Active Listening and Fred Rogers

About 15 years ago, the topic of Active Listening was all the rage in corporate training. There was a study at the time that showed that most people practiced what we call “Passive Listening” which means that you are basically just waiting for your turn to speak while the other person is speaking. You avoid interrupting, you politely wait for a long enough pause, and then you unleash your suppressed brilliance in an effusive manner. That’s passive listening: listening for your chance to speak. Passive listening is by nature competitive. You are cooperating with the other person through your patience, but in reality you’re just waiting for your chance to shine.

By contrast, Active Listening was something we were told was practiced in some Asian cultures. Rather than waiting for a pause so you can finally say that witty thing that you thought of, the quick comeback, the mindblowing retort, or one-upping story, you actually listen fully to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and more importantly, how they feel. You try to understand two things fully:

  • the content of what they are saying
  • how they feel about it

We did an exercise with our team leaders that was designed to improve Active Listening. We called the activity a “Listening Picnic” because it included a brown bag lunch. In the activity, individuals would be given a partner. The first person was asked to tell their assigned partner a story about something that had happened recently, an incident that mattered to them. It could be a positive experience or a frustrating one. It could be work related or personal. What mattered was that it was something that had an impact to them. The partner was tasked with simply listening intently to grasp both the details of the incident (the content) and to understand how the person truly felt about it. After listening, the partner had to in turn tell the story back to the other person, stating it in the first person as if this story was their own, and expressing correctly the emotions the other person had shared. If the first person didn’t agree they felt truly understood, the partner had to try again until true empathy was achieved.

It was a powerful exercise, and several people in the room came away dabbing at their eyes, realizing how the other person felt about something important to them. Even though the story wasn’t important to the partner, this empathetic act created a deeper understanding that we often miss when we are just listening enough to come up with our own response.

I’ve been thinking about this exercise quite a bit lately as our nation continues to become more and move divided based on political partisanship and as passive forms of communication like texting, Facebook, and the internet eliminate the non-verbal cues that can help us understand others’ feelings. There are some topics that are hot button issues, things we find so upsetting that we feel we can’t listen to others talk about them because they are personal to us, and we feel the other person’s disagreement is a threat to our very way of being, our ability to live our lives the way we want them. Listening to why they feel the way they do can be difficult and upsetting when we believe others’ fears or anger have resulted in policies that have harmed us or those we care about or encroached on our own values.

I recently watched the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor which I blogged about here. One of the things Fred Rogers talked about was listening. He focused his attention in every show on just one child, the idea that he was talking to an individual child when he was talking or singing. He wanted every child to know they were loved just as they were, that each of them was special, and that mistakes are there to learn from. He didn’t mask emotions because he understood that when you hide emotions like fear or anger, you can’t connect with others, and you are saying that you don’t accept them or don’t love them unless they hide those things.

“When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.” Fred Rogers

This kind of listening requires a calm that we don’t often experience in television or even in our daily lives. How often do we just sit and think? Never? In one episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he placed a turtle on the ground and watched it slowly walk across the floor. In another episode, he suggested they see how long a minute of silence was, then set an egg timer and literally did nothing for a full minute. It was revolutionary! Even when he received an Emmy for his TV program, he stopped and gave room for silent reflection and gratitude inviting the audience:

“So many people have helped me come to this night. Some of you are here. Some are far away. Some are even in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. 10 seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.” Fred Rogers

It’s hard to imagine that a documentary about this quiet man could be so stirring, but the theater was packed when I went to see it, and the audience was completely engaged. People whispered, gasped, laughed, and more than one cried as we found out more about this man who loved and accepted us as children, who really made us feel as though we mattered and were special.

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” Fred Rogers

I was on a long flight recently and watched the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s a gritty drama about racism, police brutality, domestic violence, suicide, assault, and maybe a measure of redemption. It’s about as different in tone from the Fred Rogers documentary as you can get. Woody Harrelson plays a small town Sheriff who gives advice to one of his officers, an angry small-minded bigot who antagonizes the family of a victim because she won’t quit hectoring the police department about their failure to find justice for her daughter’s death.

“I think you’ve got the makings of being a really good cop, Jason, and you know why? Because, deep down, you’re a decent man. I know you don’t think I think that, but I do. I do think you’re too angry though, and I know it’s all since your dad died and you had to go look after your mom and all, but as long as you hold on to so much hate, then I don’t think you’re ever going to become, what I know you want to become – a detective. ‘Cause you know what you need to become a detective? And I know you’re gonna wince when I say this, but what you need to become a detective is love. Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes, Jason. It’s kinda all you need. You don’t even need a gun. And you definitely don’t need hate. Hate never solved nothing, but calm did. And thought did. Try it. Try it just for a change. No one’ll think you’re gay. And if they do, arrest ’em for homophobia! Won’t they be surprised! Good luck to you, Jason. You’re a decent man, and yeah you’ve had a run of bad luck, but things are gonna change for you. I can feel it.”

The advice is so unexpected in the context of this verbal assault of a movie that it’s positively breathtaking. The notion that love leads to calm and that calm is the only condition in which listening (and detecting) can happen is worth considering when we are struggling to work together as a country across political lines. Without listening to others, without having that calm and quiet, you will never hear the information that will tell you the truth of situations and people. So the key is love which leads to calm which leads to listening which leads to an accurate view of things.

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” Fred Rogers

When people feel so strongly about things that we aren’t listening to others, or at times even to ourselves, the call for courtesy and politeness isn’t really productive either. It’s at best tone policing the argument, telling people to quiet their emotions so we don’t have to listen with them, acknowledge the hurt and upset, to deal with things. It’s not a solution based on love for self or others; it’s rooted in denial.

Mormons in particular can be averse to the concept of contention which the Book of Mormon in which Jesus says:

“29 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”

Contention is engaging in a heated disagreement with each party making strong assertions. The opposite of that is not politeness and courtesy and being “agreeable” or nice, pretending that negative things don’t exist, ignoring emotions or tone policing one another into silence. It’s listening to what people actually feel (not just the content of what they are saying) and understanding because we love them. It’s loving ourselves enough to listen to others so that fear and insecurity doesn’t prevent empathy. It’s the calm that comes only when we love ourselves and others enough to listen, when our insecurities don’t let their fears or insecurities enrage us.

Even if we don’t become argumentative, the lack of active listening colors every interaction in which we engage. How often do we read a post cursorily with the intent of cherry-picking a sentiment with which we can strongly agree or disagree in the comments? If we don’t inject moments of silence and quiet reflection into our lives, they won’t happen. If we don’t make the effort to feel what others feel, we will remain forever in a position of protecting our own vulnerabilities and vilifying those who hurt us while they are protecting their own fears.

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” Fred Rogers



  1. Spont on, Angela. What a wonderful post. Thank you very much.

  2. I am reading a book I should have read when I was 20 – the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He was a man of deep insight and true genius, and one of his deepest held methodologies of getting things done is not to express opinions in a strong and forceful way but to express them with the preface – it seems to me, or – to my mind it would appear: words which express equivocation. This moves people away from polarization and into a place where accommodations can be made.

    At any rate read this book. I am completely blown away by the accomplishments of this man. And I absolutely have fallen in love with him.

  3. Fred Rogers was the best. Some may say we didn’t deserve him but the best love is undeserved. I think we need more people like him. Thank you.

  4. Youraveragemormon says:

    Absolutely on target here. I love this post. It’s been something I’ve conciously practiced the last few months and it has revolutionized the way I interact with people. On the opposite end, when Indont actively listen, I come away from interactions feeling empty. Selfishly, I prefer to actively listen because I feel so different afterwards. The best thing about active listening though is that it doesn’t just even fit me, it benefits the other people in the conversation as well. This has been especially helpful in regards to my relationship with my children. Not just listening to them but *hearing* what their heart is saying. Thanks for this pertinent and insightful post.

  5. Ears to hear… hearts to feel… eyes to cry… hands to heal. Oh how we need this, we are not even engaging the three out of one hundred who have been proclaimed to be inherently banished from the covenant path, how will we ever even be able to listen to the one… or even the 0.3? I will go visit Fred Rogers at the movies this weekend, and will try to listen. Can it really be that the highest Mormon heaven, can only pertain to the ninety-seven? While those that count as less than one are outside looking in at the twelve, the fifteen, the seventy, the ninety and nine… but outside the fences the listener can still cradle those acceptable casualties in the wounded hands and arms of the divine.

    Thank you Angela See. Would it be spammy to post a link to my poem called “Orphan Shoe” That may be tangentially relevant? If that is not ok I will be a good girl and not ask again. 🙂

  6. Beautiful insight on listening and grace gap!

  7. *gwp- sheesh, autocorrect- the ultimate passive listener 😉

  8. What I needed this morning hawk. Thank you.

  9. Kristin Brown says:

    A wonderful post. Thank you. We show kindness when we listen well.
    I have been one of those who can’t wait to reply and feel sad I treated people with such disrespect. Listening is a skill I continue to work on.
    Listening helps us minister in the Savior’s Way. In the June 2018 Ensign there is an article on “5 Things Good Listeners Do”.
    I have such a long way to go, but at least I am aware of my weakness and want to improve. Last week I had a conversation with a woman on the phone. I hardly knew her. After about 30 minutes she said, “I have had such a good time talking with you”. This made me smile for I hadn’t said more than 5 words. It gave me hope that I at least was going in a better direction concerning my listening skills.
    I am grateful and admire people who are good listeners. I hope to be like them someday.

  10. This is, I think, one of my largest weaknesses. I generally have a hard time thinking about something for longer than a minute, so even passively listening is really difficult for me. Empathy I have little trouble with (except with some whose ideas are rather abhorrent to me), but I suppose a flickering light is more comfort than no light at all.

    I’d make a terrible counselor, my mind getting more easily distracted than a dog in a city park infested with squirrels.

  11. Thanks, Angela, for the important insight on active listening. Intent listening can be a weakness of mine. This kind of listening is a gift linked with, I think, reconciliation—a process that requires profound unselfishness and patience. I’d like to better at both, trading reactionary emotions and words for the slow untangling of understanding. I don’t think we’ll survive otherwise.

  12. This is a post for the ages, Angela. I needed to hear it. Thank you.

  13. Great post, Angela. I especially like the bit about love being necessary to detect truth.

  14. So what happens when one side is good at listening, is empathetic, and the other is not? The good side will constantly give ground in hopes of mutual gain, and the other side will learn that it’s being rewarded for being impetuous and will continue to do so.

  15. I love this post. Probably one of my favorites by Angela C, but maybe that just says more about how I’m feeling right now than about the post. I also was surprised by how much I liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I only saw it because I was on a plane, but it was amazing how I could come to care about such nasty characters, and how good could gradually be drawn out of such ugliness. Kind of a masterpiece, I thought.

  16. Kristine says:

    jader3rd–that might be the situation where we get to really try out what it means to be Christian…

  17. ANGELA
    We are co-designing and developing a free opensource online Empathy training course. It’s based on empathic listeining
    We invite you to join the project. see
    if you want to take part. email me

  18. Cathy – I really love the phrase “slow untangling of understanding”

  19. Angela C says:

    Jader3rd: The person with the greater understanding in the relationship bears the greater responsibility for how that relationship goes. I don’t believe that Fred Rogers felt it would improve things to stop listening and loving, and some of his crew members shared how he was still patient even when people would bring very ill-behaved children to meet him or to participate on the show. The crew members were ready to punt these kids (and their parents) right out of there, but Fred stayed focused on patiently listening and talking to the child, accepting them for who they were at that time and allowing for the mistakes in behavior. He’s a better person than I am!

  20. Kristin Brown says:

    “Allowing for the mistakes in behavior.” This post has many good phrases. I hope to keep this one in my mind. What a gift to give to others.

  21. Wonderful thoughts – much to digest about it. Thank you.

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