Activist Listening

As a social worker, a big part of my role is to listen to children and families. I listen to their stories that range from their triumphs, struggles, and trauma. To build trust with my clients, I need to show them that I’m listening and that I care. This is crucial because many of the families I work with come from a context laden with a variety of adverse experiences such as poverty and violence. Many of the people I work with have also been oppressed due to their identity, socio-economic status, the colour of their skin, and more. They were most likely oppressed by someone that looks like me as well (a white person). As a social worker and activist, I’ve honed my skills of active listening to ensure that I show my clients, friends, and allies that I care and am there to support their cause. Here are a few tips you can use to be an activist listener!

Don’t interrupt

This is huge. Interrupting is disrespectful and might make the person feel as though their point of view or story isn’t as important as what you have to say. Therefore, the person may begin to withdraw. Interrupting can also make the person lose their train of thought. Telling their story may require a lot of emotional energy. It might also be the first time they’re telling their story so they might need some extra time to think about how they’re going to relay it to you. As the listener, be patient and wait until they’ve completed their thought before interjecting with a statement or a question.

Body language 

If the person you’re listening to tells you to sit, look, or hold your body in a certain way, as long as it doesn’t endanger yourself, follow their instructions. It may seem rude to not make eye contact or to be turned away from them, but again, it’s about what makes the storyteller more comfortable. If they haven’t given you any sort of instruction, you typically want to make sure you’re on the same level as them or a level below them. If they’re standing, stand or sit, for example. Make sure your body is relaxed. Keep your arms to your sides or relaxed in your lap. Crossing your arms might signal disapproval or make them feel tense. Some eye contact is important. Don’t stare. You want to make sure the person knows you’re completely focused on them, however, staring can make them feel as though they’re under scrutiny. Finally, be mindful of your facial expressions. You don’t want to continue smiling if they’re crying or upset. Your tone of voice is important as well. Sound interested. Lower the volume of your voice if their voice is low.

Please DON’T say “I know how you feel”

You are not them. Even if you’ve been through what you think is the same situation, you are not them. You have not lived their life. If you have gone through something similar, there are ways of communicating that without saying “I know how you feel”. You could say, “Something similar happened to me and it was awful. If so sorry you went through that.” If they ask if something similar has happened to you before, it can help them heal for you to share your story. You should only share if you feel comfortable though. 

Notice Your Privilege with Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS

No, my cat didn’t just roll around on my keyboard (although he does do that sometimes). It’s a real acronym and it’s packed with information! 

Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS is a shorthand way to recognize the diversity and difference that exists in our lives. Each letter stands for a different aspect of our identity. Some of these identities can be visible or invisible. To be competent, socially aware, and sensitive activists, it’s imperative that we take into account the impact that our identity can have on others, and vice versa.


My cat in arms, Karl Marx, PhD, helping me smash capitalism and patriarchy one paw at a time.

This nifty tool was created by John Burnham and Alison Roper-Hall around the 1990s. It was originally designed to help family practitioners develop reflexivity — in other words, looking inside yourself to try to understand how outside influences make you think, feel, and act. By learning to recognize these feelings and their impact on how we interact with the world, we can better understand the lived experience of others.

I’ll give a personal example. I’m a social worker who works in child protection. As such, I work with families from many different backgrounds. As a cis-gender white woman from a middle-upper class background, I need to understand the impact my presence will have on families who are minorities and living below the poverty line. 

This is compounded by the fact that I’m in a position of power. When I meet with families, I acknowledge our differences and explain that I’m not an expert on their lived experience. I humbly ask to be invited into their lives and integrate their identity into my interventions. 

When talking about knife crime with young black people, I will specifically ask what it’s like walking down the street as a young black person knowing that knife crime disproportionately affects people of colour. I then recognize my own discomfort when discussing race. I can feel the frog in my throat right now clawing at me. Trying to tell me it’s taboo to talk about race and reminding me of guilt I feel for being born with privilege. But that’s for me to deal with on my time by reviewing my Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS.

After looking below at the list of Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS, I want you to try this exercise:

  1. Pull up the list of Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS with a partner. For your first time, find someone you’re comfortable talking to.
  2. Set a timer for one minute and go through the list as quickly as you can. Discuss your own Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS and what similarities and differences there are between you two. Don’t worry, it’s by design that you won’t get through all of them!
  3. Afterwards, circle the ones you discussed. How were you able to identify certain GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS? Were some more difficult to talk about than others? Ignoring the time constraint, why didn’t some of your Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS come up?

To be a good activist, it’s vital to integrate reflexivity into our practice. It’s what keeps us humble, competent, inclusive, and effective.


List of Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS

I’d love your feedback on this exercise! Feel free to shoot me an email to let me know what you think.