The Art and Skill of Active Listening

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by Jeanne Heiberg

As we start a new school year, it’s good to think about the art of listening. Will Rogers, a wise American commentator, said that he never learned anything by talking—implying that we have to listen to learn. An ancient Greek philosopher pointed out that we have two ears but only one mouth, so we need to listen twice as much as we talk. Teachers and catechists, this is a good message to give your students.

Listening attentively and actively is important in good relating and good learning. Listening to one another, without judging, is a great gift that helps you through life with smiles and humor. There is a lot of good psychology and spiritual wisdom behind good listening.

Brother Andre Bessette, CSc, a French Canadian saint who was canonized in 2010, assured his listeners that when they said the Our Father, “God’s ears are already at your lips.” A humble doorkeeper, Brother Andre knew that no matter how small and unimportant we may feel, God listens to us. The Bible teaches this as well. Psalms 34:7 says that “This poor one cried out and the Lord heard, and from all his distress he saved him,” and Psalm 69:34 says, “Praise the Lord who hears the cries of the poor.”

Attentive and Active Listening

One of the ways you can be more like God is to listen. When you really listen to people, you are being like God. God wants you to listen in prayer, at Mass, and in class. In the readings at Mass, people are sharing God’s words, and it’s important to be attentive. In Proverbs 8:32-34, God says “So now, my children listen to me.” When Jesus brought three of his disciples onto the Mount of the Transfiguration where a bright cloud overshadowed them, a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved son…Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

God wants you to listen attentively to his words in Scripture, but almost as important, to people in your everyday life. While you listen to others, see if you can pick up on how they are feeling, what their moods are, whether or not they need anything that you can help with or if they just want to share ideas, experiences, and fun.

Listening is an important art to develop for all human friendships and relationships. Some writings have presented skills on active and attentive listening. Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), for example, emphasizes the importance of listening; Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) for teachers followed, applying listening skills to education.

When I moved to a rural Adirondack area to be a district director of religious education for several parishes, volunteer catechists said that discipline was something they needed help with. They said that the students would come from school on Wednesday afternoons full of pent-up energy, and that it was hard to get the children to settle down. I gave a session on active listening, and teachers said it helped.

Becoming active listeners will help children build healthy relationships throughout their lives. Here is a key idea that helped my teachers: Listen without judgment. (The internet will give further information if you search “active listening.”)

Listen without Judgment

When someone is angry, very sad, unhappy, or experiencing a strong negative emotion, don’t say “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Don’t tell him or her what to do or how to feel. Don’t try to solve the problem for that person. Instead, listen in a non-critical, non-judgmental way. Try to match a word to what the negative feeling is so that you can better understand why he or she feels that way.

Non-judgmentally and uncritically recognizing strong feelings helps diffuse the feelings. This frees the person to begin to solve problems that cause the negative feelings. It helps the person turn to thoughts that make for better, positive feelings.

For example, when I asked my niece if she would like lunch, she said in an angry voice, “No! They went without me! They were supposed to wait!”

In my most objective, uncritical voice, I said, “Oh. I see that you’re feeling angry because they went without you.”

“Yeah,” she said vehemently. Then she added, in a calmer voice, “What’s for lunch?”

I was amazed at what a little objective, non-scolding, recognition of feelings could accomplish! Listening to others without judgment can be a great gift that helps you through life and relationships with smiles and humor.

Listening to God is another great gift to yourself and those around you as you grow in wisdom and happiness. You are important to God, and to all the people who care about you, who listen to you, and who love to have you listen to them. Never be too important to talk to and listen to God and all the precious people in your life.

Say to the Children

As we begin a new school year of learning and growing in faith together, let’s think about the art of listening well. It’s a skill that has many rewards for those who develop it.

Offer some remarks from the previous paragraphs that may be helpful, according to age level and interests of your students. Also share “To Whom Should You Listen?” (see below).

There is a Bible story about a young boy who learned to listen and so rose to great heights among his people and helped to guide them through troubled times (see 1 Samuel 3:2-10). The boy’s name was Samuel.

Young Samuel was brought to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to be raised there and educated by the great prophet Eli. One night as he lay sleeping, Samuel heard a voice calling his name: “Samuel, Samuel.” (Continue the story in Scripture from verse 5-10, adding verse 19 and/or 20 if you wish.)

Samuel learned to listen to the Lord in quiet prayer. He grew into a great man, with two books of the Bible named after him. He was able to help many others, including a young shepherd boy whom he crowned as king. That king—King David—led God’s people into greater safety and peace under the guidance of the prophet Samuel, who learned to listen to God and all that was going on around him.

Because Samuel learned to listen well, he had great messages from God to bring to his people. In the same way, each of you has gifts to bring to people, so it’s important that you listen and learn all you can.

To help us remember this, let’s make puppets of Eli, the ancient prophet, and of young Samuel, the young boy who listened well, and use them to tell the story about listening.

You can make simple puppets, all in one piece, or you can make puppets that have hinged arms that move. Because the story calls for these puppets to sleep, there are directions for a hinge between the skewer and the puppet head, so that the puppets can be made to recline. (A wire paper clip does the trick, though a careful use of tape alone can also work. Directions for puppets moved from above by wooden skewers are included.)

To Whom Should You Listen?

Listen to your parents, grandparents, and teachers.

Listen to your friends (but don’t let them lead you into any silliness—just listen).

Listen to wise and honest people in your life.

Listen to experts in practical and technical areas of life.

Listen to the Word of God at Mass, in prayer, and in the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit.

ACTIVITY: Listening Craft


* copies of patterns [CLICK HERE] (or those you and the children design)

* card stock (in skin tones such as tan, brown, beige)

* card board boxes from cereal, tea, spaghetti

* construction paper in various colors

* colored pencils, crayons, and wide- and fine-tip markers

* wooden skewers

* paper clips

* tape (mailing, masking, or duct)

* scissors, craft knives

* glue sticks

Optional: Round paper fasteners to attach arms to shoulders so they move


1. Cut out patterns of bodies for Samuel and Eli. Place pattern pieces on card stock and trace around them. Cut them out. (Cut out arms separately if you want them to move.)

2. Add clothes to the figures by placing the figures on construction paper and tracing around the bodies, cutting out the pieces of “clothing,” and gluing the pieces to the figures. Or simply color the bodies of the figures. Add facial features using fine-tip marker or pen.

3. Hold a skewer and a paperclip end-to-end and wrap tape around the point where they touch, then tape the free end of paperclip to the back of a puppet head. This hinged handle allows the skewer to remain vertical, while the puppet can lie flat for sleeping. Make one for each puppet.

Optional: For moving arms, position the top of the arm on the shoulder. Use a craft knife, scissors, or pushpin to make a slit through the arm and the shoulder. Push the ends of a round paper fastener through the slit, making sure the “button” of the fastener faces the “front” of the puppet and the flatten ends are pressed against the back of the puppet.


* most of the same materials used for puppets

* white tissue paper and/or facial tissue

* cotton balls (for pillows)


1. Cut out patterns of the headboard (the larger pattern) and the footboard. Trace around patterns on brown construction paper and also on card board. Glue construction-paper pieces to card board pieces. (Remember, you will need two headboards and two footboards for two beds, one for Eli and one for Samuel.)

2. Trim and fold a box so that it measures 2 ½” wide, 7” long, and 2” high. This is a mattress; make one for each bed. (Or cut a 2 ½” wide by 8” long piece of card board to serve as a mattress; fold down ½” at narrow ends to form flaps that can be glued to the headboard and the footboard.)

3. Glue headboard and footboard to the ends of each mattress so that the brown paper faces out.

4. Drape mattresses in white tissue paper or facial tissue. Add another layer for sheets/blankets to partially cover figures, especially Eli, who need not get up during the dramatization.

5. Cut our narrow rectangles of tissue paper or facial tissue to wrap around cotton balls for pillows.


If you and your students want to make a theater, go to “How to Make a Toy Theatre” (with Mack and Mickey) on YouTube for an instructional video. Or use a chair with arms and a high back; place a board across the arms, a cloth “backdrop” over the back, and you have a stage. A few curtains on rods held up by chairs also creates a backdrop for puppet magic.

Listening Prayer

Opening Song: “The Cry of the Poor.” ©1978, 1971, John B. Foley S.J. and OCP. Found in Breaking Bread, Music Issue

Opening Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for listening to those who are humble and act with justice. Help us to trust in your love and to never fail to call on you when we are in need. May we always listen to the teachings of Jesus and the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit.

All: Amen.

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:5-10 (Samuel and Eli; or do puppet show); Psalm 34:7 or 69:34 (the Lord hears the cry of the poor); Matthew 17:1-8 (“Listen to my beloved Son”)

Commentary: When Jesus was transfigured in front of three of his disciples, the voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved son….Listen to him.” God, who always listens to us, wants us to listen to his beloved Son, Jesus, and his teachings. It’s important to find a little quiet time each day to listen to God.

God wants us to listen to other people as well: our parents, our teachers, our friends, and people who need someone to talk to. Uncritical, accepting, non-judgmental listening often helps people solve their own problems, find new possibilities and new hope, and feel comforted that someone is with them and wanting their best.

Listening can be a great gift to give another person. Listen without criticizing or judging others. Listen with love, kindness, and compassion. Be a channel of God’s love to others by listening.

And remember that you can do this well only if you talk to and listen to God.

How wonderful that God listens to us with great love, always wanting our greatest good. How great that God speaks to us through Scripture; through Jesus; often through nature; and through life’s challenges, sorrows, and joys.

Closing Prayer: Thank you, Loving Father, for listening to your people. Help us learn to listen to you in your words of Scripture, in wise people, and in life. Help us to be channels of your listening love to others.

All: Amen.

Jeanne Heiberg, MFA, is the author of Advent Arts and Christmas Crafts (Paulist Press), plus 15 other books and many publications, including Advent calendars. She has taught art, writing, creative catechetics, and meditation to all ages, and has directed parish catechetical programs.

Copyright 2014, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, January 2014.

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