Updated: Sep 22, 2022
I have found that there are some situations or people that I am better at listening to than others. By trying out different exercises, I have been able to grow my active listening skills and abilities.
Active listening is a skill. Luckily that means that it can be learned and is not something you need to be born with. That also means it needs to be practiced in order to be improved upon. Over the years I have learned and participated in many different activities to promote better listening skills, some that I enjoyed and some that I was thankful came to an end. I have compiled below some of my favorites.
Why should you do exercises in active listening? When you practice something over a period of time it becomes easier. When you work on listening to others, in a variety of methods and situations you are able to gain information about how you perceive what others are saying as well as learn to listen more effectively, ensuring clarification and saving time and energy caused by potential mishearing and assumptions.
There are a number of different things that can be done to flex your active listening muscles. Some are able to be done in isolation, while others will involve other people or groups, or can be led by you. Find what works for you or your team and be willing to stretch yourself as you become increasingly competent.
Solo activities can be done by yourself. If you want to expand upon these you can also have a second person do the activity at the same time and compare the results.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Listeners
Old Program – Find a TV show or movie that you enjoy or have watched before. Predict which characters demonstrate active listening and which ones don’t.
Now watch the show. Are your predictions correct? What do they do to exhibit active listening? What do they do to demonstrate they are not good at listing?
New Program – Take out a pen and paper and settle in for a show. Create a column for each of the main characters. If there is only one then also choose important supporting characters.
As the show/movie progresses make a note of how they interact with others through the storyline. Are there people that they communicate with better? How is this done? How do they show others they care or don’t care about the conversations they are having?
At the end of the exercise look at your notes. Are there things that good, active listeners have in common? Are there traits that bad or passive listeners had in common? What was the outcome of each style of listening?
Which character traits do you see yourself embodying in conversations?
Choose a conversation that you have had that either stands out strongly in your mind, is recent or that you know you need to have where you have a differing opinion or view than the other person.
Write down your opinion on a sheet and on another, or in a second column, the other person's opinion
Underneath the position write down why you have that opinion. Give this some thought in order to answer the Why?
After this write down what this fulfills for you. What needs does this meet? What expectations will be met? Do you have a set of beliefs that support this? Are there other things that will come out of, or be avoided by having this position?
For each thing, you write down ask yourself why. Why is this important? Why do I need this? Why can’t I go without?
Now go to the other column with the opposing view and reread it.
Underneath the other person’s position, write down why they may have that opinion. Give this some thought to try and guess their Why?
Based upon what you guessed about their Why answer the same questions as you did for yourself? What needs does this meet? What expectations will be met? Do they have a set of beliefs that support this? Are there other things that will come out of, or be avoided by having this position?
For each thing you write down ask yourself why. Why is this important to them? Why do they need this? Really try and answer as if you were that person.
Evaluate if there are similarities between the root causes of your positions. Is there common ground? Are there questions you need to ask the other person?
Though you may be totally wrong in your assumptions it is a useful tool that helps to broaden perspective and allow us to start getting curious about what is behind the way others think, feel and act.
The Empathy Brainstorm
During this exercise, you will work through what has brought a person to a specific point in time where conflict is occurring.
Write down what you know about this person. What do they do, who they are, and what role do they play in the situation and in relation to you?
What is working and not working for them in this situation?
What are their roles and responsibilities within and outside this?
What is going on in their environment? What are others saying and doing? What is happening in their day-to-day lives? Do they have other expectations or commitments required of them?
Do they speak in a certain manner? Are there things they have identified as important? Are there things they repeat time and time again? What have they directly told us about the situation?
What behaviors have you observed? How have they reacted in the past?
What do others say about them?
What are their worries, fears, and frustrations?
What are their wants, needs, hopes, and aspirations?
Evaluate what you can relate to and what you may need clarification on. Think about or write down how you may be similar to this individual. Where is your common ground?
Think of a problem or position you are passionate about
Write down the problem that you struggle to solve or a position that opposes yours
Now is the time to start brainstorming questions. Write down as many open-ended questions as you can think of to better understand the issue or position.
These are not to be position-based questions but instead questions used to gain information to further understand. What lead you to your position? vs Why would you think that?
Expand upon these questions. Once the person answered them, what would you ask next?
Continue this until you feel there are no questions left to ask. If you think you have run out of ideas and don’t have many, ask yourself, if someone wanted to learn about me or my position what would they ask?
Choose a new movie or TV show, you can also do this using a longer YouTube video (longer than 15min)
Watch the video all the way through. At the end write down what the program was about. Give as much detail as you can about the journey of the character, the thoughts, feelings, emotions, past and current experiences, and their relationships with the other characters throughout the episode.
If you watched a YouTube video that only had one person what did they do? What did they talk about? What was important to them? How did different experiences make them feel? What else did they talk about?
Now watch it again, stopping every 10 minutes to do the same.
Make a note if you notice anything different.
Did their relationship start out different than it ended and how you remembered?
Did their experiences vary at all from your notes?
Were there interactions that were of more or less importance by re-watching?
Did they exhibit different traits through the movie with different people?
Did they say things that you did not remember, or pick up on the first time?
Try this again and include a second person.
Did you notice different things or perceive things differently from one another?
What stood out most for each person?
Watch a how-to video and once done write down all of the steps, see how accurate you were able to take in, and listen to the information. Were there details or tips you missed while trying to remember the steps?
Try doing this with things you are interested in as well as things you are not. Is there a difference in your recollection abilities?
With a Partner
These activities can be done with someone from work or someone within your home or social circle. Most often they will take anywhere from 5 – 45 min. They can be extended if you enjoy them or want to make them more complicated.
Embrace the Silence
With a partner choose a topic you want them to talk about. Have each partner tell a story for 5-10 min. During this time, the partner listening can only speak a total of 3 times in order to assist in gaining clarification or helping to move the story along. Before speaking, wait at least 6 seconds to ensure that the storyteller is stuck as to what to say.
Now switch and have the storyteller listen and the listener tells a story. The same rules about speaking apply.
How was it for each of you?
What was it like to wait before speaking?
Were you able to listen without thinking of what questions to ask?
Did you prefer to be the speaker or the listener?
What was it like to know you would not be interrupted?
What is it like for you when you are interrupted?
Why do people interrupt?
The Feedback Game
During this exercise choose a speaker and a listener. Have the speaker tell a story about something that brings up some sort of emotion, be it happy, sad, frustrating, exciting, etc.
The listener’s primary focus will be on matching facial expressions, making eye contact, leaning in to engage, mirroring body language, and giving others gestures of interest and empathy to demonstrate listening and engagement in their store.
During this time the listener is able to ask questions and respond to the story. The focus needs to be on what their body is doing, not what they say.
Now switch and have the storyteller listen and the listener tells a story. The same rules apply.
Debrief when you are done. How was it for each of you? How did you feel when they displayed interest in what you were saying? Did you feel they were more or less engaged? Did you prefer to be the speaker or the listener? What was it like to have someone convey their interest with body language?
Open-Ended Question Showdown
Have a person start telling a story. During this point, the listener is able to ask as many questions as they can think of. The one caveat is that every question needs to be open-ended question. If a closed question is asked the storyteller is only able to respond with a yes, no, or a single-word response and stop the story. At this point, the listener will need to ask an open question in order to restart the story.
Closed question examples
Did you know this would happen?
Have you been there before?
Has this happened before?
How did that make you feel?
Do you agree with them?
When did that happen?
Would you work with them again?
Would you do things differently?
Where were you when that happened?
Open question examples
How did you react to that?
What do you think could have been done differently?
How did that work for you?
What happened next?
Why did you make that decision?
Why did that affect you?
How did this happen?
What is important to you about this?
What bothers/empowers you about that?
To make it more difficult if you can;
Time how long each person can go only asking open questions
Set a timer and see how many open questions you can ask within a time frame
Switch off telling a story, every time a closed question is asked it is the other person's turn
What was it like only being asked open questions?
How do you feel the story depth was being asked open vs closed questions?
What was it like for you being the listener vs storyteller?
Get to the Answer
Have a person think of a person, place or thing
Using only closed questions see how many it takes to get to the answer
Have the same person think of a different person, place, or thing
Using only open questions, how many questions did it take to get to the answer?
How many questions did each round take?
When did you learn more about the person?
Which round did you enjoy participating in more? Why?
Divide into groups of two
Ensure they can hear each other but can not see each other’s items (either back to back, with a divider between them or on different surface levels ie floor and table).
Each team will receive a set of 8-10 dominos for partner A and a picture of those dominos is a random pattern for partner B.
Partner B (the one with the diagram) will tell Partner A (with the dominos) how to place each in order to match the diagram.
The partner with the dominos is not allowed to speak.
Each set of partners gets a total of 2 minutes to complete their instructions
Now switch roles and have groups exchange patterns so they each have a new one
Each set will again have a total of two minutes to complete their instructions
Variation – This activity can also be done with tangrams
What challenges did your team have?
How was it to receive information without being able to clarify or ask a question?
Did your partner use words or jargon you could not understand?
How was the instruction given when you could not see the other person?
What emotions did you have going through this process?
What was the tone of the instruction?
What worked well?
What would you do differently next time?
Within a group
These activities are best done in groups of 5-30 people with a facilitator. If you have a larger group more materials may be needed or more time will be required for each person to take a turn doing the activity or give feedback during the debrief.
I’m Not Listening
Set a storyteller, a listener, and an observer. Tell only the listener that after a certain length of time they will need to become disengaged with the story. The listener is to look and act as if they are no longer paying attention to what is eight said. They are not allowed to tell anyone that this is what they are doing or say anything directly that may lead someone to this conclusion “I’m not listening” “ I don’t care” “this is boring” ”can I leave” etc
What did the observer notice in the storyteller and the listener?
What did the storyteller notice?
What did the listener notice?
How was the experience for each of them?
What element bothers or affected them the most? – note that this may be one of their triggers to be able to identify for future or further discussion
*Trigger – Something that makes us feel emotional, frustrated, or unsatisfied
The old school game that many people know and love (or hate).
Split people into groups of at least 5
Have them form a line or a circle, choosing who will receive the sentence to be passed along (Person A)
Give Person A a couple of sentences they need to repeat. Some examples are:
Sally was asked to go to the store to buy pears. She needed 5 pears in order to make a pie
When Johnny rides his bike to school, he always takes his backpack. It includes his notebook, a snack and a note from his mom
I went to Delaware for the holidays. My flight left at 8 am and I brought gifts for my old neighbors and great aunt.
Person A will whisper to Person B, then to Person C until the last person in the line/circle receives the sentence.
The last person will repeat to the entire group what they believe they heard
Variation – If someone says they did not understand you can have no repeats or 1 repeat in order to clarify
How do they feel this worked?
What happened to the original story?
Was it easier or more challenging than they thought it would be?
What would they do differently?
Rapid Fire Summarize
Have a storyteller and a listener. Without interrupting have someone tell a story or speak about something that is important to them or that they know a lot about. After 3 minutes the listener summarizes everything that they recall hearing.
Do they and the storyteller feel they remembered a good amount?
Was this topic something they enjoyed hearing about?
Did they feel engaged or disengaged listening to the other person?
Was the listener able to stay focused the entire time or did they keep thinking of questions or letting their mind wander?
60-Seconds of Ranting
Pick a topic you feel passionate about.
Choose a partner and decide on Partner A and a Partner B
Partner A will go first telling their position to partner B for 60 seconds
When they are done Partner B will say what Partner A values and why it is of importance
Switch and have Partner B rant for 20 second
When they are done Partner A will say what Partner B values and why it is of importance
Do not restate their position, instead summarize why they have their specific position and the reasons they give to support it. This is about learning more about someone, not judging their position, agreeing with or opposing it.
How did the other person do summarizing your position?
What did it feel like to know someone was listening to learn more?
What difference do you feel when being listed in order to be understood vs someone just waiting to share their position?
How do you feel this could change conflict?
Same Story, Different Results
Tell a common story to the entire group and have them list the concerns, interests, needs, fears, and positions of the characters involved. You can use a well-known fairy tale, fairy tales told from a different perspective, a made-up story or a personal story.
Go around the rooms and review people’s responses
Did most people have similar ideas?
Was there anything unique people picked up on?
Were there characters someone related to more than others? If so why?
Same Thing, Different Results
Give everyone a sheet of paper and a pen
Tell the group that they are to follow the instructions exactly
They must draw what you tell them, they will get to see the other drawing at the end
A large round body
A crooked triangle head
Eyes that are close together
A funny-shaped nose
Share what each person has created.
Did anyone have similar ideas?
How can descriptive words yield such different results?
What clarification questions could have been asked to yield a similar end result?
Has what you have said ever been misinterpreted?
What effect has this exercise had on you?
Is Nobody Listening?
Within a group share a story about not being heard or listened to. Identify what actions showed passive or lack of listening and the effect this had on the situation and you.
Deeper than Words
Select one storyteller from the class and have everyone else break into groups of 3-4 people.
Have one person in each group facing the storyteller, this will be the interpreter
All the other group members will turn their back to the storyteller so they can only see the interpreter
The storyteller will tell a story without the use of words, only body language or sounds like la, ba, ma, re
The storyteller will go through a full story with emotions and experiences that would otherwise be told in words
While the story is being told the interpreter must communicate what they are saying in words their group will understand
Once done go around to each group and one of the listeners tell back the story that the interpreter told them
Have the storyteller tell everyone what the story was they were actually sharing
How was it for the storyteller to not know if they were being understood?
What was it like for the group to hear the various stories?
Why would different people interpret the same thing in multiple ways?
When has this happened before?
What effect does this have on you?
Are there situations where the same words or actions can mean different things to different people?
If so, how can this affect the outcome?
How can this be avoided?
The Missing Piece
Before the activity begins, remove or swap a puzzle piece or two from each puzzle, do not tell anyone you have done this.
Divide the group as evenly as you can between the puzzles.
Tell the groups they have 1 minute to work together to assemble the puzzle
How did it feel when the group realized they didn’t have all the pieces?
What about when the pieces were for a different puzzle?
What did they do to try and find the other piece?
Why did/didn’t they speak to the other groups?
When trying to resolve an issue we need to get all the pieces in order to understand the full picture. Sometimes we are given information that is not applicable or does not make sense and we need to clarify it.
Interpretation of Meaning
Choose a sample phrase or words and ask the group to write down or respond with what each means to them.
A couple of minutes
A fantastic trip
Ideal day off
Choose a few examples and ask what each person’s interpretation was.
Why can we not assume that the same words mean the same thing to all people?
How can these assumptions or interpretations affect our work and relationships?
What assumptions are we currently making based upon the words we just went through?
What can we do to clarify these assumptions?
What happens if we do/don’t clarify our assumptions?
Have each person find a partner.
Tell the group that they will be Arm Wrestling (must use those words)
Ask each group to get into the arm-wrestling position (if need be you can demonstrate this position with a partner by linking hands and placing your elbows on the table)
Explain to everyone “This is an easy activity, there are only two rules
You will get a point every time the back of your partner’s hand touches the table
You want to get as many points for yourself as possible
Each team will get a total of 10 seconds to get as many points as possible. “GO!”
How many points did each member of your team get? (0-10)(11-25)(26-50)
What did the low vs high teams do to reach this number?
Which teams worked together to get points for one another?
Did one member allow the other to rack up all the points or were they shared?
What assumptions were made about this activity before I explained the rules?
How did these assumptions help or hinder your results?
Did both partners assume the same thing? Different things?
How did you communicate how to play with one another?
Did the team assume this was a competition?
Did the team members communicate their shared interests?
How do assumptions around familiar things or situations impact our views?
How can we challenge our assumptions?
Give each person a single sheet of paper.
Have everyone close their eyes and tell them to follow your instructions.
Give them instructions as to how to fold their piece of paper:
Fold it in half
Fold the bottom right corner up
Fold the upper left corner over the upper right corner
Turn your paper 90 degrees to the left
Tear off a small piece on the top right corner
Open it up
Fold it approximately in half again
Flip the paper over
Fold the bottom to the top
Fold in a small section of the bottom left corner
Tear a half circle out of the bottom
Tell the group to open their eyes and show one another their piece of paper
Everyone received the same information and the same simple material, yet the results are all different
Why would people vary in their results?
Some people started the process different from the others by having their paper in a different way (vertical vs horizontal)
When words are left to be interpreted, big, small, approximately, etc they can have different results
Without having the ability to receive feedback it is difficult to have a benchmark for how precise we are being
What was easy about this exercise?
What did each person find the most challenging?
What can be taken back into your own life or profession from this learning?
The objective of this activity is to get your partner from point A to B in the most effective way possible.
Start by giving each group a blindfold, a pen, and a maze flip upside down so they can not see it.
Have one partner put on the blindfold and hold the pen (Partner A)
Once this is done the second partner can flip over the maze (Partner B)
Partner B will now instruct partner A to draw a line, working their way through the maze
Partner B is not allowed to touch the pen and only gives verbal instructions to partner A
Start by setting out an obstacle course in an open space
Give each group a blindfold
Have one partner put on the blindfold (Partner A)
Once this is done the second partner (Partner B) can walk Partner A to the starting line
Partner B will now instruct partner A to work their way through the maze
You can decide if the partners can stay together or if partner B will stay at the starting line
What did not work?
Did any teams discuss communication before they started? How did this impact their performance?
What would they do differently next time?
How does or does not having other information about the path ahead lead to different results?
How would this apply outside this activity?
Building a Model
Start by creating a randomized structure out of blocks and hiding it behind a binder, in a box, etc where it can not be viewed by the group when in their seat. (They should not have seen it being built)
Divide the group into teams of 3-5
Give out an identical set of blocks to each team that match the blocks in your structure
Have the team assign roles Manager, Runner, Creator, and Observer(s)
All of the Managers are to go and sit by the already built structure, they are the only ones allowed to see it.
The Manager will give the Runner clear instructions to pass to the Creator whose job it is to build a precise replica of the structure
The Creator must be the only one that can see their structure, they must not show it to the Manager or the Runner
The Creator will listen to the Runners instructions and may ask for clarification
The Runner is permitted to go back and forth as many times as necessary until the Creator feels they have the structure exactly replicated
The Observer's task is to make notes on what they see happening within the group, what is and is not working, people’s reactions and behaviors, as well as their suggestions.
After 7-10 minutes, or as your time allows tell people the activity is done.
Have each group compare their models to the original structure
What went well?
What did not work well?
What could be done better?
What did the observers notice?
Did team members start resembling each other’s body language or mood?
How did the observer(s) feel not being able to say anything?
What was the tone of the group during the beginning, middle, and end of the exercise?
What role does each person play in executing the final product?
What role did each team member play in the ultimate success or failure of the challenge?
If you have time switch around the roles, rebuild the original structure, and try the exercise again.