I was first taught the techniques below by a woman name Lillie Allen. She is a community organizer who has been working for the last thirty years in Atlanta and the south bringing African American women and white women together to have hard conversations about race, life and what it means to build together. She has spent her life facilitating conversations that demand presence.

These five-step listening techniques may have been forged in the south, but they have a much wider applicability. Together they form a powerful tool you can use to transform your conversations and develop more honest, authentic and present relationships. The next time you have a conversation with a close friend, family member or a significant other, take a risk and try it out and you will experience first hand the power of what Lillie taught me.

  1. Choose a Conversation. Use this technique during a conversation with someone you trust. It might be a conversation with a close friend that unexpectedly turns toward matters of the heart, or a planned ‘check-in’ with your partner. You will know that the situation is right when mutual trust and openness is granted, supported and sustained by both parties. 
  2. Listen to Your Reactions. During the natural course of every conversation there are moments when we react to something that has been said, form an opinion and want to jump in to voice it. These moments arise when we either wholeheartedly agree and want to reconfirm the sentiment, or when we adamantly disagree and feel the need to voice our opposition or discomfort. The goal of this step is to train yourself to become aware of your reactions to your conversation partner’s thoughts, feelings and opinions. 
  3. Choose to Say Nothing. When you notice yourself affirming or disagreeing with your conversation partner, do not say anything. This is the hardest thing to do. It goes against our every instinct and conditioning to either support or refute, react or reply. This may feel very unnatural and uncomfortable, but is an important part of remaining radically present to your behavior in this particular relationship and conversation. 
  4. Question Your Reaction. Choose one reaction that presents a huge challenge of restraint, and pause the conversation by asking your partner for a moment to frame what you want to say. They will give you time. Now ask yourself: What made me react this way? What person, experience, opinion, belief or memory made you affirm or disagree with what was said? What informed your reaction? Figure out the answer(s) before you speak. 
  5. Share the Answer. Choose to share why you reacted instead of your initial gut reaction. Then discuss what experience from your past informed that gut reaction: be specific, take a risk and share a story. When you share you personal experiences that informed your gut reaction, and then your reflections about them, you are sharing a part of yourself. This is the moment of transformation when the conversation shifts from being potentially antagonistic to deeply affirming and self-aware. 

By choosing not to simply share a counter point, an argument or a flippant affirmation you create a space and opportunity to go deeper, to be honest and to feel radically present. It works. The more you do this the easier and more natural it will become and you will gain greater insights.

It is nice, and necessary to float through some conversations for reprieve and balance, so don’t feel like you need to use this technique all the time. But, now that you have these steps you have a choice and a tool that you can bring to any interaction you deem important. 

Try it out. Take a risk. Lillie Allen’s wisdom has deepened my conversations, strengthened my relationships and helped me glean unexpected insights and I want none other than for you to experience the same.


Dev Aujla founded a non profit, wrote a book and runs a company in New York. He recently launched the website 50 Ways To Get A Job that provides 50 missions that will help anyone get a job that makes money and does good. 

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