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Kenny Gibson, FutureNHS Collaboration Platform

Blog: Reflective Practice

NHS Safeguarding and deep listening

NHS Safeguarding requires us all to sustain complex relationships with a variety of colleagues and various partnerships. 

In the past six months of #COVIDSafeguarding, I’ve found myself having to practice more deep listening with colleagues who may have a different opinion to my own but this is increasingly challenged by the lack of presence and increased use of phone calls to expedite calls. I am not very good on phone calls since I cannot see or measure the others’ interventions nor their neurolinguistics & body language cues. 

For the most part, in all relationships there’s one person who speaks and one who listens – this relates to personal and work relationships. But . . . as the listener, am I really listening? 

So what is difference between active listeners and deep listening? 

Active listening is about making a conscious decision to hear what people are saying. It’s about being completely focused on others—their words and their messages—without being distracted. The goal of deep listening is to acquire information, understand a person or a situation, and experience pleasure. 

It’s been said that one of the most common reasons why people see therapists is to have their stories heard. In order to have your story heard, you need to have a listener. Listening and empathy skills are the hallmarks of good communicators, leaders, and therapists. Listening skills can be learned, but the reality is, some people just tend to be better listeners than others.

The importance of listening in interpersonal relationships cannot be overemphasized. One study conducted by Faye Doell (2003) showed that there are two different types of listening: “listening to understand” and “listening to respond.” Those who “listen to understand” have greater satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships than others. While people may think they might be listening to understand, what they’re really doing is waiting to respond.

And, when individuals try to “fix” other people, they are most often responding to their own need to influence. The same study showed that couples who have undergone therapy together tend to be better listeners than others because they’ve picked up some valuable tips along the way. It’s been said that women usually want to be heard, and men want to fix or respond.

According to psychologist Carl Rogers, active or deep listening is at the heart of every healthy relationship. It’s also the most effective way to bring about growth and change. Those who are heard tend to be more open, more democratic in their ways, and are often less defensive. Good listeners refrain from making judgments, and pro vide a safe environment and container for speakers.

By listening carefully when someone speaks, we’re telling them that we care about what they’re saying – this is especially important if they are saying something which differs from our own thoughts. It is also important to remember that listening is contagious. When we listen to others, then chances are they will be more inclined to listen to us.

The good news is that we can learn to be better listeners; however, listening takes practice. The more we do it, the better we get at it, and the more positive our interpersonal relationships will be.

Here are some tips for becoming a better listener:

  1. Put yourself inside the mind of the speaker.
  2. Listen for meaning.
  3. Pay attention to body language.
  4. Cultivate empathy.
  5. Avoid making judgments.
  6. Look into others’ eyes when they’re speaking.
  7. Pay attention to the feelings associated with the words.
  8. Notice the speaker’s tone and inflection.
  9. Repeat in your own words what someone has told you (empathetic reflection).
  10. Acknowledge that you’re listening by nodding or saying “Uh-huh.”
  11. Occasionally summarize others’ comments when given the chance.

Deep Listening Happens at Several Levels

The intrapersonal level, at which an individual is listening deeply to his or her own interior experience. Mindfulness practice is a foundational training for deep listening at the intrapersonal level.

The interpersonal level, at which one individual is focused on listening to one or more others. We are often preoccupied by thinking about what we will say when it is our turn to speak. But it is how we listen that is transformative, especially in groups.

The group level, at which one or m ore individuals is listening deeply to the voices of many others. A practice for deep listening on the group level involves listening for patterns and themes, and synthesizing what you hear. By reflecting a system back to itself, the system can self-organize in new ways. Listen for what may be alive in the room but has not yet been explicitly named.

Individual Level

A practice for deep listening on the individual level is to listen for what is alive in a person that hasn’t been spoken yet. What are the speaker’s deeper feelings and desires, emotions, desires, wants, and needs?

Another practice is to reflect back what you hear. How can you move beyond the formula of “what I hear you saying…” to a place where your reflection offers a genuine understanding and empathy for the speaker’s meaning?

Benefits of Deep Listening

“Deep listening evokes presence, which some define as “deeper listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions.” 

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society

Deep listening also:

Allows you to engage without assumptions

Establishes trust by demonstrating that you value what others say and take them seriously

Cultivates authentic connection with others — the quality of your attention influences the quality of the conversation

Helps clarify what is really going on

Enables new possibilities to surface

If we are to survive in the twenty-first century we must become better communicators, speaking and listening honestly and compassionately across diversity and difference.

Unsatisfying communication is rampant in our society: in relationships between spouses, parents, and children, among neighbors and co-workers, in civic and political life, and between nations, religions, and ethnicities. Can we change su ch deeply ingrained cultural patterns? Is it possible to bring about a shift in the modes of communication that dominate our society? Contemplative practices, with their committed cultivation of self-awareness and compassion, may offer the best hope for transforming these dysfunctional and damaging social habits.

Poor listeners, underdeveloped listeners, are frequently unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” When they speak, they are typically in one of two modes. Either they are “downloading”—regurgitating information and pre-formed opinions—or they are in debate mode, wait ing for the first sign that you don’t think like them so they can jump in to set you straight.

Good listening, by contrast, means giving open-minded, genuinely interested attention to others, allowing yourself the time and space to fully absorb what they say. It seeks not just the surface meaning but where the speaker is “coming from”—what purpose, interest, or need is motivating their speech. Good listening encourages others to feel heard and to speak more openly and honestly.

Deep Listening involves listening, from a deep, receptive, and caring place in oneself, to deeper and often subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person. It is listening that is generous, empathic, supportive, accurate, and trusting. Trust here does not imply agreement, but the trust that whatever others say, regardless of how well or poorly it is said, comes from something true in their experience. Deep Listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, rea ctive thinking and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and unexpected. 

Our approach to Deep Listening focuses first and foremost on self-awareness as the ground for listening and communicating well with others. A clouded mirror cannot reflect accurately. We cannot perceive, receive, or interact authentically with others unless our self-relationship is authentic. Likewise, until we are true friends with ourselves, it will be hard to be genuine friends with others.

Deep Listening is a way of being in the world that is sensitive to all facets of our experience—external, internal, and contextual (body, mind, and speech). It involves listening to parts we frequently are deaf to. In order to balance and integrate body, mind, and speech Deep Listening teaches three different but complementary contemplative disciplines: mindfulness–awareness meditation to clarify and deepen mental functioning; the Alexander Technique to cultivate awareness of the body and it s subtle messages; and Focusing, a technique developed by psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin that utilizes “felt-sensing” to explore feelings and nurture intuitive knowing

1) Mindfulness: Awareness Meditation

In sitting meditation practice, sometimes called peaceful abiding, we learn to settle, returning over and over again to the present moment and allowing our thoughts to come and go without acting on them. In the process, we see how our self-absorption keeps us from experiencing the world directly. Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully.

Mindfulness–awareness practice is a way of fundamentally making friends with ourselves, based on an attitude of gentle, non-reactive noticing. This attitude is the key to success not only in sitting meditation, but equally in Alexander work and Focusing.

2) The Alexander Technique

Meditation helps us to develop equanimity and not be pushed and pulled by our life circumstances. The Alexander technique takes this attitude off the cushion and into our lives.

Living more fully in our bodies is the anchor to the present moment in all our activities. It allows us to care for and listen to ourselves even while we respond to the many demands of our lives. This is an ideal place from which to listen to others with care and attention.

Our way of perceiving and responding to our world has a physical shape and quality. Generally that shape consists of either slumping or holding ourselves too rigidly in “good posture.” Either way, we are interfering with our freedom and the life-giving movement of our experience. When we interfere with the free functioning of our systems our experience of the body is one of limited mobility, pain, stiffness, and tension.

We are all intrinsically upright, expansive, resilient, and open. Watch any healthy young child and you will see this is true—they a re naturally poised and balanced, they move easily, their spines are long, they move on their joints, and they embody a curiosity and interest in the world. They are alive! This is a far cry from the way most adults experience their bodies. But we were children once too, and we can move like that again.

3) Focusing

Focusing is a contemplative practice drawing from Western philosophy and psychology that cultivates three vital inner skills: self-knowing, caring presence, and intuitive insight. Cultivating these inner skills allows us to bring the wisdom of our whole life experience to bear on solving problems and reaching decisions.

The practice of focusing involves noticing and welcoming felt senses. Felt senses are indistinct sensations that ordinarily lie below the radar of attention, but which can be noticed and felt if we are receptive to them. Felt senses don’t have the clearly defined quality of purely physical sensations like touching a hot s tove or stubbing your toe. They are initially quite vague or fuzzy. They are nonconceptual, yet they relate to parts of our lives—work, relationships, fears, creative challenges. They have a quality of “aboutness,” even when we can’t tell specifically what they are about.

Occasionally a felt sense shows up that can’t be missed—like having a “knot” in your stomach, a “lump” in your throat, or a “broken” heart. All of these are distinctly felt in the body, and yet are clearly “about” events and situations in our lives. But most felt senses are so subtle that we don’t notice them. They lie below the level of ordinary feelings, but they can be triggers of strong emotion. 

An episode of anger may be preceded by an inner tightening, a jittery sensation, a sinking feeling. 

Because human beings automatically alter their behavior to synchronize with those they are interacting with, the quality of your listening supports the other to be more prese nt, at ease, and authentic.


The practice of Deep Listening cultivates self-listening as the foundation for listening and communicating well with others. Heightened awareness of the subtleties of one’s own body, speech, and mind is the foundation for genuinely receptive, accurate, and compassionate listening and speaking.

The recent practice of agile working and use of dial-in; webinars etc might be a disadvantage for deep-listening and building trusted relationships. One compromise might be the FaceTime function, which I have begun using for friends and colleagues.


Doell, F (2003). “Partners’ listening styles and relationship satisfaction: listening to understand vs. listening to respond.” Graduate thesis. The University of Toronto Psychology Dept.

Grogan, J. (2013). “It’s not enough to listen.” Psychology Today. March 11. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) . Wherever You Go You Are There. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Written by Kenny Gibson – Head of Safeguarding, NHS England

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