topic of research, and to learn how existing services, products or initiatives currently help or hinder them from achieving their goals. 


  • List internal stakeholders you could interview
  • External Stakeholders?
  • Location(s)?

Plan your interview

Before heading into the field, determine who you will talk to, how you will reach them, and what you want to know.


Framing Questions

  • You won’t be able to ask every question you can think of, and it’s going to be hard to think “on the fly.”
  • Start with your framing statement. For example: “Tell me about your best school experience as an elementary student? Why did it feel special? How did that positive feeling impact your academic experience overall? Can you show the place in the school building where you felt the most at home? Can you share a tangible impact attending the school has had on your life as an adult?”
  • Consider questions along the following spectrum:
Easy to ask, easy to answer  
What is the school address/location, or closest "L" stop?  
What is the school’s priority or focus?  
May be harder to ask or more personal Example


Explore their logic and reasoning

How did you decide to select your school? What were the important factors?

Can you share an example of what you think makes a great school experience?


Explore their emotions

How did that make you feel?

What is the most positive or negative memory you have about your school community?


Explore their sense of self and its relationship to the topic being discussed

What does your school community mean to you?

Can you tell me more about why?


  • List the three to five major things you are most curious about.
  • Frame these as open-ended questions that tap into the other person’s knowledge or expertise.
  • Develop three potential follow-up questions for each major question, to prompt them for more detail.
  • Remember: Always ask "Why?"

Example questions

Can you tell me about what you think makes a great school experience? The participant is left to interpret the topic in their own way, showing how they think about a particular subject
Why? The participant has to think, offering a deeper consideration of the topic
If you’ve had a positive or negative school experience, how did that make you feel? The participant builds on what they have already said
Can you show me? The participant uses artifacts or processes, describing real behavior instead of hypothetical behavior
Can you tell me an example? The participant grounds their comments in reality, rather than be forced to guess
Can I try to learn from your experience? The participant shifts to the role of teacher

How to act

You have to lead the conversation as a friendly face who makes the community member feel comfortable and at ease.

As the interviewer, it is your responsibility to ensure the participant trusts you and knows you are there to learn from them. Only they can tell you about their experiences, needs and desires.

  • Make eye contact, but don’t stare
  • Be conversational, but not chatty
  • Ask one question at a time
  • Be patient and count to three before interjecting


Think of favorite podcasts, radio or TV shows. What do those hosts do well to invite their guests to speak confidently and as an expert?

Interviews May Help You:

  • Understand someone else’s point of view in their own words
  • Build relationships with individuals, organizations or the community.
  • Uncover and challenge biases in your team’s understanding and approach.
  • Discover information you did not know.

Risk of Not Doing This:

  • You might miss important community history or challenges.
  • Miss clues about rulemaking, adoption of a new mindset or engagement criteria.

Required Inputs

  • An understanding of current efforts and issues to set the tone for your interviews.
  • A list of the people you want to interview, their roles and the goals you want to achieve by interviewing them
  • An understanding of what you’re trying to learn, as this will help you shape the questions you will ask

What Comes Next?

Analyzing your data using methods from the Sense Making module.


  • Interviews are best held in person—in a relevant location—to give your participant a chance to showcase items in their environment as they tell their stories. If you cannot feasibly make an in-person interview work, aim for your interview to be held over video conference rather than over the phone. This will help you build stronger rapport with your participant; and their body language and facial expressions will tell you things that you might not notice over the phone.
  • Always come prepared. Create a discussion guide to help you direct the flow of your conversation, and even practice by interviewing a colleague or loved one. Whenever possible, send questions in advance so the respondent has time to reflect on what they would like to share


  • Remain neutral and avoid incorporating your own viewpoints or reactions.
  • Do not bring your entire team into the interview. The participant shouldn’t feel like they are sitting on a trial bench. If you have a team of three people, it is best for the third person to stand back and give the participant some space.
  • Do not talk more than your participant. You want their stories to be the focus of the conversation.
  • Do not judge your participant if they say something that you don’t agree with. Honor their stories and points of view.

Documentation Tips

The note-taker is responsible for capturing “verbatims” from the participant.

  • A verbatim is a word-for-word quote from the participant
  • Make sure you can read your own handwriting
  • Include just the facts.
  • Use complete sentences.
  • Documented notes must be observed behavior, or something heard.
  • Capture direct quotes whenever possible, and focus on specific quotes that seem surprising
  • Identify direct quotes using quotation marks.
  • Include the name of the participant.
  • Include a unique number for each note.

Exercise: Interview Template

Ask the interviewee to introduce themselves

Encourage them to share their name, school or community and some aspects of their life that might be relevant to the interview topic at hand. Do they have kids at the school?  Did they themselves attend the school?  Do they have an overall interest in the future of the neighborhood or community?

Set interview norms

Determine if quotes from the interview be directly attributed to the interviewee, where will the interview be publicized, and if the interviewee will be able to review how their words are being used?

Slowly ease into the discussion with a warm-up question

Keep this simple. Consider asking them something slightly more specific about their role in the community or what they like about their school.

Big question #1

In these conversations, allow it to flow naturally and each question should be open-ended, building upon the participant’s responses as their stories unfold. This question is intended to plan the l topics you wish to explore within the allocated time frame. Remember to view your interviewee as the expert of their own experiences, and keep an eye out for responses that indicate pain points or moments of joy.

  • What does a great school experience look like for you?

Potential follow-up questions

It is good to have a few follow-up questions prepared.

  • When have you personally had a great school experience and what specifically made it great?
  • Why did having a great school experience make a difference in your life?
  • What are the specific memories that come up for you when considering this great school experience? 

Big question #2

  • If you have NOT had a great school experience in your life, talk more about that and what made it less than great?
  • Is there something you think the school could’ve done differently to make your experience great?

Potential follow-up questions

  •  Why does your negative school experience stick in your memory?
  • How would you recommend CPS think differently about creating a “great” school experience?

Big question #3

  • What type of environment do you think creates a great school experience?

Potential follow-up questions

  • What types of programs are available in a “great” school?
  • When is the right time and what is the right way to ask parents and staff about how to make a school great?

Big question #4

  • What is the thing you are most proud of or least proud of in your current school community and why?

Potential follow-up questions 

  • When is the last time someone asked you your opinion about your current school community? 
  • How do you think CPS could do a better job of getting feedback from parents and students about their school communities?
  • What role do you think the Community Action or Parent Advisory Council plays in improving your school?


Wrap up your questions with a transitional statement

It is important to segue seamlessly between sections of the interview. Once you are finished asking your questions, ask if there is anything they want to add.

Ask them if they have any questions for you

You also never know what else you may learn—or opportunities that may arise—through the questions they might ask.

Consider why you may want or need to contact this person again, then ask for permission to do so

Could they potentially be of assistance later on in your project? Are there any materials that would be pertinent to share with them at the end of your project as a “thank you?” Did they mention connecting you with any other people?

Before you wrap up, don’t forget to thank them for their time! 

Group Listening Conversations

Explore a topic to identify points of agreement and disagreement and hone in on potential areas of focus for future activities.


A Group Listening Conversation is a type of facilitated activity to explore different perspectives around a recent or current experience and its long term effects.

To conduct the exercise:

Group Listening Conversations May Help You:

  • Create empathy within a team or community by exploring how different stakeholders perceive and experience a common situation or challenge in different ways.
  • Explore reactions and perceptions that different stakeholders may have to other people’s experiences and points of view.

Risk of Not Doing This

Although you may be able to collect individual perspectives through other means such as observations and interviews, it may be harder for you to put those individual perspectives in the wider context that you gain through group conversation.

Recommended Inputs:

Consider having one-on-one calls or meetings with key stakeholders prior to a Group Listening Conversation. This will help you shape your agenda. Refer to the Interviewing method in this Listening module to help you prepare for these conversations.

What Comes Next?

  • An effective Group Listening Conversation should give you a lot of useful raw data. The Sensemaking module may be a useful next step to help you analyze and document outcomes.
  • It is always good to revisit the problem definition any time you gather new information. Use the Reframing worksheet in the Sensemaking module if you believe that the problem should be reframed.
  • A Group Listening Conversation may also help you identify key stakeholders with whom to have one-on-one follow-up conversations - these may be either participants or people who were identified during the conversation. The Interview method in this Listening module will help you prepare for these follow-up conversations.


  • Create a welcoming space where people feel free to speak openly and honestly. Consider agreeing to a set of Ground Rules with the participants at the start of the session. A good set of Ground Rules should usually include seven to 10 key points, with some being proposed by the participants. Common Ground Rules include:
    • Mobile phones and laptops should only be used during breaks (or not used at all).
    • Respect the privacy of fellow participants by not sharing their stories outside of this room.
    • Be honest and speak up.
    • Be present.
    • Honor other people’s stories and experiences by suspending your judgement about what they share.


  • Do not let individual participants overtake the session. It is okay to pull a participant aside and remind them that everyone should have the opportunity to share.
  • Do not rely only on the spoken word. Be sure to take notes.
  • Do not make assumptions about what people mean. Ask clarifying questions whenever possible.

Documentation Tips:

  • As a facilitator, your job is not to document everything. Design an experience in which participants are both expected and empowered to create outputs that communicate their thoughts and beliefs.
  • Ask participants to write legibly and in full sentences.