ACTIVE LISTENING EXERCISES GALORE!
While our library of Communication and Listening Exercises is quite comprehensive, Active Listening is a critical subcategory worthy of deeper exploration. Active listening isn’t just nodding to the speaker. Active listening happens when you’re completely focused on the speaker, taking in everything they’re saying, understanding the nuance of their meaning, and giving them feedback. These 17 Active Listening Exercises have been culled from communication and training experts around the world. I’ve grouped the 20+ exercises into 5 categories:
I. Make the Speaker Feel Heard.
II. Listen to Remember and Listen for Underlying Meanings
III. Clarify Understanding
IV. Practice Makes Perfect
V. Uncovering Assumptions
I. Make the Speaker Feel Heard
I read this story on the importance of active listening on the Tesla Ideas blog. William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, both eminent British statesmen were considered as two the smartest persons in England, in the late nineteenth century. A young journalist said that she would dine with both so she could decide which one was smarter. She has compared the two men this way: “When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England.” Gladstone may have been an excellent speaker but Disraeli was the better listener. That evening Disraeli made the woman the center of his universe. The following 7 exercises will help tease how ways your group can make speakers feel as if they are the center of the universe.
1. T-chart: have the group write down characteristics of good and bad listening skills.
Record these on a chart for all to see and fill in any omissions, as needed:
- Poor listening skills might include: look at your watch, interrupt, avoid eye contact, look bored or impatient, tap your foot or fidget, finish the their sentences.
- Good listening skills might be communicated with a nod, smile, eye contact, show concern, or encouragement. Active listeners will:
- “Listen” to the speaker’s body language
- Paraphrase, clarify and summarize
- Express Empathy
Remind the group that just because they making the motions, doesn’t mean they’re retaining the information.
2. Practice through introductions — a good icebreaker!
Pair up. Have Person 1 introduce themselves to Person 2 for 2-minutes. Have the team reverse roles for the second two minutes. Then have each pair introduce one another to the rest of the group. ~Asnawi Yusof
DEBRIEF: discuss what made the exercise hard or easy. Explore the experience from each person’s perspective as both the introducER and introducEE.
3. Yes, BUT… / Yes, AND …
Divide your group into pairs. For two minutes each, have one start a conversation and then every response back and forth must start with ‘Yes, but…’.
Then repeat – this time every response must start with ‘Yes, and…’.
Have teams compare the two experiences. Ask: which resulted in a more productive conversation, building off of each other’s ideas. Which approach was more about ‘listening to respond’ (versus ‘listening to understand’)? ~ Nicole Coyle
Unzip-it with great prompts to promote meaningful conversation
4. ASK or SHARE
Ask one person to share a short story of their past — a major turning point in their life; a time they went to the hospital; a hard choice you had to make; a stressful experience you lived through [Shaped by Our Past question prompts for more question prompts]. Divide your listeners into “askers” and “tellers.” Instruct “Askers” to ONLY ask questions. Invite “Tellers” to share their own similar experiences. Switch roles and repeat.
DEBRIEF: Ask story tellers when they felt best heard–when listeners were asking questions or sharing their own experiences?
~ Shelley Etzenhouser
5. Is Silence always Golden?
Group your participants into pairs. Have them tell a story about their lives–perhaps a challenge they overcame; describe a special event they attended; tell us about a non-family member who had an impact on their life; or explain how your birth order affected your childhood [See Shaped by Our Past for more prompts].
Instruct the listener to SAY NOTHING AT ALL, just listens.
DEBRIEF: What was that like for each person? Did the story-teller feel heard even though there were no responses? Why? Have pairs talk/listen and encourage them to reflect back what they are observing about the talker’s non-verbal communication. (Your tone changed, what was happening for you there? Etc.)
Reflection exercises. Have listeners practice summarizing and paraphrasing what the talker has said, without adding any content of their own. ~ Jenna Hills
Additional debrief questions might include:
- How did the speaker feel when the person just listened and did not exchange information?
- How did the nonverbal signals encouraged the speaker?
- How uncomfortable was the silence?
- How did it feel to just listen without having the pressure to contribute?
- How did the speaker feel having complete freedom to say whatever he/she felt?
6. WebCam OFF – WebCam ON
Explore the differences between speaking when you can or cannot see each other in this is a paired exercise.
Round 1 – Webcam OFF – audio only: For the next 5 minutes, Participiant#1 explains to Participiant#2 “What frustrates them when other people don’t listen to them?” Participant#2 must be silent for the 1st 3 minutes After that, they can only ask – “Tell me more” or “What Else” Swap roles after 5 minutes
Round 2 – Webcam ON – audio and video For the next 5 minutes, Participiant#1 explain to Participiant#2 “What they struggle with when it comes to their listening?” Participant#2 must be silent for the 1st 3 minutes After that, they can only ask – “Tell me more” or “What Else” Swap roles after 5 minutes.
Round 3 – Webcam Off – Audio Only For the next 5 minutes, Participant#1 debriefs with Participant #2 about how they were listening differently with the webcam on and off. Swap Roles after 5 minutes
For the next 5 minutes, Participant#2 debriefs with Participant #1 about how they were listening differently with the webcam on and off.
DEBRIEF: Ask, What were the pros and cons of WebCams On vs. Off. When did you best understand others? When did speakers feel most heard? Does the number of participants affect the experience?
~ Oscar Trimboli
7. Not Listening or A-B-C Listening
Divide your group into pairs. For Round 1, give partner 1 the “NL Instruction sheet” (described below), then ask partner 2 to tell their mate what the think is most important about communicating and an example of a time when they felt they were not communicating well with someone else. Stop the group after a minute or two.
For Round 2, give partner 2 the “ABC Instruction sheet,” and ask partner 1 sharing their communication story. After a minute, ask everyone to share how they felt and why. Stop the group after a minute or two.
The NL Instruction Sheet says: “Do not allow your partner to read this sheet!” Your job is to NOT LISTEN while your partner is talking. You may do this in any way you like, as long as you stay in your seat. You may occasionally say something, but it need not relate to whatever your partner has been saying. Although your partner may realize you are not being attentive, do not tell him or her that you are deliberately not listening.
The ABC Sheet Instruction sheet says: Do not allow you partner to read this sheet! As your partner is talking, keep track of the number of words he or she uses that begin with “a,” “b,” and “c.” Do not count the words “a,” “an,” or “and.” Do not tell your partner what you are doing. You can take part in the conversation, but be sure to keep an accurate score while your partner is talking.
DEBRIEF: After each group has experienced non-listening behaviors, what happened and how it relates to listening and getting your message across. Posted online by Todd Wilmore
II. Listen to Remember vs. Listen for Underlying Meanings
Active listening isn’t only about giving the speaker auditory or visual feedback cues. It also requires listeners to focus and remember what they hear. These following Active Learning Exercises highlight the challenges in listening to remember, as well as our brain’s tendency to fill in where information is missing.
8. Tell a STORY
We play a game in my organization where the facilitator reads a story and then immediately after quizzes the participants (unbeknownst to them). We advise them that they are not allowed to take takes or record the story which is no longer than 2 minutes. Question number 1 is always “what was the characters name?”. Most all people get this wrong. they really have to actively listen. ~ Twanda Rhodes
DEBRIEF: Discuss what it means to “actively listen.” If they didn’t recall the name of the character, what did they remember? How important are details in making someone feel heard? How important is note-taking? Ask, might you have focused more if you knew you’d be quizzed on this afterwards?
9. Hold your Questions
In this exercise by Liberating Structures, One group talks and has a collaborative discussion (e.g. PO and stakeholder) while the second group (e.g. dev team) listens with no video access to see the group talking and with their microphone on mute so they have to hold all questions until the end. It is VERY effective. Here’s the link for more info: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/18-users-experience-fishbowl/ ~ Nicole Coyle
10. Fill in the Meaning – see how people’s minds fill in the holes when information is missing
Create a list of around 20 related words based on a specific topic. For instance; garden, grass, tree, bush, hedge etc. Leave one obvious word from the list i.e. flower and also repeat one of the words in the list three or four times.
Take this sheet out at the relevant time during your training session and tell the participants that you are going to read the list out to them and they are not allowed to write anything down. They should just listen to you.
Next, give them one minute to write down as many of the words they can remember as possible.
In review, you should notice that about 60% remember the first word, 75% remember the last word, 80% will remember the word you repeated three times and some will even write down the obvious word that you didn’t say.
Discuss the reasons behind these outcomes and what that means when we communicate.
11. TAKE NOTE?
Start a story–1-2 sentences. Assign next person to summarize what was just said and add 1-2 more sentences to the story. Continue until everyone has done it, and then ask first person to repeat whole story back.
DEBRIEF: Did anyone take notes? How was that perceived at the time the notes were taken? How was it perceived after the fact? Did anyone ask clarifying questions? What was the impact?
~ Shelley Etzenhouser
III. Clarify understanding
This next grouping of Active Listening Exercises, requires listeners to check their understanding by asking questions.
12. Draw what you hear
Another simpler exercise that I’ll use involves asking a volunteer to perform a task for me, but with minimal instructions. (ie. “draw my house.”) Repeatedly, they’ll make submissions and I’ll mockingly berate them for poor job performance. Eventually I’ll ask them to sit down. I’ll then ask for another volunteer to perform the task, but this time I provide them with great detail. Of course they are able to complete the task with much more success.
DEBRIEF: what’s the impact of being able to ask questions and clarify understanding?
13. Colourblind – Ask clarifying questions and strategize!
This game requires players to figure out which funky-shaped pieces might be missing from their complete set. Success requires the group to ask each other clarifying questions about the pieces they each hold. The must listen to and understand each others’ descriptions of the pieces as well as strategic suggestions for how they can solve the puzzle. ~ Shirley Gaston
IV. Practice Makes Perfect
This grouping of exercises gives participants an opportunity to practice their listening skills and get feedback from colleagues.
14. Role Play
Have a colleague help you demo skills. Then have real practice with role plays. Put the class in triads and put each triad in their own breakout rooms aka virtual meeting. Have 2 role players and an observer. You and a colleague and pop in and out of the breakout rooms. Wrap up with a class debrief. The catch using a virtual tools that supports breakout rooms. ~Ronald Blumenthal
15. Difficult Customer Role Play
Have participants pair up with a partner for a role play. One person can be the difficult customer and the other the customer service rep, then they can switch roles. The best way to diffuse a tense situation is to use active listening – let the customer know you hear what they are saying. But its important not to make any promises at that stage of the exchange because that costs money. But acknowledge the customer’s frustration and let them vent. Then move on to problem solving – get the customer to help in solving the problem and then work on solving it together. ~ Tom Lord
15. Telling vs. Showing
This quick exercise can be used as a “closer” or as a listening exercise, to reinforce the message that “actions speak louder than words.” I say: “Please follow my words. Raise your right hand over your head. Keep following my words. Make a fist. Please make sure to follow my words. Round your fist three times and then put your fist on your forehead! (just before this moment, you put your own fist on your jaw!) You would find most of participant would follow your action and put their fists on their jaws! Someone would find their mistakes and put their fists on their forehead, Then you can say: What happened? I’ve asked you to follow my words for three times, but you follow my actions! Why? ~ Mark Guo
Great example of telling your group to do one thing and showing them another. Interesting to see how they hear your instructions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNA1278Y7ZM ~ Denzal Sunny
V. Uncovering Assumptions
Listeners tend to make assumptions when they think they know an intended meaning or have seen and heard similar situations. Our primitive brains are actually wired to look for shortcuts. However, this may not be so helpful when we’re trying to be good communicators. Our tendency might be to stop listening if we think we know what someone is going to say. Alternatively, we may assume that asking questions is somehow inappropriate, or will make us look foolish. The following Active Listening Exercises help highlight the assumptions we make and shortcuts we take that may compromise our clear communication efforts. These require a second person in the room. For virtual learning experiences, you can either ask participants to invite a family member into the room with them or model how they’d expect the exercise would look if they were paired with another person.
16. Making a fist and challenging assumptions
Take 2 volunteers from the class. Tell one to make a fist and the other to open it. 99% of the crowd fails in this as one person makes the fist and the other struggles. Why??? Because the person who made the fist resists. Then I tell my class that I had only asked one to make a fist and the other to open it. Never asked to resist. This way I teach them the pros and cons of inactive listening and assumption. Posted by Sohini Mazumder
17. “Arm Wrestle”
For this one, you must never say the words “arm wrestle.” Here’s what you do:
- Have everyone find a partner.
- Ask partners to “assume this position.” Demonstrate with a volunteer, and hand link position with both of your elbows on the table.
- Explain, “This is a very easy exercise. There are two things you must know.
- 1- you get a point if the back of your partner’s hand touches the table
- 2-you want to get as many points for yourself as possible. You don’t care about anyone else.
- Explain, “Each ‘point’ is worth one M&M. You will have only 10 seconds to get as many M&Ms as you can. GO.”
Some teams who assume it’s an arm wrestle will only get 1-2 M&Ms, others will get to 100 if they give in and tap one person’s hand against the table repeatedly. To do this, however, they must not assume a competition and they must communicate about their shared interests. See here for more info on the debrief.
Wrap it Up
As with any any learning or training experience, getting closure and committing to next steps is an important part of the process. Using this set of verbs, ask each participant to commit to one or two ways they will listen actively during their next conversation with a colleague, spouse, family member or friend. Have them write the word on favorite squeeze toy or a What? So What? Now What? Sticky Note, or a Stop-Start-Continue-Change Sticky Note.
- Accept – Don’t judge
Additional Questions to Debrief Active Listening Exercises
- How did you know that your partner was listening to you?
- What did it feel like to really be listened to without being interrupted?
- What made this activity challenging for you?
- How can active listening help you resolve conflicts?