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 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.
Record these on a chart for all to see and fill in any omissions, as needed:
Remind the group that just because they making the motions, doesn’t mean they’re retaining the information.
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.
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.
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?
This next grouping of Active Listening Exercises requires listeners to check their understanding by asking questions.
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?
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. They 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
Have a colleague help you demo skills. Then have real practice with role plays. Put the class in triads and put each triad in its own breakout rooms aka virtual meeting. Have 2 role players and an observer. You and a colleague pop in and out of the breakout rooms. Wrap up with a class debrief. The catch is using a virtual tool that supports breakout rooms. ~Ronald Blumenthal
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 it’s 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
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 participants 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
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.
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
For this one, you must never say the words “arm wrestle.” Here’s what you do:
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.
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 their favorite squeeze toy or a What? So What? Now What? Sticky Note, or a Stop-Start-Continue-Change Sticky Note.