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10 Best Active Listening Exercises for the Workplace

Active listening is a soft skill that can benefit you in both the workplace as well as your interpersonal relationships.

From the time we are young children we are taught to be good listeners.  But what does it truly mean to be a good listener? 

A good listener is an active listener.  But it’s not that easy.  Being an active listener is not only an art, but it is also considered being one of the best listeners.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a soft skill among good listening skills.  It is a communication process that involves you absorbing information that is shared and then signaling back – through body language, tonality, and relevant questions – that you heard and understood what was shared.

Active listening goes beyond hearing someone and dives deeper into understanding what is being said.  It helps to build trust and rapport with colleagues as well as family and friends. 

Like critical thinking and problem-solving skills, active listening hits high on the list of key communication skills that employers and organizations value in their team members. 

How to Improve Active Listening Skills

Although challenging, the good thing is that it is possible to improve your active listening skills while also enhancing overall workplace communication

There are tons of effective active listening activities that provide an engaging and fun way to help your team become more effective listeners.  The detailed list below will take you through 10 of the best active listening exercises for the workplace. 

Among the many benefits of active listening, these exercises will help to build better communication, increase emotional intelligence, improve interpersonal skills, and ultimately help grow teams into better listeners within the organization.

Top 10 Active Listening Exercises for the Workplace

1. Intentional Contradiction

Being a good active listener begins with the ability to allow others to express their own point of view without passing judgement or being argumentative.  You do not need to agree with someone else’s opinion, but you should remain respectful while recognizing and acknowledging different perspectives.  One of the best ways to do this is to ask questions with the intent to better understand their point of view.  Among the many benefits of active listening, understanding different perspectives can help lessen conflict due to poor communication.

Instructions:

  • Pair up in groups of 2.
  • Provide a list of contradicting topics to the pairs and let them choose which topic they would like to discuss.

Some contradicting topics for discussion are:

Pool vs. beach

Winter vs. summer

Coffee vs. tea

Books vs. movies

Concerts vs. sporting events

Professional sports vs. college sports

Real Christmas trees vs. artificial Christmas trees

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and let the pairs discuss why their choice is superior.  Encourage the pairs to ask open-ended questions to discover more information and gain a better understanding of their partner’s viewpoint rather than pass judgement or become defensive.

This active listening exercise provides a great way for team members to practice information gathering as a part of the communication process, as opposed to playing defense.  It teaches participants to keep an open mind and how unbiased listening can provide a deeper level of understanding when different perspectives show up.

2. Put your phone down

Despite the many benefits of technology, we live in a world where smart phones may be considered one of our greatest distractions. 

One of the best ways to ensure you are giving your full attention to someone, or something else, is to eliminate the distraction of your phone.  That can be as simple as silencing it or turning it over so it can’t be seen.  You may even find that sharing your intention with team members by saying something like, “I’m silencing my phone so I can give you undivided attention,” brings more self-awareness and the right mindset for you to the best active listener possible.

Your team members will automatically feel they are in the presence of a good listener which helps them feel valued and seen as well as heard.

Instructions:

  • This activity is done independently by participants.  They will pick 3-4 times over the course of a week to intentionally put their phone down – this can be during a meeting or even over lunch with a colleague.
  • At the conclusion of the week, participants come together in a larger group to debrief on how intentionally “putting their phone down” impacted their communication experience.

3. Interview

This listening exercise can be facilitated with large or small groups and is a great way to highlight how important information can be obtained through thoughtful questioning and good communication.

Instructions:

  • Pair up in groups of two. 
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes. 
  • One person asks their conversation partner a series of questions to get to know their background, hobbies, interests, etc.  During follow-up questions, the interviewer should focus on using an open-ended question for any response where more information would be helpful. 
  • At the 5-minute mark, the pair switches roles. 
  • At the end of 10 minutes, the pair then takes turns introducing their partner to the group, sharing what they have learned about each other.

Active listening skills are practiced during the interview process as the interviewer uses information gathered to ask more relevant questions throughout the discussion.  It is also a great opportunity for the interviewer to build trust and develop rapport by using non-verbal cues such as their own body language, like facial expressions and eye contact. 

4. Blindfold Walk

The Blindfold Walk is a great choice to build effective listening skills for all participants because it demonstrates the importance of being a good listener as well as being good communicators.  You will need blindfolds, a large, open space, and several items to be used as obstacles such as chairs, cones, boxes, etc.  This can be done outdoors or inside.

Instructions:

  • Pair up in groups of two.
  • One person puts on a blindfold and the other person provides verbal instructions or commands to them to help navigate around through obstacles placed around the room or outside.
  • Guidance may only be provided using verbal communication and instruction.

To make this active listening exercise more challenging, have multiple participants try to navigate the room simultaneously.  They will need to listen for their specific leader’s voice to successfully make their way through the room without hitting an obstacle. 

This is a valuable activity that engages non-visual senses.  Auditory senses are engaged as active listening skills are heavily relied upon to successfully navigate the room or space.  Getting across the room without bumping into any obstacles requires the blindfolded participant to be a good listener as well as the leader to have effective communication skills.

5. One-time directions

Good team communication is key to the overall success of a team.  When team members are focused on becoming better listeners, they are more productive and efficient.  Furthermore, team members who are great listeners are more likely to bring forth a different point of view or share different perspectives which can lead to different ways for the team to achieve success.

Instructions:

  • Break up into teams of 3 or more people.
  • Choose a game with complex directions. 
  • Have one person read the directions out loud, one time through, to the entire group.  No clarifying questions may be asked, and instructions may only be read once through.
  • Having only heard the directions once through, each team will then play the game according to the interpretation of what they heard.  The teams will have to work together to figure out how to play the game correctly, or as accurately as possible.

Active listening skills are essential for this exercise as it highlights how the same message can be interpreted in multiple ways by each group member.  Team communication is key and sharing different perspectives is necessary to play the game correctly.

6. Charades

Non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, are just as meaningful as verbal communication.  In fact, research conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian yielded the 7-38-55 rule.  Mehrabian concluded that throughout the communication process, only about 7% of spoken words account for effective communication, while 38% of communication is received through the tonality of your voice and a whopping 55% of communication is received through your body language, including facial expressions.

Charades can be a great way to have fun while using a beneficial communication exercise that enhances your team’s ability to interpret nonverbal cues relating to body language and facial expression. 

Instructions:

  • Give each team member a topic or phrase and a few minutes to brainstorm.
  • One at a time, team members stand in front of the rest of the group and act out their topic of phrase using only body language and facial expressions, but no verbal communication or sounds.
  • The rest of the group must then guess at the topic or phrase being acted out.

The Charades exercise will help all participants better understand the nuances of body language and expressions as well as how these methods of non-verbal communication can impact or affect our assumptions. 

7. Background Noise

Maintaining focus when distraction is present can be challenging in any environment.   Distractions can surface in many forms, from background noise to our own thoughts, and are sometimes so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to listen or focus.

This active listening exercise provides a great way to practice the art of blocking out distractions when a lot of noise is present.

Instructions:

  • Begin with a group of 5 or more people. 
  • Pick one person to be a “speaker” and another person to be the “distracter.” 
  • The speaker can either speak about a chosen topic, be given a prompt or question to respond to, or a passage to read. 
  • The person whose role is to distract must make as much noise as possible while the other person is speaking. 
  • The rest of the group is responsible for listening carefully to the speaker and trying to understand and retain as much information as possible – both verbal and nonverbal communication. 

At the conclusion of the speaker’s talk, participants will share what they retained, challenges they felt were present and how they dealt with them.  The speaker will also provide feedback on how they felt the distractions affected their communication style.

8. Telephone

This fun game, traditionally geared towards helping children become better listeners, brings tons of value to any age group in this active listening activity!

Instructions:

  • Gather your group in a line or large circle.  Larger groups of 12-20 are best for this type of active listening activity.
  • Ask a group leader to whisper a sentence into the first person’s ear.  To gain the most benefit from this active listening game, think of ways to make the sentence a bit challenging.  Using numbers or naming places within the sentence can increase the level of difficulty.
  • The first person then repeats that same sentence into the next person’s ear and the pattern continues until the sentence is whispered into the last person’s ear.  Sentences may only be whispered one time per team member, no repeating or clarifying!
  • The last person to hear the sentence then repeats it out loud to the entire group.  See how accurate the message made it through from beginning to end!

9. Simon Says

One of the most iconic active listening games is “Simon Says.”  As the speed picks up, this communication game takes critical listening to the next level!

While this activity can be done with small groups of 5-8, a large group of 10 or more is ideal.

Instructions:

  • One person is designated as “Simon” and the other team members are players. 
  • Standing in front of the group, Simon gives verbal commands to the team members.  The catch is that team members must only obey the commands that begin with the words “Simon says.”   For example, if the command is “Simon says, touch your nose,” then everyone must touch their nose.  Anyone who does not, is out of the game. 
  • But if the verbal command is just “Touch your nose,” anyone who touches their nose would be out because “Simon says,” was not spoken as part of the command.

This is a simple and fun way to sharpen effective listening skills by paying close attention to the speaker’s instructions.

10. Soft Toss

If you are looking for a fun activity to help build good listening skills, the soft toss game is a great way to engage team members in an active listening activity and have a few laughs.

For this activity, your team members will need a soft object for tossing.

Instructions:

  • Pick the first participant and instruct them to say a specific word when they toss the soft object to another team member.
  • The team member who catches the ball must then say a related word to the original word and then toss the object to a second person.  For example, if the original word was flower, then the next person to catch the object could say something like “tulips, bouquet, fragrant, roses, etc.” An incorrect answer in this case would be a word like “chair, pencil, soap, paper, etc.”
  • The next person that catches the soft object must then say a related word to the one prior to them.
  • Tosses must be done quickly! Any team member that says an unrelated word or takes longer than 2 seconds to say a related word is out and must exit the game.

This soft toss game helps promote active listening skills in a fast-paced environment where people may be more likely to feel pressure.

Next steps to become better listeners

Building solid, long term active listening skills is a learning process that takes practice over time.  Taking small steps to become a better active listener, such as having the patience and presence to better understand a person’s point of view or making the conscious decision to silence your phone during a conversation are small, yet effective ways to begin hardwiring good listening skills. 

Keep practicing with the active listening exercises above and you and your team members will be well on the way to becoming better active listeners!