IDP Guide

Using LARA

Overview

LARA stands for Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add Information. It was first developed by Bonnie Tinker as a communication tool for non-violent, transformative conversation for the organization Love Makes a Family, which served LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. Intergroup Dialogue programs, recognizing LARA’s capacity for changing the ways we communicate with one another, have adapted LARA since then.

The overarching aim of this tool is to encourage communication across difference (whether of identities, perspectives, or experiences). As a communication tool, LARA can be useful in building connection and trust with others, creating space for the exploration of multiple – even conflicting – perspectives, and bringing emotions, assumptions, and social identities into the conversation.  The aim of LARA is to help steer a conversation towards mutual understanding of each other’s identities, lived experiences, and positions. This makes it especially helpful when you want to work through (rather than immediately resolve) a conflict or when you are working with strong emotions. You may find it useful in other situations as well, and that is for you to discover.

LARA is both a method and an approach. As a method, it outlines clear steps that you can follow in a conversation and concrete tips for better communication. As an approach, it challenges you to be intentional in connecting with others as you talk to them. It offers goals for communicating across difference that can inform the decisions you make in a conversation. Adhering to these goals makes it easier to approach others with more empathy, curiosity, and openness about their perspective, and also more clarity, authenticity, and nuance when sharing your own perspective.

As you read through the rest of this document, try to think about LARA as a flexible formula. It is highly context dependent, so you get to decide how you want to move through the steps, and how to adapt LARA both to your own communication style and the context. Inclusive communication allows people from different backgrounds and those with different abilities to feel comfortable and acknowledged. The LARA framework does assume certain abilities (e.g. the ability to maintain or break eye contact) and is based on some Western cultural assumptions about communication (e.g. that eye contact signals respect). Thus, when using LARA, it is crucial to pay attention to the needs of everyone in the conversation and then adjust accordingly.

Listen

The goal of this step is to understand someone else’s perspective.

Listening for understanding requires attention, energy, and effort, though many people take a more passive approach in their day-to-day listening. In LARA, listening asks you to take in the speaker’s words, voice inflection, body language, facial expressions and also practice empathy and perspective taking; this is a lot to balance and can make listening quite a challenge. 

In this first step of LARA, you are encouraged to actively listen to the other person. Active listening is hearing and receiving a message with understanding. This entails paying attention to the actual words that someone uses, and also pushing yourself to recognize the emotions and experiences behind the speaker’s words. 

When you listen with empathy, you are paying attention to the speaker’s feelings and pushing yourself to be open to these emotions without judging them. Words and voice inflection can be helpful cues to pick up on the speaker’s emotions, but keep in mind that you can also pay attention to facial expressions, body language, posture, etc. Ignoring the speaker’s emotions in a conversation often makes them feel unheard, so devoting attention to emotions is important. 

Combining empathy with perspective taking makes it possible to focus on the speaker’s feelings and other aspects of their perspective, like their thoughts, beliefs, and prior experiences. As an act of thoughtful imagination — what might it be like to be in the speaker’s shoes? — perspective taking can add to your understanding while you listen. 

By using empathy and perspective taking, you can replace judgment with curiosity as you listen. When you challenge yourself to be curious, you may find that you become more open to forming genuine connections. In situations where you’ve decided to use LARA, remember that judgment often gets in the way of understanding. Even if you disagree in crucial ways with the speaker, there can be value in remaining open to learning about the speaker’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences. 

In order to convey that you’re listening with curiosity, empathy, and perspective taking, be intentional with body language. You can reflect what the speaker is saying in your own facial expressions, maintain appropriate eye contact,  etc. Keep in mind that cultural norms around eye contact and body language are different. If your level of eye contact or your posture seem to be making someone uncomfortable, adjust!

To summarize, when you listen:

  • Notice the actual words that are being said; in trying to understand the emotions, values, and experiences underlying their words, you don’t want to miss what the speaker says.
  • Practice empathy by being receptive and open to the speaker’s emotions. Remember that their facial expressions and body language can help in noticing emotions.
  • Practice perspective taking by imagining what it might be like to be in the speaker’s situation. Consider the intent behind the words; in some cases, the impact of a statement is different from the speaker’s true intent.
  • Aim to replace your judgment with curiosity.
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact and reflect the speaker’s words through your own facial expressions.

Affirm

The goal of this step is to express that you value connection with the other person.

Affirmation establishes a shared sense of humanity before diverse and potentially conflicting perspectives come into play. It is a critical step in the process, even in situations in which you do not agree. It is not an agreement; it is an opportunity to find authentic ways to connect with another person. Although it is not a natural process for many people, it gets easier with practice.

Affirmation demonstrates that you value the other person. It shows that you actively  listened to what they said and are taking their emotions, values, and experiences seriously. It shows that you are trying to engage in a genuine conversation in which you are open to hearing what someone else has to say.  For many people, affirmation is not a step they typically include in conversation (especially conflict); even if it feels a bit awkward, affirming the person you’re speaking with is an opportunity to convey that you value being in conversation with them.  

Be genuine, truthful, and specific in your affirmation, conveying that you really heard what was just said by someone else. It is generally best to speak spontaneously from the heart rather than to offer generic answers such as “I hear what you’re saying” or “I understand what you’re going through.” A disingenuous affirmation can often be taken as a sign that you don’t care about the speaker or the conversation.

When you find it difficult to come up with something to affirm, it can be a cue to examine your own experience. It could be a sign that you’re not actually looking to connect with the speaker or that the conversation is moving out of your comfort zone because of the different perspectives and experiences the speaker is offering. It could also be a sign that you need to recommit to listening more effectively. 

There are many ways to affirm. Here are a few examples:

  • Recognize what the speaker is feeling
    For example: “You mentioned all of the work you have to do this week, which sounds really overwhelming.”
  • Articulate a value the speaker is expressing
    “Based on the experiences you had growing up it seems like you’ve come to value independence and the ability to make your own financial decisions.”
  • Paraphrase what the speaker has said. This approach is especially helpful in confirming that you and the speaker are on the same page. If you can put what the speaker says into your own words, it demonstrates you’ve listened attentively and allows the speaker to correct or clarify any misunderstanding.
    “I heard you say that you’ve had some recent interactions in your neighborhood that frightened you, but you’re wary of calling the police because you’re afraid that doing so might escalate the situation in a way that leads to violence.” 
  • Express an appreciation for the speaker’s honesty and authenticity; even if you disagree with what was said, you can still recognize the courage it might have taken for the speaker to share
    “I appreciate your candid description of the way you feel about restrictions on abortion. You sharing so honestly really helps me better understand how you think and feel about this topic, even though we have very different perspectives on it.”
  • Ask a clarifying question that demonstrates you were listening carefully to the speaker and are trying to understand them better.
    “You said that the text message you received from your friend was upsetting to you, and right now I’m not sure what aspects of that message led to you feeling upset. Would you be willing to tell me a little more about that?”

Respond

The goal of this step is to share your honest perspective.

The biggest challenge in this step is that you have to share what you honestly think and feel. While it may be easier to just listen to and affirm the speaker without introducing potential disagreement or conflict, authentic and genuine connection cannot continue if the speaker does not know your position or perspective. As you share your perspective, be mindful of using words like “but” or “however” to begin your response. Those words make it seem like your honest perspective may in some way detract or contradict your affirmation, which often is not the case. The way you honestly think and feel about what someone said shouldn’t be signaled as going against how you value staying in conversation with others.

You can react honestly using “I” statements such as “I think…,” “I feel…,” or “I believe…” If the speaker asked a question, do your best to reply honestly. Using “I” statements helps the speaker understand your perspective, and it helps you avoid making generalizations that could interfere with your goal of connecting authentically to the speaker. Using “I” statements can also remind you and others that no one is in a position to speak on behalf of an entire identity group.

In describing the impact of the speaker’s words, you might talk about how their words made you feel, mention ideas or questions they’ve made you think about, or tell them whether you agree or disagree with what they’ve said. If you think the speaker is unaware of the impact their words may be having, try acknowledging that they may have had good intent before moving into a description of the impact. When describing the impact, focus on how the words impacted you rather than a theoretical third party; sharing your experience can help support genuine connection in this conversation.

When actively engaging in conversation across difference, try to articulate areas of conflict and difference, as well as places of agreement. Instead of judging other viewpoints as inferior or invalid, try to challenge the preconceived notions of everyone involved – including yourself. You may be accustomed to searching for flaws in logic, and this step challenges you to instead focus on conveying your perspective in a way that helps the other person better understand what you think, feel, and know. Helping others understand you better sometimes necessitates introducing conflict in a conversation. Articulating points of conflict and difference directly, even if uncomfortable in the moment, can help maintain authentic connection in the long run.

There are different ways to respond, all of which can help you react honestly, describe the impact of the speaker’s words, and actively engage in a conversation across difference. 

Some different ways to respond include using “I” statements to…

  • Articulate one area of difference between you and the speaker
    For example: “I noticed that you and I have a different understanding of how we should be approaching conversations about disability.”
  • Articulate one area of similarity between you and the speaker
    “One thing I think we have in common is that we both want to acknowledge meaningfully the history of the land we are in and its seizure from Indigenous peoples.”
  • Name the impact of the speaker’s words on you – this might be a feeling, a thought, or a question that you experienced when they spoke
    “When you said that it doesn’t matter who I choose to love, I felt both relieved and a bit frustrated. I’m glad that you are supporting me and my sexuality, and my experiences with homophobia also showed me it can impact my life in real ways.”
  • Describe your own relevant belief or experience
    “I actually think we should have menstrual products in all bathrooms. It’s not just women who have periods.”
  • Tell the speaker whether you agree or disagree with them
    “While I’m also uncertain about the rising national debt, I disagree that it’s a compelling enough reason to not raise the minimum wage.”
  • Challenge the preconceived notions of everyone involved – including yourself
    “I’ve noticed that in our conversation, we’ve been assuming that everyone who would apply for this job would be a U.S. citizen.”

Add Information

The goal of this step is to open the conversation after you have shared your perspectives.

By adding information, you’re presenting an invitation to work together to better understand what you’re talking about and who you’re talking with. Opening the conversation may mean exploring what’s already been said. It might entail revisiting something that you or your partner shared. You can elaborate on what underlies your own perspective or seek to clarify what underlies your partner’s perspective. This might involve sharing feelings, values, or assumptions that neither of you has yet articulated, leading to deeper understanding. Further examine the views of yourself and others in the conversation with the aim of keeping the conversation going and remember that explicit invitations to continue talking are often helpful, especially when talking to someone you don’t know well.

Opening the conversation can also mean expanding each other’s understanding of the topic. It can involve bringing in additional perspectives or aspects of the topic that have not yet been part of your conversation. Perhaps there are identity groups that none of you belong to – how do you imagine people in those groups might feel about your conversation on this topic? Perhaps you’re familiar with relevant facts, statistics, or opinions and you want to bring those into the conversation to move beyond what you’ve already talked about. It may be the case that you’re curious to learn more about one aspect of the topic of conversation. You can share what you’d like to learn more about and/or ask your partner what they feel curious about.

Some examples of how to add information: 

  • Explore what’s already been said. Express a desire to continue this conversation.
    For example: “I know talking about our experiences as Black people at predominantly white institutions has been hard, but it’s also been so empowering for me. Can we keep talking?”
  • Elaborate on what you said in the Respond step, adding nuance that will help your partner better understand you. You can also ask your partner about their reaction to what you said.
    “I know what I said might not have been easy to hear because it questions some of the things you said. I’m wondering what you thought about it.”
  • Invite your partner to build on what they shared earlier. You may want to ask them a specific question about something they said.
    “I was curious if you could tell me more about why you think violence is never an acceptable form of protest.”
  • Articulate a feeling, value, or assumption that you haven’t yet shared
    “To be honest, I felt really uncomfortable about the way our pastor talked about Islam. Did you feel the same way?”
  • Ask your partner if they’re willing to tell you more about how they reached their current perspective, and/or describe what led you to your current perspective
    “Can you tell me more about why you think Buddhism and Hinduism should be considered philosophies more than religions?”
  • Expand each other’s understanding of the topic:
    • Pose a new question that you’d like to explore together.
      “So, I’m wondering. How might our conversation on academic rigor change when considering the education inequality in this country?”
    • Mention a perspective or background that is not held by either you or the person you’re speaking with
      “I noticed that we’re both American citizens, and I wonder how some of our undocumented neighbors would feel about the policy we’re describing.”
    • Share a relevant fact, statistic, or opinion you’re familiar with. This could be something you read, heard from someone you know, or a thing you personally experienced.
      “I don’t know if we can say we have true gender equity when women still only make $0.82 for every dollar a man makes.”
    • Describe what you’d like to learn more about and/or ask your partner which aspect(s) of this topic are most interesting to them.
      “I’m curious to learn more about the conversation around Latinx vs Latine. What about you?”

Frequently Asked Questions

LARA is a lot of steps! How can I use this tool in a way that sounds genuine? Do I have to use all the steps after each time someone speaks?

  • This is a valid concern — the people you’re talking to may think you’re not being genuine if you prioritize adherence to the LARA steps over actually engaging them in the conversation. It’s important to remember that LARA is not the end goal of a conversation, but a tool for engaging and collaborating with other people.
  • You get to decide if it’s important to go through all the steps at once or if you want to separate them out in a conversation.
    • For example, if someone gave you a substantial explanation of their perspective on a controversial issue, you may actually want to give a fairly substantial reply to show that you are really taking into account everything they said to you.
    • In this case, it might be important to go through all 4 steps of LARA one after the other. 
    • LARA is a tool that also lends itself well to concision. It is possible to affirm in a sentence or less, respond in a sentence or less, and add information in a sentence or less.
  • In other situations, especially if you’re in a conversation that involves a bunch of quick exchanges, it may be more important to use the steps of LARA in a looser way. 
    • For example, you can spend a chunk of the conversation just listening and affirming, occasionally respond and add information, go back to listening and affirming, etc.
    • This is especially helpful when people give their stories and perspectives piecemeal, so we can affirm each new piece of their story or perspective we get without having to respond/add information if it doesn’t make sense.
  • The key to using LARA in a genuine way is to practice it — it’s okay if LARA feels clunky the first few times you try it. It typically feels more fluid and natural with intentional, thoughtful, and reflective practice.

How can I get better at using LARA in a low-stakes way?

  • Practice is the primary way that we at IDP have gotten more comfortable using LARA and better at discerning when and how it can be used most effectively.
    • Many of us on the IDP team have had great fun by practicing with our family and friends. 
    • We also practice LARA in written form online or over email. One benefit to practicing LARA in writing is that you have time to figure out what you want to say in order to achieve the goal of each step. 
    • Some people enjoy the process of thoughtfully choosing their words without feeling pressure to speak immediately, and this can be a great opportunity to actively reflect on the goals of the LARA method while using it. 
  • If you’re by yourself and you want to practice LARA, that’s possible!
    • Some people have practiced using LARA by drafting a reply to a comment that they see posted online (you don’t actually have to post your reply, but you can write out how you could affirm, respond, and add information). 
    • You could also pause a tv show, movie, or podcast after something particularly controversial, personal, or interesting is said and take a moment to think about how you could affirm, respond, and add information if you were in a conversation with the speaker. 
  • It’s important to not just use LARA but also to reflect on it after using it. 
    • How did the conversation go? 
    • What were you paying attention to and feeling, and how do you think the person you were talking to felt? 
    • How might you have used LARA differently?
    • Which steps came naturally, and which felt more challenging? 
    • How and with whom do you want to practice LARA moving forward? 

My typical approach to connecting with others is to ask questions. Is there space in LARA to do that?

  • Asking a clarifying question or asking if you’ve understood someone’s point correctly is a great way to affirm because it shows you care about what they’re saying. You can even be explicit about your goal to understand by saying something like, “I want to make sure I understand what you just said: I heard you say ______; is that accurate, or am I missing something?” 
  • Asking a question after you respond can be a great way to learn about their reaction to your perspective. It might also help you figure out where there are points of confusion, enthusiasm, or reluctance.
  • When adding information, you can ask a question to move forward together and find greater understanding. You could pose a question about an aspect of the topic you haven’t yet talked about, or ask the speaker to tell you more about how they reached their current perspective. You may also use a question to better understand the direction in which the speaker wants to take the conversation. 

What if I try to affirm people and they end up thinking I agree with them when I don’t?

  • It’s important here to remember that the goal of affirmation isn’t to express agreement but to indicate that you value the other person and respect them. We understand, though, that it is sometimes easy for other people to misinterpret an affirmation as agreement.
  • One safeguard against this would be to be very specific with your affirmation.
  • If you’re especially worried about this, the Respond step allows you to state in no uncertain terms that you do not agree with what someone is saying. In situations where you’re concerned about being misinterpreted, we recommend that the Respond step comes soon after the affirm step.

What happens if I’m using LARA but the other person doesn’t want to engage at all?

  • This is tricky. While LARA is a tool that helps us commit to engaging across difference with others, not everyone will initially want to do so.
  • What we’ve found is that because affirmation is quite rare, it can be received as a pleasant surprise that opens up more willingness to remain in conversation. Affirmations can chip away at skepticism and resistance in others. 
  • Though we cannot control how other people approach their interactions with us, we can control how we show up in these interactions. Even if the other person is not using any of the LARA steps, you may find that your efforts to use LARA make it easier for you to tap into your generosity, willingness to engage authentically, and curiosity about someone else.
  • Unfortunately, there will be times when despite your best efforts, the other person will not want to engage productively with you. In these cases, you should not feel compelled to keep using LARA if you get the sense that after some good faith efforts, it is not contributing to a conversation that yields increased understanding between the two of you.

What happens when I’m in a conversation and don’t want to use LARA?

  • As we stated earlier, LARA is a conversation tool with a specific purpose and is context dependent. You should use it only when you can be committed to connecting with the other person and working across difference.
  • There are many reasons you may not find yourself in a position to commit to connection and communication across difference. These can range from your own personal circumstances (e.g. exhaustion, feeling unsafe) to signs of disrespect from the other person. In situations where for whatever reason you cannot commit yourself to the goal of mutual understanding, then LARA may not be the communication tool to use.
  • We also get this question from those who feel like they can use LARA but don’t want to. Usually, it is because they are finding difficulty in affirming (either because they feel like they can’t find anything to affirm or simply do not want to).
    • In some cases, the task of affirming may truly feel out of reach, especially when you are exhausted or when the topic is in any way triggering. In these cases, we encourage you to make your best judgment. It might not be a good idea to try to use LARA.
    • When you feel that LARA is available to you (even if you don’t necessarily want to use it), committing to using LARA can lead to unanticipated connection with the other person. In pushing yourself to view the other person with openness and generosity, you may end up revising some of your previous assumptions about the other person and may end up feeling more enthusiastic about both affirming them, responding with your honest perspective, and adding information to stay in conversation with them.
    • Difficulty with affirmation in particular is often a sign that there is not enough attentive and intentional listening happening. Many of the issues people have with using LARA often can be mitigated with more focused attention on listening to understand the other person.

What if I try using LARA and the conversation still doesn’t end up going well?

  • The reality is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a conversation won’t go the way you want it to. There are many reasons this could happen, some of which may be in our control and some of which may not.
  • Take the time to get some distance you need. We find that it is not productive or helpful to immediately analyze a conversation after we felt it did not go well.
  • Afterwards, reflect on where you thought you used LARA effectively and where you thought you could improve. Keep in mind that someone can respond negatively to a very thoughtful and effective LARA, especially if they do not want to engage. Consequently, when reflecting, we encourage you to move away from only using the other person’s reaction for gauging the utility of and your skill with LARA.
  • Some of us have been using LARA for years, and we still occasionally find ourselves making missteps, embroiling ourselves in awkwardness, and feeling lost. Human interactions can be messy. While LARA can help us navigate communication more effectively, it doesn’t simplify the complexities that underlie our communication with each other.

Sources

Adapted from Tinker, Bonnie. “The LARA Method.” Portland, OR: Love Makes A Family, Inc., 1993.

See also: 

  • Liddle, Kathleen. “Despite Our Differences: Coming Out in Conservative Classrooms.” Feminism & Psychology 19, no. 2 (May 2009): 190–93. doi:10.1177/0959353509102196
  • McCormick, Donald W. “Listening With Empathy: Taking the Other Person’s Perspective.” In Reading Book for Human Relations Training, edited by Alfred L. Cooke, Michael Brazzel, Argentine Saunders Craig, and Barbara Greig, 8th ed., 57–60. Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, 1999. 
  • “Tips and Tools for Constructive Conflict Resolution.” Office of Student Conflict Resolution. University of Michigan. Accessed January 6, 2021. https://oscr.umich.edu/article/tips-and-tools-constructive-conflict-resolution.

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Cite this Guide:

  • APA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. (2021, March). IDP Guide: Using LARA. Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference. https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-using-lara/
  • MLA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. “IDP Guide: Using LARA.” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, March 2021, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-using-lara/
  • Chicago: Intergroup Dialogue Project, “IDP Guide: Using LARA,” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, March 2021, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-using-lara/