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Communication and Listening exercises

Over the years, I’ve collected these exercises and activities from a variety of LinkedIN discussions and recommendations from trainers and business people. If you aren’t sure how to choose a teambuilding game, view How to Choose a Teambuilding Game Infographic. If you’re looking for games to purchase, please visit Office Oxygen for a great selection of resources.

Because this list of exercises has become increasingly popular, I’ve recently tried to re-organize it.  I’ve divided the activities into the following nine categories:

  • Perception – different people lend different meaning to words
  • Building Relationships & Emotional Connectedness
  • Becoming aware of assumptions
  • Speaking clearly and following instructions– given the same instructions, different people achieve different results. Do people ask questions or not?
  • Actions speak louder than words – say one thing and do another
  • Dealing with hindrances – what happens if you can’t see each other or speak out loud.
  • Listening & Feedback
  • Coordinating many people
  • Communicating between teams

Immediately below is an outline of the nine categories along with a quick snapshot of each game suitable for that goal. Farther down the page, you’ll find facilitation suggestions, notes and comments for each exercise.

Perception – Lending Meaning

1.  Play with Dough – explore perceptions and build creativity
2. Selective Attention – the invisible gorilla and the impact of perception
3. Interpretation of Meaning – see how differently words and phrases can be interpreted
4. List-Less – when the obvious word isn’t stated, players assume it was

Building Relationships & Emotional Connectedness

5. Silver Series Thumballs – balls imprinted with discussion prompts. Available in over a dozen work-friendly topics (diversity, ethics, leadership, team dynamics, getting to know you, etc.)
6. Open-Ended Question Challenge – start with one question and follow up with 4 more

Becoming aware of assumptions

7. Challenging Assumptions – puzzle that requires you NOT to turn over all the pieces (ADD)
8. Making a Fist and Opening it – players assume the one making the fist should resist
9. Arm “Wrestle” – players assume a contest when it’s not set up to be.

Speaking clearly and following instructions–

Given the same instructions, different people achieve different results. Do people ask questions or not?

10. Paper Folding
11. Paper Cut
12. Draw What you Hear
13. Building-a-Model
14. Blocked Perspective (NEW)
15. PBJ Sandwich Instructions
16. Dominoes (or Tangrams)
17. Building Blocks

Actions speak louder than words – say one thing and do another

18. Showing vs. Telling
19. Hear it. See it. Do it. (A.K.A. Simon Says)
20. Good Marker, Bad Marker . . . Okay? Ready? – determine which is which not by the hands, but by the last word in the sentence.

Dealing with HINDRANCES – what happens if you can’t see each other or speak out loud

21. Pass the Ball – can you pass a ball blindfolded, without speaking?
22. Blindfolded egg-in-spoon Obstacle Carry – explores the impact of distraction

Listening & Feedback

23. Just Listen – one speaks, the other listens with no response
24. Draw It – see the difference between negative and positive feedback when someone is following instructions
25. Telephone Game – see how messages change when communicated between many people
26. Retelling the Story – see how a story changes as it’s passed through many listeners
27. Happy and Sad Behaviors – when sharing experiences, see impact of listening/non-listening behaviors
28. Question Challenges – puzzlers that require focused listening
29. Situational Awareness and Active Listening – do you “hear” what’s not being said?
30. Difficult Customer Role Play
31. Not Listening or A-B-C Listening – experience a variety of non-listening behaviors
32. Red Ball, Blue Ball – make sure your message is heard, not just spoken
33. Murder Mystery – work together with individual clues to solve a mystery
34. Workstations – work together with individual clues to solve a puzzle

Coordinating many people

35. Helium Stick – try to lower the pole and see it rise up instead
36. Pipelines – send a marble down the pipeline without dropping it
37. Colourblind – figure out the missing shape
38. Pass the Chicken – deal with increasing complexities
39. River Crossing – rely on others instructions if you can’t see your way
40. Toxic Waste – coordinate players to move basket suspended by  ropes
41. Simbols – plan a complex diagram and recreate it under tight timeframe
42. Electric Maze – find your way through a maze without setting off a bomb
43. Marshmallow Challenge – build a tall structure out of spaghetti and tape
44. Perfect Square – form a rope into a perfect square, while blindfolded

Communicating between teams

45. Seeing the Point – forming 5 similar shapes requires out-of-the-box thinking
46. Communication Derailed – negotiation for parts to build the perfect structure
47. Minefi­eld
48. Chainlink – for customer supplier relationships

The Games

Perception – Lending Meaning

1) Play with Dough

You could work with play dough or Plasticine clay. First break your group up into smaller groups or teams. The activity is to be done in silence, with no prior preparation.

The dough (at least one lump per person) is placed on a table. The “initiator” of each group starts to make something with the dough, with his/her back to the rest of the team. Give them just one minute to create something.

Once done, the creator moves to another place, away from the team. The next person has to add value to the creation. At no point should there be any communication between team members, verbal or non-verbal. Once all are done, the different creative visions are shared, from the first team member to the last.

Besides being great fun, it brings out the radical differences in perception, distortions in linear communication and the complete skew in execution that can happen. Posted online by Monujesh Borooah

2 ) Selective Attention

This is great for groups of 10 or more. I’ve found that only about 20 percent of the people actually pick up the gorilla. Good luck! Posted by Clint Babcock  http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html

3) Interpretation of Meaning

Use a series of words/phrases and ask the group to write down what the words/phrases mean to them. For example, “this material is outdated”, and “I’ll get back to you in a bit.” These phrases mean different things to different people and that’s why we must be specific when we communicate. The responses are very interesting! Some thought that “a bit” was five minutes, while others thought a day or so. For the material being outdated, the same applied. Some participants thought outdated material could be a month old, while others thought at least a year. It’s interesting how we interpret different things from everyday phrases. Posted by Victoria L. McDevitt

4) List-less

Here is a quick one that I use in my workshops: List about 18 related words, pick any topic, for example, sleep, mattress, pillow, snore etc. pick one word to be intermingled in the list three times, such as, the 3rd, 7th, and 12th word will be “sleep.” Leave out one obvious word from the list such as “bed.”  Ask attendees to listen as you read the list to them.

Give them one minute to write as many words as they can remember that you said.  Usually 60% will remember the first word, 75% will get the last word on your list, 80% will remember the word that was repeated three times and 20% will write down the obvious word you never said. Debrief why all this happened and what we can learn from this. Posted by Glen Mountford Tucker

Build Relationships & Emotional Connectedness

5) Silver Series Thumball


A “Thumball” is a soft vinyl ball that looks like a soccer ball, but is pre-printed with discussion prompts. All Thumballs promote communication and listening and are a great source of questions for groups that want to practice active listening. It can be enlightening to privately tell “listeners” to be disrespectful (look away, interrupt, take a phone call, etc.) and then have the groups discuss the impact of such behaviors. For activities like this, the Getting-to-Know-You Thumball and “Shaped by Our Past” are good choices. Posted online by Susan Landay

However, if your focus is on building “Communication and Listening” skills, the Communication Thumball might be a good place to start as it has specific conversation prompts to help your group talk about best practices and ways to improve their skills. On that ball, the Silver prompts represent effective communication techniques. The challenge with these is to explain why this method is effective and/or give an example of when and how it worked.

The Purple prompts reflect what NOT to say or do. The challenge is to explain why it inhibits good communication and share a more appropriate or more effective approach.

 

6) Open-ended Question Challenge

Either split into pairs or, if the group is not too large, work your way around to each participant.

Ask each participant puts a small financial incentive down as their stake in the game (coins, a pen, etc.). Then challenge them to begin by asking you (or their partner) an open-ended question (what, where, when, why, how). When they get their reply, they must follow-up with four further questions. If they succeed they keep their money. If they ask a closed question they loose their money.

As you do the exercise, it’s okay to put on a bit of time pressure, too.  They will find that only through actively listening to the answers can they keep up the open questioning.  I have Paul Davies of Sigma Management Development to thank for this one. Posted by Alex Lever

Becoming Aware of Assumptions

7) Challenging Assumptions

This game is used to raise awareness of preconceptions as small groups work to assemble a seemingly simple puzzle. They start by turning all the pieces face up and there the learning begins. In fact, the puzzle can only be assembled if some pieces look upside-down. (~ $260.00)

8) 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

9) 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.

Speaking clearly and following instructions

10) Paper Folding

  • Give everyone a sheet of paper.
  • Tell everyone to close their eyes and follow your instructions.
  • Start giving instructions about what to do with the piece of paper examples:

fold it in half
fold the lower left corner over the upper right corner
turn it 90 degrees to the left
fold it again
rip a half-circle in the middle of the right side
etc….

  • Once you have given quite a few instructions (more than 10 at least for a great success), tell everyone to open their eyes and unfold their piece of paper.
  • Even though they all received the same instructions and had the same starting material, pretty much everyone will have a different result.

Conclusions:

  • We don’t all start at the same place, (some held their piece of paper vertically or horizontally) so we don’t all have the same results
  • Some interpreted to rip a piece of paper as removing a big piece, some as a small piece
  • Having eyes closed = not receiving feedback on our performance
  • Some instructions appear vague to some and clear to others.
  • Many other conclusions can be drawn on the fly from this

11) Paper Cut

This is a 5 to 10-minute, highly effective activity on importance of perception and asking questions in communication process. The exercise illustrates the importance of giving meaningful instructions to others and expecting feedback for correct execution of those instructions. It is fun and quickly makes a point.

Materials needed: one sheet of A4 or 8.5×11 paper for each participant; scissors are optional

Instructions:  Explain to delegates that you are about to give them instructions and they must follow these instructions as given to them. They must follow these quietly and are not allowed to ask any questions. They should not get help from others around them or even look at other people’s work.
If anyone asked questions, simply tell them to follow the instructions as they see fit. Present these instructions:

  • Hold up the papers please.
  • Fold the paper in half.
  • Cut (or neatly tear) off the top right corner of the folded paper.
  • Fold in half again.
  • Cut off the top left corner of the paper.
  • Fold in half again.
  • Cut off the bottom right corner of the paper.
  • Fold in half.
  • Cut off the bottom left corner of the paper.
  • Unfold the paper.

Ask delegates to show off their unfolded papers to each other and examine similarities or differences.

Debrief
Simply ask:  Did you end up with similar patterns or everyone’s pattern was different? Why is that? Were the instructions clear enough? What was missing? Why feedback is so critical in communication? What happens if feedback is missing? What lessons do we take from this?

Source: Skills Converged;  Posted online by Srishty Gajbhiye

 12) Draw what you hear

Pair people up and ask your couples to sit back to back. One person in each pair should have a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Once everyone has settled, give the other person in the pair an abstract drawing (different shapes maybe joined up together) to describe to the other person in the pair.  Give them two minutes to describe and draw without asking or answering any questions.  Then you allow another minute for the drawer to ask questions.

Debrief:  When the time is up, ask them to compare the drawing to the original.  Discuss why there were differences (there always are!). Was it the describing or was it the listening? Was it because they couldn’t ask questions to clarify what was being described and what about not being able to see the person to get the visual clues of looking for understanding of what one is saying e.g. nodding or frowning etc What about the noise in the room – is it a distraction when you want to listen to someone properly? What should you do to create a good environment for listening; how should you behave to show you are listening? etc .  Posted by Sandie Gay

Variation: Conduct the exercise in a series of rounds. In every round the communicator will describe a picture we give them of assorted geometrical shapes. In the first round the listener/drawer can’t ask any questions, just listen and draw based on what they hear. The second round a different picture of geometric shapes is described and the listener/drawer can only ask closed-ended questions. The third round a different picture of geometric shapes is given and the listener/drawer can use his/her active listening skills. We discuss how accurate were the pictures? How well the communicator describes the picture will determine how successful they want to be with a customer. Posted by Annette West

13) Building a model

Materials and Preparation – 2 matching sets of children’s building blocks (e.g. Lego), with 10 blocks and 1 base board in each set. Using one set of blocks, build a random object using the 10 blocks, onto the base board. Optional – 2 bags to contain each set of building blocks.
Time – 45 mins
Group Size – minimum 3 people, up to about 7.
(You can have duplicate exercise running in parallel if group is larger, but will need more sets of building blocks).

There are 4 roles in this communication skills game.

Person A – director
Person B – runner
Person C – builder
Person(s) D – observer(s)

Person A is given the built-up set of blocks, and is the only person who can see the object. It is the director’s job to give clear instructions to person B, the runner, so that person C can build an exact replica of the model.

Person B listens to the director’s instructions and runs to a different part of the room to where person C is sitting. The runner then passes on the building instructions, without seeing the building blocks, to Person C, the builder. The runner can make as many trips as required within the time allowed for the exercise.

Person C listens to the runner’s instructions and builds the object from the set of building blocks. The builder is the only person who can see the object under construction, and building materials.

Person(s) D observe the communication game, and make notes about what works, what doesn’t work, and how people behaved under pressure etc., to pass onto the group later.

Set a time limit for the exercise of 10 minutes.

When the time is up, allow the group to compare the model and the replica, and see how closely it matches. Generally, the replica will bear little resemblance to the original, which usually causes heated discussion!

Allow the group to reflect on how the exercise went, and agree 1 thing they did well, 1 thing that didn’t work, and 1 thing they would do better next time.

Run the exercise again, either switching or keeping original roles, and see if any improvements have been made. Make sure you de-construct the “original” model and create a new design!

This simple communication skills game can be run many times without losing learning potential. Teams can add layers of sophistication to their communication by making use of aids such as diagrams, codes, standard procedures and using active listening techniques.  Posted by Najeeb Muhammad

Here are a few other takes on this one:

One that works for both listening and communicating is to divide into two (or more) teams and have each team select a leader. The leader is given a set of tinker toys, blocks or Lincoln Logs and an picture of an item that can be built with them. It is his job to communicate to his team what they need to do to build the object without showing them the picture. It is their job to listen and do. The competition between teams is to see who can get their object done first, and closest to the picture. Same object, but in different parts of a large room…. or different rooms. Posted by Linda Williams

We use Tinker Toys. Have 2 people sit facing away from each other. One (the leader) has a series of photos of an object created with tinker toys. 3-4 photos of the object from different angles. The other person (the follow) has the toys in front of him on a table. The leader must get the follower to make the toy within 10 min without either of them turning around. Be sure to call the time at 5 min and then again at 2 min as many will rush to complete the task. The outcome rarely comes put 100% correctly.

Discuss the communication that occurred via observers of what they saw (body language) and heard from the 2 performing the task. Get the 2 doing the task’s input on how it went first. Debrief that even a small error could be an injury, accident, or significant issue to throw off a project or someone’s work. Discuss the various terms used to describe things and how something as simple as explaining the color to someone can divert the outcome. We start the discussion of communication with this exercise and then talk back to it most the week with other things that come up. It can be used as a simple 15 exercise, however, on the importance of communication and that if the outcome isn’t what you wanted (picture = your vision) then it’s generally the leader’s fault for not giving good expectations of what the project should look like in the end and show to successfully get there. It’s powerful. It works well with those that “think” they’re great leaders/communicators. Posted online by Barbara Cates

14)Blocked Perspective

This is new game (for purchase), Blocked Perspective, provides a set of blocks and a bunch of photographs of the same block structure taken from different angles and perspectives. The different players have different photos and must try to get the “builder” to replicate the structure correctly.  (~ 65.00)

15) PBJ Sandwich Instructions

Participants are given recipe cards and instructed to write directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for someone who has never, ever, made a sandwich before and will be following your instructions “exactly.”

Pick one or two recipe cards and follow directions “literally.”

Note: I have put a plastic tarp down under table with ingredients, wear a smock and sometimes rubber gloves to follow the directions.

Enjoy taking instructions like: “spread liberally” “a little” “some” “a lot” and my personal favorite….”smash them together,” literally.

Debrief: Discussions about new employees’ need for details, can we have too many details, different ways words can be interpreted, need for measurements (3T vs. a lot)…

Great just before a break…everyone can make themselves a snack. Have plenty of cold milk on hand.  Posted by Jeri Mae Rowley

16) Dominoes (or Tangrams)

One of the listening skills activities that I do is that you have people get in groups of 2, you give one of them a pack of 8 dominos and the other a shape diagram of rectangles (dominos) in a random pattern. Only the person without the dominos should see the pattern. They sit back to back on the floor or the one with the dominos at a table and the other in a chair back to back. The one with the diagram instructs the other on placing the dominos to match the diagram. The one with the dominos cannot speak. They get 2 min. I usually do this in a big group where they are all working in pairs at once.

Then they switch roles, get a new pattern and do the exercise again, this time the person with the dominos is allowed to speak. 2 min. usually successful.

Then we debrief looking at challenges, jargon words used, analyze how they provided instructions without being able to watch the person, tone, questions asked, etc. ( I have this all in a document if you want it) It is quite fun and enlightening for those who are training to be able to be in a support role with technology.  Posted by Karen McRitchie

17) Building Blocks

I have found children’s blocks to be very useful in learning to listen. I put together 8 blocks of different shapes and sizes into bags. Then I have people partner up and one person empties the bag while the other is blindfolded and sitting at the table waiting for directions on how to build a specified object with the blocks. As the one without the blindfold gives directions on how to use the blocks to build the specified structure the blindfolded participant has to listen very carefully to the directions and use their sense of touch to determine which block to use and how. I find that when they are under a time limit and given incentives to do their best, people really listen well and get very close to the required structure. We debrief after the exercise and I find a lot of people realize they hear so much more than just the directions when they are blindfolded. It’s also a lot of fun.  Posted by Jeff Trimble

Actions Speak Louder than Words

18) 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? Posted online by 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 Posted by Denzal Sunny

 

19) Hear it. See it. Do it.  (a.k.a. Simon Says)

Tell the group that they need to listen to whatever you say and do accordingly.

Then tell them a few things like stretch your right arm, touch your knee etc and while saying these instructions, do them yourself. Most participants will look at what you are doing rather than listen to what you are saying.

After a few instructions, tell them that they need to touch their cheek but make sure that with your actions you have touched your chin. Most participants will touch their chin instead of the cheek. Posted online by Rohini D’Souza

20) Good Marker, Bad Marker. Okay, Ready?

This one is a little difficult to explain, but I will try. I take a marker/Highlighter/Dry Erase Marker in my hand. I have all of the trainee’s line up at the other end of the room. I tell them all they have to do is tell me when the marker is a “good” marker and when it is a “bad” marker.

I hold the marker in my left hand and say “This is a good marker, Okay“, I then through it and catch it in my right hand and say ” This is a bad marker, Ready“. I proceed to do this about 3 or 4 times. As soon as a person starts to walk towards me I change it up. I have the marker in my right hand and say “This is a good marker, Okay“, then throw it and catch it in my left and say “This is a bad marker, Ready“. This person still come ups and whispers in my ear, “it is good when it is in your left hand and bad when it is your right”. Of course this is not correct and the person will go back in line. I continue throwing the marker around, setting it on tables, dropping it on the floor and each time I point to it, pick it up or catch it I will say. “This is a good marker, Okay“, the next time I touch it I will say “This is a bad marker, Ready“.

Here is the trick: (although I am sure most of you have figured it out already). It is a “good” marker when I say the work “Okay“, it is a “bad” marker when I say the word “Ready“.

The whole idea behind the exercise is to show people that we allow visual stimulus to get in the way of our listening. I use the Marker to distract them visually so they are not listening. Most trainees get it within a couple of minutes; for those who don’t, I ask them close their eyes. Once they do this they will usually get it.  Finally, we debrief what happened and why it was so hard to “hear” what was going on. We tie this back to active listening. Posted by Thomas Swartwood

Dealing with Hindrances – what happens if you can see, hear, or speak?

21) Pass the Ball

I created an exercise where the class participants had to pass a ball back and forth to one another. It started out that the group was completely blindfolded and could not speak, next they were still blindfolded but were allowed to speak to one another, and lastly all obstacles to communication were removed, and of course this allowed them to pass the ball freely to one another, even clear across the room with great success.  It works really well whenever I use it. It serves as a great demo, and also gets people charged for a participatory session.

Visit Trainers Warehouse

 

22) Blindfolded Egg in Spoon Obstacle Carry

This out-of-the-box and fun activity is a throwback to when we were kids. Because most people can recognize the game it, puts them at ease relatively quickly, especially if folks don’t know each other well.

It does require a little room but can be adjusted to suit the facilities. I would normally set up 3 – 4 lanes side by side over a reasonable expanse, insert obstacles and challenges in each course (these could be chairs, whiteboards, poles, trip hazards etc.; the number and types of obstacles depend on the site). Then we break into groups of 2. One person is blindfolded and holds an egg on a spoon and the other guides them down the course from a distance.

Added complexities included getting the blind folded person to wear thick gloves. We then swap the participant roles and during this process change the course.

I generally run this with ‘operational’ groups and have received great feedback.  We use this exercise to highlight the importance of communication with so many distractions in workplaces. We also use it to highlight the importance of ensuring each other’s safety – risk awareness and injury prevention. Every time we have run this exercise, it’s a hoot and the feedback is overwhelming good. Posted online by Ann Russell

Listening & Feedback

23) Shhhh. Just listen . . .

Put the class into dyads. One of the two is selected as the listener. The listener may make only 3 statements during the 5- to 10- minute time allocation. The listener must somehow get the speaker to continue talking without saying much. I ask the speaker to relay a situation that should be comfortable (an award, a special event, etc.). After the time allocation, I then ask the dyads to switch roles. The discussion that follows concentrates on:

  • How the speaker felt when the person just listened and did not exchange information
  • How the nonverbal signals encouraged the speaker
  • How uncomfortable the silence was
  • How it felt to just listen without having the pressure to contribute
  • How the speaker felt having the freedom to say whatever he/she felt.

Posted online by Leslie Orr

24) Draw it

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.

25) “Telephone” Game

Sentences to use:

  • “A writer writes not because he is educated but because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the need to be understood”.
  • “Hello, I am in Room 701. May I please have the sirloin steak, cooked medium rare, garlic potatoes, and salad with the dressing on the side?”  (NOTE: Add in some emotion, such as dissatisfaction by the customer, and it becomes even more challenging…and a wonderful opportunity to practise the more difficult interactions with guests.)
  • I have customers requesting different things, all of which include either numbers, sizes, shapes, colours etc. For example, one lady has ordered a special occasion cake of a certain weight and type with specific writing, such as Happy Birthday Joaquim (the names are always of different nationalities and require spelling) and she is asking when it will be delivered and to confirm the price. Another customer has requested a pair of trousers to be shortened and gives details and complains as they are now too short, etc. etc.

I’ve used the Telephone Game (some may know it as “Chinese whispers”) in a slightly different way:  I get six volunteers from a class of about 20. The six all go outside. The first person then comes inside.  I have a prepared script of about two long sentences which I read to the class and the volunteer and then put the script away.  I then invite the next person into the room and ask the first person to tell them what was read out.  Then the second person invites the third in and repeats the information until all the volunteers have entered.  What is so fascinating is for the class to watch how the individuals morph the message by leaving bits out or by altering words etc until the end result is very different from the first.  The script of course is shared with the other volunteers after the end of the exercise for their information, and causes much amusement.

26) Retelling the Story

One exercise I use to show the shortcomings of poor listening skills is to tell a complicated story about a non-event. I have several people (depending on the amount of time and size of the group, usually about 6) leave the room. I read the story to the first person and the remainder of the class explaining that this first person must tell the story to the next person to come back in the room. The remainder of the class observes and tracks what was left out or changed in the story. When the first person tells the story to the second, the second then tells it to the third until all the people outside the room hear the story. The last person relays what he/she heard. We discuss when and how the information was lost or distorted and why. Posted online by Leslie Orr

27) Happy & Sad Behaviors

Split the entire team into two groups. Send one group outside the classroom.

Tell the group (Group 1) inside that classroom that, people from the group outside the classroom will come in and share a happy incident/experience with them. They must not listen to what is being said. Give participants hints about not listening – no eye contact, talking with someone else, fiddling the mobile, writing something in their pad, asking irrelevant questions, etc.

Now instruct the group outside the classroom to think of a happy incident in their life and share it with anyone whom they are comfortable with inside the classroom.

Let the participants interact. Give them about 5 minutes.

Now ask Group 1 to go out of the classroom. Tell the group (Group 2) inside that classroom that, people from the group outside the classroom will come in and share a sad incident/experience with them. Give participants hints about listening carefully – Eye contact, Body Posture, Rephrasing, Relevant Questions, Empathizing, etc.

Now instruct the group outside the classroom (Group 1) to think of a sad incident in their life and share it with anyone whom they are comfortable with inside the classroom. They can choose a different partner.

Let the participants interact. Give them about 5 minutes.

Now divide the whiteboard into two. On the left side, write Group 2 and right side Group 1.

Ask Group 2, if they felt their partners listened to them. When they say “NO”, ask them how they found out that their partners did not listen to them. List them down in Group 2 side of the white board.

Ask Group 1, if they felt their partners listened to them. When they say “YES” ask them how they found out that their partners listened to them. List them down in Group 1 side of the white board.

Then take real life scenarios from their work place and identify potential situations when they may not be listening actively and the its impact on their work. (Example, when working on an urgent report that has to be submitted and a colleague interrupts them. Ask them do you stop working on the report or do you keep working on the report while asking the colleague to continue talking?)

I find this activity works great in all my workshops.

Let me know if you need more information.
Posted by Sridhar R

28) Question challenges

I have found it useful to use ‘creative thinking’ questions as a good way to stimulate listening. Here are just a few that I use (with answers in brackets!)

Carl Wins:  Carl wins race after race, he is the fastest runner, yet he gets no trophy, why?   {Carl is a horse.}

To Light a Fire:  You are hiking with a friend in the deep woods of northern Canada. A cold front quickly approaches and you find cover behind a sheltered boulder. A fire will be necessary if you are to survive the storm. In your pack you have only one match, a candle, a tightly wound ball of birch bark and a roll of toilet paper. Which would you light first?   {The Match}

A Good Guess?: There is a man who guesses the score of every football game before Kick-off. How can he do this?  {Before the game starts the score is always 0-0}

Digging Dirt:  How much dirt is in a round hole that is 7 feet deep with a diameter of 4.5 feet?  {None at all. The hole is made by digging dirt out, so… the hole is empty.}

The Crazy Cat:  A cat jumped out the window of a 30 story apartment building and lived. How?  {He jumped out the ground floor window.}

The Pilot:  There is a boy and his father on a late flight from New York to Denver. Part way through the flight the boy becomes curious and asks to see the plane controls. They allow him in the cockpit, the pilot shows him the controls and after the boy goes back to his seat the pilot tells one of the attendants, “that’s my son”. How is this possible?  {The pilot is the boy’s mother, and you thought all pilots were men!}

Frequent Occurrence:  It occurs once in a minute and once in an hour, but never in a second. What is it?  {The letter U.}

One-Way Street:  A girl who was just learning to drive went down a one-way street in the wrong direction, but didn’t break the law. How come?  {She was walking.}

Saw Purchase:  A profoundly deaf person decides that he wants to build some shelves, so he heads down to the hardware store to buy a saw. How does he let the assistant know that he wants to buy a saw?   {He says, “Hello shop assistant, I’d like to buy a saw please.”}

Posted by Mark Crawford

29) Situational Awareness AND Active Listening

Listening with “situational awareness” is critical in our field, in which emergency services call-takers and dispatchers must both “actively listen” to their call as well as “scan” the other call-takers so as to be aware of other incidents occurring. This is an extremely difficult field and the number of people who can both actively listen and still maintain a situation awareness is very small. When I train I want to incorporate as many exercises as possible to help them learn this challenging skill.

I have great success with this “situational awareness listening technique.” I pass out topics and pair the class up. I then have them discuss their topic between themselves for 2 minutes. After the 2 minutes are up I ask them what each of their neighbors were talking about – NOT what they discussed. Most of the time they can’t give me any information at all. We then repeat the exercise with different topics but this time they are more able to give me feedback on what groups around them were discussing. This has been valuable for teaching to listen not only to what is being said to the individual but also what is being said “around” a situation.  Posted by Julie Worthing

30) 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. Posted by Tom Lord

31) 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

32) Red Ball, Blue Ball

In this listening and communicating exercise, speed is not the point. The goal is make sure your message heard, not just spoken.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle. The facilitator mimes holding a ball, which they pass to someone else in the circle while making eye contact and saying “Red ball.”

The recipient then repeats, “Red ball” as they take it. They toss the imaginary ball to someone else, saying “Red ball” and making eye contact as they do. That person repeats “Red ball” as they receive it, and so on.

This continues until everyone in the circle has had the ball a couple of times. The Director then gives someone a mimed bowl, saying “Red bowl.” That person repeats “Red bowl,” and passes it on to someone else.
Once the red bowl and red ball have gone around the circle, the Director can add another object — a bread bowl, a Red Bull (miming a can), a red shawl,
a lemon meringue pie, blue ball, green ball etc.

When all the items are in play, the facilitator stops everyone and asks who has each item by a show of hands. in debriefing the exercise, you might ask: If we were to do it again, what behaviours would improve communication?  What behaviours displayed decreased communication? What lessons might we carry forward into our work?  Posted online by Daniel B.

Coordinating Many People

These games were not suggested in LinkedIN posts, but are available from Trainers Warehouse and Office Oxygen.  More information on these games can be found in this post on How to Select a Team Building Game.

35. Helium Stick – try to lower the pole and see it rise up instead
36. Pipelines – send a marble down the pipeline without dropping it
37. Colourblind – figure out the missing shape
38. Pass the Chicken – deal with increasing complexities
39. River Crossing – rely on others instructions if you can’t see your way
40. Toxic Waste – coordinate players to move basket suspended by  ropes
41. Simbols – plan a complex diagram and recreate it under tight timeframe
42. Electric Maze – find your way through a maze without setting off a bomb
43. Marshmallow Challenge – build a tall structure out of spaghetti and tape
44. Perfect Square – form a rope into a perfect square, while blindfolded

Communicating Between Teams

45. Seeing the Point – forming 5 similar shapes requires out-of-the-box thinking
46. Communication Derailed – negotiation for parts to build the perfect structure
47. Minefi­eld
48. Chainlink – for customer supplier relationships


23 thoughts on “Communication and Listening exercises”

  1. Hello Susan,

    Can you share some activities for customer service program, specially to make them understand the importance of customer’s and customer complaint handling.

    You may mail at amitsqc@yahoo.com.

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Sorry I only just saw your comment now. I’ll see what I can come up with! One item that comes to mind right away is the Customer Service Thumball available at Trainers Warehouse. Other possible resources include the Big Book of Customer Service Games and a couple of the Simple Truths motivational videos that deal with Customer Service. After that, I’d like to do a search of some LinkedIn discussions to see what we might come up with.

      Best, Sue

  2. hi i need to conduct a 30 min session with teenagers tomorrow on communication with leadership in mind..any idea

  3. I hope you can help me. I attended a staff meeting with my previous company 8 years ago which included an icebreaker at the beginning. The meeting had a facilitator and the four of us as participants. This was an exercise for communication in which the facilitator gave each of us a memo containing instruction for an upcoming even. Each memo had more information than the previous and each participant would describe how we would manage it. By the time the facilitator read the real memo we all sat there and said “where did all that come from”. I’ve been searching icebreakers for two days and cannot find it. I am having my own staff meeting and would desperately like to use the exercise. Have you heard of this exercise of something similar?

  4. Thanks for this posting! It is still going strong! I would like to request a new title be made for the “Chinese Whisper” – actually a variant of “Telephone.” The abrasiveness of the title – based in old judgments of people speaking languages other than English – can interfere with the effectiveness of the activity. Thanks for reading~

  5. Could you give an example that works well for the 2-sentence script in your variation of the Chinese Whisper game?

  6. Questions Challenges by Mark Crawford is an excellent activity to help participants understand active listening and reinforce the learning. After the questions are asked tell the participants that you will be asking 2 more questions. Take a long pause, act as though you are preparing the questions. You will find most participants eagerly leaning towards you and waiting for the questions.

    After a deliberate long pause tell them that there are no more questions to be asked, but during the pause they were all in an active listening mode. Do not debrief immediately. Let the participants think and reflect on their experience.

    Debrief after 2 – 3 minutes using all the active listening parameters like suspended judgment, focus on the speaker, leaning forward, the silence which prevailed during the pause etc.

  7. Nowadays problem of lack communication, not mentioning its quality has risen dramatically. In freelance, home office, facebook, twitter era, people have few oppotrunitues to communicate properly. I am very thankful to you for this post. Implementing such exercises will help avoid misconceptions and understand each other better. Moreover it will increase productivity of work what we have discovered while I was working with https://homeworkneeded.com/. After introductioning some technique of advanced communication, we have discovered that effectivety of work has risen and employees`s level of stress dicreased. And all that because of discovering another level of communication.

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