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Active Listening Exercises Galore!

While our library of Communication and Listening Exercises is quite comprehensive, Active Listening is a critical subcategory worthy of deeper exploration. Active listening isn’t just nodding to the speaker. Active listening happens when you’re completely focused on the speaker, taking in everything they’re saying, understanding the nuance of their meaning, and giving them feedback. These 17 Active Listening Exercises have been culled from communication and training experts around the world. I’ve grouped the 20+ exercises into 5 categories:

I. Make the Speaker Feel Heard.

II. Listen to Remember and Listen for Underlying Meanings

III. Clarify Understanding

IV. Practice Makes Perfect

V. Uncovering Assumptions

I. Make the Speaker Feel Heard through Active Listening

I read this story on the importance of active listening on the Tesla Ideas blog. William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, both eminent British statesmen were considered as two the smartest persons in England, in the late nineteenth century. A young journalist said that she would dine with both so she could decide which one was smarter. She has compared the two men this way: “When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England.” Gladstone may have been an excellent speaker but Disraeli was the better listener. That evening Disraeli made the woman the center of his universe. The following 7 exercises will help tease how ways your group can make speakers feel as if they are the center of the universe.

1. T-chart: have the group write down characteristics of good and bad listening skills.

Record these on a chart for all to see and fill in any omissions, as needed:

  • Poor listening skills might include: look at your watch, interrupt, avoid eye contact, look bored or impatient, tap your foot or fidget, finish the their sentences.
  • Good listening skills might be communicated with a nod, smile, eye contact, show concern, or encouragement. Active listeners will:
    • Focus
    • Question
    • “Listen” to the speaker’s body language
    • Paraphrase, clarify and summarize
    • Express Empathy

Remind the group that just because they making the motions, doesn’t mean they’re retaining the information.

2. Practice through introductions — a good icebreaker!

Pair up. Have Person 1 introduce themselves to Person 2 for 2-minutes. Have the team reverse roles for the second two minutes. Then have each pair introduce one another to the rest of the group. ~Asnawi Yusof

DEBRIEF: discuss what made the exercise hard or easy. Explore the experience from each person’s perspective as both the introducER and introducEE.

3. Yes, BUT… / Yes, AND …

II. Actively Listen to Remember vs. Listen for Underlying Meanings

Active listening isn’t only about giving the speaker auditory or visual feedback cues. It also requires listeners to focus and remember what they hear. These following Active Learning Exercises highlight the challenges in listening to remember, as well as our brain’s tendency to fill in where information is missing.

8. Tell a STORY

We play a game in my organization where the facilitator reads a story and then immediately after quizzes the participants (unbeknownst to them). We advise them that they are not allowed to take takes or record the story which is no longer than 2 minutes. Question number 1 is always “what was the character’s name?”. Most all people get this wrong. they really have to actively listen. ~ Twanda Rhodes

DEBRIEF: Discuss what it means to “actively listen.” If they didn’t recall the name of the character, what did they remember? How important are details in making someone feel heard? How important is note-taking? Ask, might you have focused more if you knew you’d be quizzed on this afterwards?

9. Hold your Questions

In this exercise by Liberating Structures, One group talks and has a collaborative discussion (e.g. PO and stakeholder) while the second group (e.g. dev team) listens with no video access to see the group talking and with their microphone on mute so they have to hold all questions until the end. It is VERY effective. Here’s the link for more info: ~ Nicole Coyle

10. Fill in the Meaning – see how people’s minds fill in the holes when information is missing

Create a list of around 20 related words based on a specific topic. For instance; garden, grass, tree, bush, hedge etc. Leave one obvious word from the list i.e. flower and also repeat one of the words in the list three or four times.

Take this sheet out at the relevant time during your training session and tell the participants that you are going to read the list out to them and they are not allowed to write anything down. They should just listen to you.

Next, give them one minute to write down as many of the words they can remember as possible.

In review, you should notice that about 60% remember the first word, 75% remember the last word, 80% will remember the word you repeated three times and some will even write down the obvious word that you didn’t say.

Discuss the reasons behind these outcomes and what that means when we communicate.



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?

III. Clarify understanding when Active Listening

This next grouping of Active Listening Exercises requires listeners to check their understanding by asking questions.

12.  Draw what you hear

Another simpler exercise that I’ll use involves asking a volunteer to perform a task for me, but with minimal instructions. (ie. “draw my house.”) Repeatedly, they’ll make submissions and I’ll mockingly berate them for poor job performance. Eventually, I’ll ask them to sit down. I’ll then ask for another volunteer to perform the task, but this time I provide them with great detail. Of course, they can complete the task with much more success.

DEBRIEF: what’s the impact of being able to ask questions and clarify understanding?

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13. Colourblind – Ask clarifying questions and strategize!

This game requires players to figure out which funky-shaped pieces might be missing from their complete set. Success requires the group to ask each other clarifying questions about the pieces they each hold. They must listen to and understand each other’s descriptions of the pieces as well as strategic suggestions for how they can solve the puzzle.  ~ Shirley Gaston

14. Role Play

Have a colleague help you demo skills. Then have real practice with role plays. Put the class in triads and put each triad in 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

15. Difficult Customer Role Play

Have participants pair up with a partner for a role play. One person can be the difficult customer and the other the customer service rep, then they can switch roles. The best way to diffuse a tense situation is to use active listening – let the customer know you hear what they are saying. But 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

15. Telling vs. Showing

This quick exercise can be used as a “closer” or as a listening exercise, to reinforce the message that “actions speak louder than words.” I  say: “Please follow my words. Raise your right hand over your head. Keep following my words. Make a fist. Please make sure to follow my words. Round your fist three times and then put your fist on your forehead! (just before this moment, you put your own fist on your jaw!) You would find most 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: ~ Denzal Sunny

V. Uncovering Assumptions

Listeners tend to make assumptions when they think they know an intended meaning or have seen and heard similar situations. Our primitive brains are actually wired to look for shortcuts. However, this may not be so helpful when we’re trying to be good communicators. Our tendency might be to stop listening if we think we know what someone is going to say. Alternatively, we may assume that asking questions is somehow inappropriate, or will make us look foolish.  The following Active Listening Exercises help highlight the assumptions we make and shortcuts we take that may compromise our clear communication efforts. These require a second person in the room. For virtual learning experiences, you can either ask participants to invite a family member into the room with them or model how they’d expect the exercise would look if they were paired with another person.

16. Making a fist and challenging assumptions

Take 2 volunteers from the class. Tell one to make a fist and the other to open it. 99% of the crowd fails in this as one person makes the fist and the other struggles. Why??? Because the person who made the fist resists. Then I tell my class that I had only asked one to make a fist and the other to open it. Never asked to resist. This way I teach them the pros and cons of inactive listening and assumption. Posted by Sohini Mazumder

17. “Arm Wrestle”

For this one, you must never say the words “arm wrestle.”  Here’s what you do:

  • Have everyone find a partner.
  • Ask partners to “assume this position.” Demonstrate with a volunteer, and hand link position with both of your elbows on the table.
  • Explain, “This is a very easy exercise. There are two things you must know.
    • 1- you get a point if the back of your partner’s hand touches the table
    • 2-you want to get as many points for yourself as possible. You don’t care about anyone else.
  • Explain, “Each ‘point’ is worth one M&M. You will have only 10 seconds to get as many M&Ms as you can. GO.”

Some teams who assume it’s an arm wrestle will only get 1-2 M&Ms, others will get to 100 if they give in and tap one person’s hand against the table repeatedly. To do this, however, they must not assume a competition and they must communicate about their shared interests.  See here for more info on the debrief.

Wrap it Up

As with any any learning or training experience, getting closure and committing to next steps is an important part of the process. Using this set of verbs, ask each participant to commit to one or two ways they will listen actively during their next conversation with a colleague, spouse, family member or friend. Have them write the word on their favorite squeeze toy or a Stop-Start-Continue-Change Sticky Note.

  1. Focus
  2. Accept – Don’t judge
  3. Affirm
  4. Remember
  5. Ask
  6. Reflect
  7. Clarify
  8. Summarize
  9. Note
  10. Empathize
  11. Share

Additional Questions to Debrief Active Listening Exercises

  • How did you know that your partner was listening to you?
  • What did it feel like to really be listened to without being interrupted?
  • What made this activity challenging for you?
  • How can active listening help you resolve conflicts?

Additional resources for Communication and Listening Exercises

Communication and Listening Exercises

Are you Even Listening to Me

The Perfect Debrief

3 thoughts on “Active Listening Exercises Galore!”

  1. bob berlin says:

    excellent. thank you

  2. Denise says:

    Loved your article. So many diverse and thoughtful ideas. Teaching a class tomorrow on active listening. This article was so helpful!

  3. najila says:

    I’m excited 🫶🏼

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