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Active Listening Exercises: 25 Ways to Improve Your Active Listening

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

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?

Another Perspective

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.

  1. Write down your opinion on a sheet and on another, or in a second column, the other person's opinion

  2. Underneath the position write down why you have that opinion. Give this some thought in order to answer the Why?

  3. 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?

  4. For each thing, you write down ask yourself why. Why is this important? Why do I need this? Why can’t I go without?

  5. Now go to the other column with the opposing view and reread it.

  6. Underneath the other person’s position, write down why they may have that opinion. Give this some thought to try and guess their Why?

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  1. 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?

  2. What is working and not working for them in this situation?

  3. What are their roles and responsibilities within and outside this?

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

  6. What behaviors have you observed? How have they reacted in the past?

  7. What do others say about them?

  8. What are their worries, fears, and frustrations?

  9. What are their wants, needs, hopes, and aspirations?

  10. 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?

Question Creation

  1. Think of a problem or position you are passionate about

  2. Write down the problem that you struggle to solve or a position that opposes yours

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. Expand upon these questions. Once the person answered them, what would you ask next?

  6. 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?

Movie/Episode Memory

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?

Recall Words

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.

Debrief –

  • 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

Debrief –

  • 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

Round 1

  1. Have a person think of a person, place or thing

  2. Using only closed questions see how many it takes to get to the answer

Round 2

  1. Have the same person think of a different person, place, or thing

  2. Using only open questions, how many questions did it take to get to the answer?

Debrief –

  • How many questions did each round take?

  • When did you learn more about the person?

  • Which round did you enjoy participating in more? Why?


  1. Divide into groups of two

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Partner B (the one with the diagram) will tell Partner A (with the dominos) how to place each in order to match the diagram.

  5. The partner with the dominos is not allowed to speak.

  6. Each set of partners gets a total of 2 minutes to complete their instructions

  7. Now switch roles and have groups exchange patterns so they each have a new one

  8. Each set will again have a total of two minutes to complete their instructions

Variation – This activity can also be done with tangrams

Debrief –

  • 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

Debrief –

  • What did the observer notice in the storyteller and the listener?

  • Body language

  • Eye contact

  • Tone

  • 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

Debrief –

  • 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.

Debrief –

  • 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

  1. Pick a topic you feel passionate about.

  2. Choose a partner and decide on Partner A and a Partner B

  3. Partner A will go first telling their position to partner B for 60 seconds

  4. When they are done Partner B will say what Partner A values and why it is of importance

  5. Switch and have Partner B rant for 20 second

  6. 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.

Debrief –

  • 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?