Home » Business » 21 Best Active Listening Exercises with Examples

21 Best Active Listening Exercises with Examples

Active listening skills in the workplace extend well beyond focusing on what another individual says. Communicating effectively with employees, leaders, and clients not only requires that you give your full attention to the interaction and engage in an active process, but also that you become a catalyst.

Here are 21 active listening exercises that provide you with different ways to develop effective listening skills.

1. Self-Awareness Exercise

Here’s how to do it:

  • Have your participants pair up.
  • One person is instructed to vent to the other about a common problem in the workplace.
  • Have the first participant display non-verbal cues that they are NOT listening (looking at a phone, no eye contact, etc.).
  • Have the participants switch roles and have the other display active listening skills that indicate each is a good listener (nodding, facial expressions and other body language, asking questions, clarifying statements).
  • Regroup and discuss.

Example: Karen informs Bob that the billing department consistently delays invoicing clients. Karen is looking at her phone, and Bob feels unheard. The switched example shows Bob nodding, clarifying Karen’s statements, and asking questions. Bob seems to be listening to Karen. Communication skills and the main points of the communication errors from the exercise are discussed in the group.

2. Consensual Validation to Clarify the Problem

Here’s how to do it:

  • Have your participants pair up.
  • One person is instructed to present an idea to the other.
  • The other participant is the better listener and reframes the idea as follows, “Are you using this idea to convey that…”
  • Switch roles and repeat.
  • Regroup and discuss.

In order for verbal communication to be effective, both parties must use the same words and avoid jargon or slang that is unfamiliar to the other party. Avoid the urge to restate things in your own words. An alternative exercise would be to ask one participant to use technical jargon, which the other does not understand, and note the difference.

Example: Carol describes an idea for simplifying clients’ ordering processes to Ken. Ken asks, “Are you saying that clients will be able to order products simultaneously instead of adding them one by one?”

3. Interpretation of Cues to Investigate the Real Issue

Here’s how to do it:

  • Have your participants pair up.
  • One person is instructed to make a simple statement, such as “I was late to the meeting today.”
  • The other participant is to interpret the cue and encourage an explanation, such as “Tell me about the meeting.”
  • Following the explanation, the listener demonstrates placing the event in sequence to discern why the speaker was late to the meeting, such as asking “What seemed to lead up to the meeting?”
  • Switch roles and repeat.
  • Regroup and discuss.

Example: Sarah tells her supervisor, Jim, that she was late to the meeting this morning. He replies, “Tell me about the meeting?” Despite not starting on time, Sarah explains that it went rather well. Jim then asks, “What led up to the meeting?” Sarah told him the printer wasn’t working again. He then thanks Sarah for letting him know and arranges a service call for the printer.

Jim’s communication gives us an example of being a great active listener. Taking the time to use good listening skills with your colleagues before responding emotionally can lead to a more thorough understanding of workplace concerns and improve productivity. Jim’s failure to listen to Sarah would have negatively impacted Sarah’s productivity and motivation.

Interpreting cues is an important part of active listening. Cues can be buried in what a client/employee says, so you must keep an open mind and pay close attention while actively listening. These cues will help the listener decide what to ask next in order to investigate an issue in the workplace. Cues can be verbal or non-verbal messages that signal the listener to explore the situation further. If unsure, use open-ended questions, like Jim did, to get more information.

4. Involve Others in Decision Making

Here’s how to do it:

  • Present a fake product or service to your participants.
  • Have the participants take turns adding ideas on how to develop, manufacture, and market this product or service. Note the active listeners in the group with examples of their verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Capitalize on the participants’ talents by pointing out how they used attentive listening with their colleagues.

Example: Heather presents an idea to the group for a new gadget that will solve a problem for an end-user. The group takes turns adding ideas to develop and market the gadget. The presenter makes notes on how the participants use language, nonverbal cues, and active participation to work together. The presenter also praises several, if not all of them, for their active listening skills.

5. Providing Support Without Removing Responsibility

Here’s how to do it:

  • Present a common problematic work situation to the participants or have them come up with one.
  • Have the participants take turns adding ideas on how to solve this problem.
  • Using a large whiteboard, take note of suggestions that keep the accountability on the worker versus suggestions that require leadership interventions. The participants should soon be able to discern the differences.
  • Have the participants decide what they can do to change processes themselves and how they can approach leadership to help where necessary.
  • Capitalize on the participants’ talents by pointing out how they effectively listened to their colleagues. Call attention to where they were able to show accountability for their job.

Example: Michelle expresses an issue with the packaging of a product. Among the costs associated with this packaging are decreased customer satisfaction, refunds, and lost repeat business. As a result, the team is directed to break down the issue further, and the presenter uses a whiteboard to categorize what employees can do at the floor level versus what leadership can do, without explaining why these points are written on either side of the board. Team members should recognize the differences, and then find ways to change their processes at the floor level, and how best to approach leadership for support.

6. Processing Criticism with Emotional Intelligence

Here’s how to do it:

  • Present a common criticism to your participants or have them come up with one they have heard in the workplace.
  • Have the participants take turns coming up with ways to reframe the criticism to be more open, using empathy, clarity, encouragement, and support.
  • Encourage participants to express how the differences are received, and what motivates them to improve.

Example: Brandon’s boss tells him that she doesn’t like the presentation he submitted for tomorrow’s meeting without providing any specifics. Have the team come up with better approaches for Brandon’s boss to motivate him to improve his presentation prior to the meeting. Furthermore, have the situation stand as is and have the team come up with ways for Brandon to respond to the situation effectively.

7. Employing Empathy

Here’s how to do it:

  • Give the participants 5 minutes to research a topic. i.e., how to measure the square footage of a client warehouse and plan equipment locations.
  • One minute in, interrupt the participants and request an update on the study. Be demanding with your language. Ask them when it will be done.
  • Wait another minute and begin asking empathetic questions with a softer tone of voice, such as “How is that study coming along?”
    and “Are your findings consistent with our projections so far?” and “Is there anything I can provide to your team that will help you complete the study?”
  • Discuss the differences with the group, expressing the importance of employing a culture of empathy, and the differences in leadership.

Example: Marvin is waiting for Greg’s report. Marvin approaches Greg to ask if there is any more information Greg requires to complete the study. Greg cites a statistic gap, and Marvin sources them for him, so Greg does not have to hunt for them. On-time, Greg completes the study, and Marvin is pleased with the result.

8. The Fishbowl

Here’s how to do it:

  • Experts on a topic are placed in a separate room, and an audio feed of their discussion is played for the other participants, who are muted on the call. The idea is for participants to hold all questions and comments.
  • Participants are observed and told to make notes for input at the end of the discussion.
  • At the end of the presentation, participants are encouraged to share questions and ideas.

Active listening is facilitated by this method for a number of reasons: participants are encouraged to stay silent and take their own notes. In this way, experts are able to convey the whole picture, even when it is a complex process, and the listeners understand what they are hearing before interfering. Main concerns are conveyed more effectively, and the questions that participants have are often answered and crossed out before the question period begins.

When presenting big changes to a group, such as a merger, this technique is very effective. Change is not always well received by staff, so having most of their questions answered within the presentation before providing feedback is often a great way to reduce discord.

Example: The company is restructuring due to a merger. Rather than have mass chaos, management decides to tell the staff in person at a meeting. The meeting is held in a conference room with all staff, but the management team breaks the news via teleconference fed into the conference room. Staff is muted on the call to prevent interruption. The management team tells the staff the news and then outlines all the steps that will happen, gives them the answers to potential questions, and reassures them. The staff is then unmuted and management begins taking questions. This prevents misunderstandings and assumptions from being vocalized before all the information is given.

9. The Round Robin

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are given an aspect of the company to discuss. This topic has to be something the entire group has a working knowledge of, such as a product or service.
  • Beginning with one employee, have him or her say one sentence to explain the topic.
  • Taking turns, each participant says one sentence to continue the explanation of the product or service.
  • Take note of active listening skills used by the employees to keep the explanation flowing.

Example: The first participant describes the process of making a company gadget, starting with gathering the right materials. The second person may say something regarding a safety procedure that requires completion prior to starting up a machine, such as safety glasses. Participants three and four explain the next steps, and so on. In order to collaborate on the next steps, this approach forces each participant to be an attentive listener.

10. Seconds of Silence

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are arranged in a circle and facing each other.
  • Taking turns, the group is instructed to simply count, one person at a time saying one number.
  • The participants are to only count one number, and if there are any interruptions or distractions, they have to start over.
  • Take note of active listening skills used by the participants to keep the counting going and maintaining silence.

This activity takes a lot of concentration and promotes moments of silence between conversations that we often feel the need to fill. This activity forces the participants to make a conscious decision to focus on the non-verbal communication process instead of responding to each other to fill the silence.

Example: Eight people from the marketing team sit in a circle facing each other. One at a time, they begin counting. The sixth person accidentally blurts out, “Go!” to the fifth person. The game has to start again as they are not allowed to speak. Once they get into a flow of counting as a team, the participants are asked to count faster.

11. Suggesting Collaboration

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are paired up.
  • One person is instructed to present a problem that often occurs in the work environment.
  • The other is instructed to give the person adequate time to express everything involved with the problem and use non-verbal signs and silence to have them elaborate.
  • The listener is then instructed to suggest collaboration effectively to help solve the problem.

Example: Maria is having a problem pulling the numbers she needs to complete her report because Henry has been unavailable and has the information she requires. She voices her concerns to Sandra. Sandra listens carefully and allows Maria to get to the root of the problem without interruption. Sandra then replies, “Henry may be busy, but let’s speak to his admin together and have her access the numbers you need.”

12. The Interview

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are paired up.
  • Taking turns, each participant interviews the other for 2-3 minutes, gaining a deeper understanding of the person’s background.
  • The pairs then introduce their partner to the group.

This activity can be a fun one to break the ice, but it also encourages participants to practice the art of active listening during the interview while trying to come up with relevant questions for their interview.

Example: Susan and Heather are paired up. Susan asks Heather about her hobbies, and Heather begins speaking passionately about hiking and camping. They switch roles and Susan speaks about her basketball team. Each woman introduces the other to the group as accurately as possible to demonstrate listening skills.

13. Sandwich Instructions

Here’s how to do it:

  • The presenter begins with the ingredients to make a sandwich.
  • As a group, the participants tell the presenter the exact steps to make the sandwich.
  • The presenter is to follow the steps exactly and perform the actions literally.

Example: A participant tells the presenter to “take two pieces of bread” and the presenter fumbles with the packaging until a participant tells him or her to remove the tag or tie from the bread bag, and so on.

This fun activity can make a major impact to demonstrate both the effective communication required to complete tasks and how instructions are perceived by those receiving them. Clarifying instructions and the careful use of language are essential to good communication among co-workers.

14. Disgruntled Customer

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are given a scenario of an unsatisfied customer who is expressing a complaint.
  • Together they collaborate to solve the customer’s issue by listening, de-escalating, and formulating a plan of action with the customer to reach a resolution.

Example: A customer named Kay is frustrated that her display canopy arrived broken on Friday. The customer service representative, Molly, listens to Kay’s situation and discovers that this canopy was to be used in an outdoor market the next morning. Molly apologizes for the broken product, delivers a suitable loaner to Katy, and agrees to replace the broken product. Behind the scenes, Molly will ask the shipping department to recover the costs with the shipping company.

15. Challenging Assumptions

Here’s how to do it:

  • A volunteer from the group is introduced at the front of the room.
  • Participants are asked to make assumptions about the leader while the presenter records the responses on a whiteboard.
  • Sample assumptions could be:

*Family life
*Favorite vacation spot
*Where they were born
*Kinds of movies/books they enjoy

The presenter explains why assumptions are made and asks participants how they came up with their assumptions. The presenter should share a story about a time when he or she made assumptions that later proved false or detrimental. The presenter should then ask participants to think of and share examples of when a customer or co-worker assumed something and share how that made them feel.

Example: A manager, Randy, stands next to the presenter at the front of the class. Employees take turns making assumptions about Randy, based on categories given by the presenter. Frank assumes Randy likes video games, and Greg assumes Randy is married with teenage children. Once all the assumptions are written on the whiteboard, Randy has the opportunity to confirm or debunk the assumptions.

16. Memories

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are paired up, or organized in small groups, and asked to share a time when they felt they weren’t being listened to.
  • Ask them to elaborate on how that made them feel.
  • Then ask the participants to explain how the situation could have been handled differently.
  • Encourage them to reflect on a time when they weren’t listening effectively.

Example: Henry and Brianna are paired up. Henry reminisces on a recent meeting where no one heard him say the main server was acting up. Several people were on their phones, including the manager, and when the main server crashed, Henry felt as though it could have been avoided if the team had listened to his warnings. Henry felt his contributions were not valued.

17. Storytime

Here’s how to do it:

  • The presenter tells a story, approximately 2-3 minutes in length, and asks participants to recall as much detail as possible.
  • The story will be detailed, such as a story about a mouse who travels through the forest and meets a host of characters.
  • Ask participants questions at the end to see how well they made a conscious effort to participate in active listening.

Example: The presenter tells a detailed story, beginning with, “You open the garage door and a mouse runs down your driveway,” and goes into great detail about a mouse who travels through the city, meeting a host of characters and getting into mischief. At the end of the story, the presenter asks, “What was the name of the person who opened the garage door?”

18. Drawing

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are paired up and asked to have one person draw, and the other person speak.
  • Like the Sandwich Instructions exercise (above), the speaker should explain how to draw a house, giving detailed instructions based on a provided drawing.
  • The artist draws the house the way it is explained to them, and they compare notes afterward to discuss how the instructions were both given and received.

Example: Amanda and Angie are paired up and seated with their backs to each other. Angie is given the word “house” but cannot say the word when explaining to Amanda what she should draw.  Angie might say “start with a box, then put a triangle on top of it,” and so on. Amanda follows the directions given, and the two compare notes afterward to see how accurate the drawing is.

19. Triggered

Here’s how to do it:

  • Participants are paired up and asked to recall a time when they felt someone had wronged them in the workplace.
  • Using “I” statements, they take turns explaining how that situation felt, and what could have gone differently.

Example: In the middle of his presentation, Gary is interrupted by Mark, and Mark explains something Gary was in the process of explaining. Gary uses “I” statements in a debriefing after the meeting. “Mark, I felt embarrassed that you took over my presentation with your comments.”

20. Faces

Here’s how to do it:

  • Organize participants in groups of 4-8, with one person in each group leading the game.
  • Each person writes down a feeling on a piece of paper and hands it to the leader.
  • The leader redistributes the feelings to players.
  • Each player acts out the feeling they have been tasked with.
  • Discuss the nuances of office communication.

Example: When approached with more work from her boss Michelle, Sharon’s face will reveal it if she is already feeling overwhelmed with her current workload (e.g., a hard blink, a deep sigh, eyebrows raised or furrowed, lips pursed). The best way for Michelle to facilitate an environment of open communication at work is to read her employee’s non-verbal cues. Sharon should also communicate her concern. We will discuss that in our last activity, directly below.

21. Assertive, Aggressive, Passive Aggressive

Here’s how to do it:

  • Explain to participants the differences between personalities that are assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive in the workplace. Give examples.
  • Each person is given a piece of paper with one of these three personality traits to act out during each scenario.
  • Participants are given workplace scenarios where they can react in their assigned way: assertively, aggressively or passive-aggressively.
  • Discuss each reaction briefly as they happen, identifying what classifies each reaction and why they work or don’t work.

This fun activity can be used as an icebreaker or a deeper discussion.


Aggressive: Sara yells at Dan when he jams the photocopier for the sixth time today.

Passive-aggressive: Sara finds the coffee machine empty, and instead of starting another pot, she sighs loud enough for others to hear, “Guess I will make the coffee again.”

Assertive: Sara receives an email from Dan and it’s missing a vital attachment. She calls Dan and asks, “Hey Dan, would you mind attaching the file to your email and re-sending it over?”

Being an effective listener is an essential soft skill and one of the most critical interpersonal skills. Communication exercises like the ones above are engaging and encourage your employees to learn how to make a conscious effort to listen to each other and to customers more effectively. If your employees and customers are feeling heard, you will see increased productivity and satisfaction in your business.

About The Author
Although millions of people visit Brandon's blog each month, his path to success was not easy. Go here to read his incredible story, "From Disabled and $500k in Debt to a Pro Blogger with 5 Million Monthly Visitors." If you want to send Brandon a quick message, then visit his contact page here.