Is it Possible to Practice Active Listening on Twitter?

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If I teach my own children and the students that I work with only one thing in my lifetime, I hope it’s this: people tend to gravitate toward those who actively listen.

Listeners help speakers feel safe expressing their ideas. They restate what they’re hearing, they try to decipher the speaker’s intentions rather than making assumptions based upon their words alone, and they promote peaceful exchanges, even when disagreements occur.

Especially when disagreements occur.

It’s hard to practice active listening online. We can’t look into people’s eyes, study their body language, or hear tone as well as we might when we engage face to face. Twitter makes active listening a greater challenge by requiring users to limit their exchanges to 140 characters or less.

I’ve been tweeting since 2007, and I wouldn’t trade the network I’ve created there for the world, but staying out of trouble isn’t always easy, and making the time to sustain solid relationships there can be hard as well.

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I’m going to engage around anything real for any length of time on Twitter, I need to remain an active listener. This almost always requires an investment of time, a whole lot of patience, and a willingness to show unflinching respect toward those who disagree with me–particularly when I’m tweeting to listen and it seems as if they’re tweeting to win some kind of war.

Twitter can be a powerful place to test our opinions, share our ideas, and assume positions that enable us to advocate for change. This is how we connect to others who share our interests and our perspectives. More important, it’s how we come to know those who disagree with us and push our thinking. This is one of the better reasons to tweet,  but if we aren’t careful to connect with those who know how to engage well, it almost always leads to unproductive and even unhealthy exchanges.

Active listeners try to remain neutral, nonjudgmental, and engaged when those who disagree with them voice their opinions and ideas. They restate what they are hearing, and they ask questions that invite the speaker to say more in order to clarify or expand upon those ideas.

Rather than making assumptions about the speaker’s history, feelings, or position, they inquire about it further. They also practice empathy and speak in ways that are not only respectful, but encouraging.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my thinking changed by people who push me to say more about what I think or how I feel or why I’m drawing the conclusion I’m drawing.

Rather than crushing me with the weight of their own opinions right out of the gate or shaming me for speaking my mind, they simply ask me to tell them more about those ideas, and then they ask very thoughtful and pointed questions.

This is how learning happens. It’s also how meaningful relationships are built and deepened.

The chart below emerged from a recent conversation that I had with a group of teenagers who are beginning to learn how to use Twitter to advocate for social justice. They know that advocacy begins with active listening, but they’re wondering if that’s even possible there.

What have your experiences been? How would you answer them?


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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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