11 Active Listening Exercises to Become A Better Listener

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Have you ever witnessed a conversation in which one person is constantly interrupting or talking over the speaker? How well was the speaker’s message being understood by the listener? How much of the message do you think the listener retained after walking away?

Not only does this common listening error convolute the speaker’s message for those who are listening, it also costs the interrupter the opportunity to potentially learn something new.

In a situation such as this, the interrupter is not practicing active listening, which means he is simply replying to the message rather than taking the time to understand it.

Active listening is a useful skill for any adult to develop because it aids in the absorption of what other people are saying rather than just what one wants to or thinks they hear. This listening skill is a fundamental part of building trust, connection, and rapport.

Everyone could use some brushing up on their communication skills, so in this article, we will look at 11 active listening exercises and how you can use them to your advantage in your personal and professional interactions.

But first, let’s take a deeper look at what active listening is.

What Is Active Listening?

The term Active Listening was born in 1957 by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson. This soft skill is learned through making the conscious decision to put your own thoughts aside in order to absorb and understand what someone is saying without passing judgment.

This involves paying close attention, avoiding the urge to interrupt, and having the patience to learn what the speaker is saying. The unique thing about active listening is that the goal is to understand instead of just listen.

Research shows that there are three qualities that define active listening:

  • Undivided attention
  • Comprehension
  • Positive intention

Active listeners use verbal and nonverbal cues and behaviors to signal undivided attention, such as making eye contact, maintaining an open posture, and displaying appropriate facial expressions.

One way active listeners can communicate comprehension is by paraphrasing what the speaker has said and asking clarifying questions. The “active” component involves interacting with the speaker to uncover details that might not have been originally shared.

Finally, active listening involves showing positive intention by maintaining an interested, non-judgmental attitude.

It is important to note that a non-judgmental attitude doesn’t mean one must agree with what the speaker is saying, it just acknowledges the speakers’ perspective.

Active listening demonstrates a sense of respect for the worth of the speaker, considering his or her perspectives and ability to come to reasonable conclusions.

In return for understanding what other people want you to know, you will gain empowerment to be able to offer support and empathy through your habit of active listening. This can help the speaker to feel validated and heard. But in order to be effective, users must maintain active listening as a basic attitude.

If active listening is not a fundamental mindset, your behavior won’t be genuine, which will be easily recognized by those with whom you’re conversing.

Carl Rogers and Richard Farson originally found several benefits to learning this skill, and the positive impacts of active listening have continued to grow. Here are some reasons why active listening is beneficial:

  • Clinical evidence shows that active listening is among the most effective catalysts for personal development and improvement.
  • It can help with group development.
  • Active listening can alter peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others, influencing their values and beliefs
  • This skill can help improve your productivity and ability to persuade and negotiate with others.
  • Active listening can help you avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

The good thing about this soft skill is that it can be developed with time and practice. It is about focusing and seeing things from new perspectives in order to expand or challenge your current knowledge.

With these benefits in mind, let’s look at some active listening exercises you can practice to become a more effective listener yourself.

11 Active Listening Exercises for Adults to Become Better Listeners

1. Silence Isn’t Always Golden

For this exercise, participants should break into groups of two or three and have one dedicated speaker. Instruct the speaker to tell a significant and meaningful story about their life, like a big accomplishment or challenge they have overcome.

As they’re speaking, have the listeners remain silent and maintain a straight facial expression.

After the speaker tells their story, debrief by asking what this felt like for each person. Some questions to consider may include:

  • Did the speaker feel heard despite the fact the listener wasn’t engaging?
  • Did they feel discouraged while telling their story?
  • How was the speaker’s non-verbal communication impacted?
  • Was the silence uncomfortable?
  • How did the listener feel when the pressure to contribute was eliminated?
  • Did the speaker feel more freedom to say whatever he/she wanted?

This exercise can help demonstrate the difference that active listening makes for both the listeners and the speakers. It can help listeners understand the value of offering appropriate feedback when someone is speaking.

This activity can easily be applied to everyday life whenever engaging in a conversation. It is a great reminder to interact with anyone when they’re taking the time to communicate with you in order to allow them to feel heard.

2. Cue the Nonverbals

For this activity, each participant will need paper and a pen. Have everyone create a list of non-verbal cues that listeners often display. Then have each player act out one of the behaviors they identified while the other players decipher the meaning.

While one person displays a nonverbal behavior, have everyone else write down what message is being conveyed.

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Active listeners use verbal and nonverbal cues and behaviors to signal undivided attention.

Some non-verbal cues may include:

  • Slouching in a chair with crossed arms
  • Sitting on the edge of a chair
  • Yawning
  • Nodding
  • Watching the clock
  • Smiling
  • Resting your face in one hand
  • Rubbing your temples
  • Tapping your fingers on a table
  • Checking your phone
  • Looking around the room

After each round, ask the participants to share how each nonverbal cue made them feel. Then talk about how a nonverbal cue could communicate a message even stronger than words. Have participants share their past experiences of how nonverbal cues have impacted their communication.

This exercise helps participants identify nonverbal communication cues and can help trigger people’s memory during their future conversations to avoid displaying these behaviors.

3. Listen and Repeat

People are often eager to “get a word in” when listening to someone else talk. So for this activity, divide a group into pairs and have each person tell their partner about something that is important to them for about 3 minutes while the other person listens quietly.

After the speaker has finished, have the listener paraphrase what they heard in their own words.

The speaker is then given an opportunity to clarify, correct, or confirm the listener’s interpretation.

There are a few objectives to this game. First, it can help listeners build patience as they’re not allowed to interrupt the speaker. It can also help train participants to stop thinking about what they want to say in response, and instead focus solely on the speaker’s message. In doing so, they will be able to demonstrate an understanding of what the speaker said.

4. I Respect Your Viewpoint

The purpose of this activity is for people to practice restraint in reacting to others’ opposing viewpoints and, instead, keeping an open mind.

This should not involve an argument or confrontation–it should be a friendly conversation to help players get into the habit of listening in an unbiased way, even when speaking with someone who has a different viewpoint than your own.

You will need two people who have opposing viewpoints on a subject for this exercise. Each participant must patiently listen to the other’s point of view and try to learn and truly understand how their partner came to their conclusions.

After each participant explains their point of view, the other person is then given a chance to ask relevant questions to help further their understanding of the opposing viewpoint. Some questions that demonstrate active listening could include:

  • What brought you to that conclusion?
  • Could you explain…
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • What I’m hearing you say is…

Completing this activity should help you improve your ability to have meaningful conversations through actively listening to learn about a different perspective.

To listen effectively, keep an open mind and don’t focus on your thoughts or feelings about the topic—pay attention to what your partner is saying so you can effectively hear what they’re saying. Using this skill in future conversations can help reduce conflict and increase understanding.

5. The Drawing Game

This activity is good practice for future situations in which a listener can’t respond to the speaker–so perhaps in a lecture or if the speaker is recorded.

For this activity, have a leader give verbal instructions to participants detailing how to draw something without allowing the listeners to ask any questions. The object of the picture can be anything, but the more instructions that are involved, the better.

Some instructions could be, “draw three squares with one star on top of the first square, then draw a circle next to the star…” and so on. This activity will demonstrate how important it is to listen clearly when someone is trying to communicate something to you and you can’t ask questions in return.

Make sure the game is challenging enough that participants have to concentrate very well in order to follow the instructions and draw the picture correctly. The activity can become increasingly difficult with every instruction, so unless the participants actively listen, they won’t correctly complete the exercise.

6. Right vs. Wrong

Active listening is important in this activity because players are tasked with identifying truths and lies on a subject. This translates into real life, as active listeners must pay attention and listen with a discerning ear when gathering information from others.

Active listening is important in this activity because players are tasked with identifying truths and lies on a subject.

This activity requires one speaker and a small group of listeners. The speaker can pick any subject that is of interest to the group and then talk about it for about one minute.

The speaker needs to be knowledgeable about the topic, because they’re tasked with telling the group several facts on the subject–but the catch is that the speaker will also tell a handful of false statements on the topic as well.

The players must listen carefully to catch the untrue statements the speaker says. The speaker should only say each sentence once so it’s essential for the players to listen very carefully.

Depending on the topic, players may need to concentrate on paying attention as well as using their brain capacity to think about the subject while also listening for factual information. Try choosing the topic as a group so everyone can recognize the errors in the sentences.

7. Storytime

For this activity, one person narrates a story while everyone else actively listens. Once the story is over, each participant is given a set of questions about the story, ranging from easy to difficult. The group has to answer the questions based on the story they heard.

This activity will show if each person listened well enough to understand and remember the story they were just told.

Another way to play this game is to play a short video or podcast and then have the participants rewrite the story in their own words, including as many details as possible.

This activity translates into everyday life because it provides active listening practice with the intent of being able to “teach back” the story. The teach-back method of learning helps ensure that people understand the information that they’re given.

8. Intentional Contradiction 

You can also use the intentional contradiction activity, which is like a more adult-appropriate version of the classic kid’s game called Simon Says. You and your team can practice your active listening skills in a small or large group, making this activity applicable in different settings. 

Plus, you can use this activity as an icebreaker too! 

Here’s how to play intentional contradiction: 

  1. Pick a team leader and let your team form a circle around the leader. You can also have one leader per round, giving others a chance to “lead” the activity. 
  2. The leader gives the team two actions they need to perform when certain items are mentioned. For example, the leader will tell the team that when they say “water,” the participants need to raise their left hand, while the participants need to put their right foot forward when the leader says “tea.” The leader also needs to do these actions when they say those terms. 
  3. The goal of the activity is contradiction, so the participants need to do the opposite – put their right foot forward at the mention of “water” and raise their left hand at the mention of “tea.”     
  4. So, the leader can start off just speaking the words and doing the actions as instructed, and the participants need to do the opposite. Whoever doesn’t contradict the team leader, exits the game (or doesn’t become team leader for X rounds). Or the leader can weave a story and do the actions when the words “water” and “tea” are mentioned. 

The participants need to listen actively and closely and pay attention so they can contradict the leader’s actions and win (be the last team member standing to become the next leader or win a prize). 

9. Train of Words 

This activity reminds me of a version of the kid’s game “telephone” or “Chinese whispers.” It focuses on active listening as a skill because the participant(s) needs to pay close attention and practice their summarizing skills. 

The active listening activity is called train of words or the listening chain, and here’s how you set it up: 

  1. Let all the participants sit or stand in a circle. 
  2. Choose the first participant who’ll choose a topic that they are interested in. You can let them choose a topic on their own or let them put out a post-it note (with a topic) from a hat. 
  3. They need to whisper a sentence or two about the topic to the person to their left (or right – decide if you want to go clockwise or anticlockwise around the circle).
  4. The second person then whispers the sentence or two to the next person, and so on until the circle is complete. 
  5. The last person needs to tell everyone what was shared with them, and it is about 99% likely that the meaning from the original sentence or two will be distorted to an extent.  

A variation of this listening game is to have the participants spread out across a large hall and have one person go to the next and share the story the first participants told the second team member.

At the end, have the participants form a circle and let the last participant share the story they heard as accurately as possible.

10. Background Noise Listening

It’s usually easier to listen and pay attention when it is quiet, but when you add background noise to the mix, it really tests your listening skills. That’s exactly the purpose of this active listening activity. 

You need a large group for this activity to work; alternatively, you can record and/or play background noise over a sound system. 

Here’s how to do this activity: 

  1. In a group of 15 to 20 participants, choose six to eight to be the noisemakers. Give them instructions to make as much noise as possible, potentially even starting with less noise and upping the ante. 
  2. Choose a speaker who’ll talk about an interesting topic. 
  3. Once the speaker starts speaking, the noisemakers need to make noise while the rest of the participants (try to) listen to what the speaker is saying. The listeners can take notes of what the speaker is saying, or you can make the activity more challenging and have the listeners close their eyes so they can’t infer meaning from the speaker’s non-verbal cues.   
  4. At the end, ask the listeners to share what they heard.

11. Blindfold Obstacle Course

The blindfold obstacle course or blindfold walk is another excellent active listening exercise since it teaches communication and listening skills. 

You can use a large indoor or outdoor space for the activity, and a must is obstacles in the way. 

Here are the instructions for the blindfold obstacle course or walk: 

  1. Choose an area that has natural obstacles or put obstacles in the space that the participants need to navigate through. 
  2. Pair up the participants. 
  3. One person in each pair needs to be blindfolded. 
  4. The person who isn’t blindfolded will give instructions to the blindfolded team member on how to safely navigate the obstacle course.   

The point is that you want those who are blindfolded to safely make their way through the course without running into obstacles and for the non-blindfolded to clearly instruct and guide their partners through the course.

Final Thoughts on Active Listening Exercises

So there you have it, 11 active listening exercises that you can do to help you sharpen your listening skills.

Hopefully you can integrate some of these activities into your schedule so you can work on becoming an active listener and help others do so as well.

For more activities for successful listening, check out these articles:

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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