Becki HowarthBritish Debate Team, 2017

The importance of active listening

Friday 24 Nov 2017

Becki, from our British Debate Team reflects on the differences between hearing and listening, as she recounts her experience of an eight-week tour of America

Since 1922, The English-Speaking Union has sent British mentors on an annual tour of the USA organised by the National Communication Association, with the objective of deepening cultural links and understanding between the two countries. The British Debate Team, spend 8 weeks touring the USA, from New York to California, taking part in local oracy outreach events, show debates and coaching.

We’ve all been there - spending time with somebody who can’t get off their phone. ‘Are you even listening to me?’ you ask. They smile meekly, apologise and put their phone away. This illustrates a larger problem we have in society – not listening enough. Too often we go into autopilot, and debates, discussions and political dialogues happen in shorthand, leading to assumptions about what people mean.

In debating however, active listening is everything. You need to understand your opponent. Initially, debaters focus on expressing their own views and perspective but, as they become more practised, more time is spent anticipating the view of their opponents. Responding to the ideas and arguments presented by the other team is crucial for a strong performance, where diligent and comprehensive responses are valued above superficial or dismissive retorts. Participants quickly learn that listening is a vital ingredient for success.

An international perspective

As one half of the British Debate Team travelling across the USA on the ESU’s debate tour, I experienced the value of listening and understanding cultural context in a debate in the state of West Virginia.

We debated against a local team on whether the US Federal Government should legalise all drugs.  Our opposition’s argument drew on a deep scepticism of the Federal Government's ability to effectively regulate the pharmaceutical industry, based on their experience of the opioid crisis.

West Virginia has been particularly impacted by this issue with thousands of deaths in the state associated with the high consumption of prescription drugs with addictive qualities.

This perspective isn't typically brought up in a UK debate but, instead of ploughing on with our debate strategy as planned, we listened and sought to understand the origin of this scepticism. This made the debate of drugs legalisation completely different in the US compared to the UK, and acknowledging that was vital to an engaging and informed debate of an important issue.

Civic discussion in the world today

Debate gives people the tools to connect with different viewpoints within and across their community. It enables young people in particular to build relationships and understanding across cultures. That’s partially through the ability to construct and express their point of view, and partially through actively listening to their opponent.

In the US, following the election of Donald Trump as president, the value placed on civic discourse is higher than ever. In the UK too, the current political landscape and Brexit in particular call for healthy debate and, sometimes, disagreement.

So next time you disagree or debate with someone – take the time to really listen. Don't think about what you’re going to say while they’re talking – just listen. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have.


Hear more from another of our alumni on their experience of the English-Speaking Union's Debate Tours here, where Governor Bilal Mahmood shares his thoughts.

If you'd like to find out more about how you could benefit from the Debate Tour, contact William Stileman here, or take a look at our other Cultural Exchange programmes for teachers, students and alumni.