Activities to Teach Active Listening

Jan 11, 2024

How many times have you met someone, and while they were introducing themselves, you were planning your own response, and as a result, completely missed their name? Or have you ever been in a heated conflict with someone, spent the entire interaction thinking about how you could defend yourself and win, and never actually heard anything they said?

Listening is hard. 

Whether you are facilitating conflict remediation, a brainstorming meeting, or an intentional discussion, one of your primary goals is to get your participants to actually listen to each other. So often during these activities, people spend most of the time formulating their thoughts and thinking of what they are going to say next, and in the process, do not actually hear what the other person is saying. As a high school teacher, I witnessed this countless times. I'd be leading my students in a class discussion, and it felt more like 20 students were giving their own speeches to the class rather than an actual discussion. It was much more about sharing and less about conversing. 

Or when trying to mediate a conflict; one student would share everything about how the other student offended them, and then the other student would use their time to share how they were the one offended. They weren't actually listening. They weren’t responding. And let's be honest, it's not just kids who struggle with listening. According to a survey by, the top three reasons people leave their jobs are communication related. The art of listening is an essential aspect of communication, and it’s one many people struggle with. This is why teaching active listening, in school and the workplace, is so crucial. 

Our Inner Dialogues Can Be Loud Sometimes 

Active listening is an intentional communication skill that goes beyond merely hearing words; it involves fully engaging with the speaker to comprehend and empathize with their message. This process requires quieting your mind enough to hear others speak. This is the hard part. Our minds are active and sometimes loud, which is why the active listening process can create disciplines to help quiet them down. 

What it Means to Engage in Active Listening

In active listening, the listener focuses on the speaker, giving them undivided attention while refraining from immediate judgment or formulating a response. The listener demonstrates genuine interest through nonverbal cues like eye contact, nodding, and responsive body language. Before the listener responds with their own thoughts, they use reflective techniques, like paraphrasing or summarizing, to confirm understanding and convey empathy. 

When using the active listening process as an exercise, it's crucial to strictly stick to the protocol. The Listener cannot interject while the other person is talking. They can’t even say "yes" or "no" or share how they can relate; they can only listen intently. This is why the summary portion of the exercise is so valuable. If the listener is not paying close attention, they will be unable to accurately summarize what they heard.

Activities to Teach Active Listening

If you are a leader, whether as a teacher, manager, administrator, or coach, it's crucial that you intentionally teach the skill of active listening. When I conduct collaboration workshops with educators or other professionals, I frequently guide participants through a couple of active listening exercises that they can then use with their own teams or classes.

Here are a couple fun activities I've used with students and participants in my workshops to teach active listening. After completing either of them, facilitate a group discussion about the experience and encourage participants to relate how these skills can be applied in normal interactions.

Dream Vacation

You will share these instructions with participants before they engage in the activity.

  1. Pairing Up: Ask participants to find a partner.
  2. Assign Roles: Designate one person as "The Listener" and the other as "The Speaker."
  3. Speaker's Task: Instruct the Speaker to spend 60 seconds describing their dream vacation. Emphasize that they should avoid mentioning specific locations. Instead, encourage them to describe aspects such as weather, preferred activities, and favorite foods.
  4. Listening Period: After the 60-second description, The Listener's task begins.
  5. Listener's Responsibilities: The Listener must summarize everything they heard from the Speaker during the description.
  6. Recommendation: Following the summary, The Listener should suggest a destination for the dream vacation based on the details shared by the Speaker.

Loud Brain

  1. Pairing Up: Instruct participants to find a partner.
  2. Eyes Closed: Have one partner close their eyes.
  3. Display Instructions: On a screen visible to the partner with open eyes, show the following instructions: "In a moment, your partner is going to share with you. While they are talking, raise your hand every time you hear your own thoughts/inner voice. (Don’t tell them why you keep raising your hand)"
  4. Switch Instructions: After allowing time for the partner with open eyes to read the instructions, switch away from that slide.
  5. Eyes Open: Instruct the partner with closed eyes to open them.
  6. Sharing Task: Explain that the next 60 seconds will be dedicated to the partner with closed eyes sharing something they have been finding success in lately (You can really use any prompt here)
  7. Raise Hands: As the person is sharing, the listener's hand will go up repeatedly every time they hear their own thoughts. This will likely be confusing to the person sharing. Don’t worry- that’s the point.
  8. Guessing: At the end of 60 seconds, ask the speaker to guess why their partner was raising their hands. Common guesses might include, “whenever I said um,” “whenever I broke eye contact,” or “whenever they agreed with what I was saying.”
  9. Reveal the Reason: Disclose the actual reason for raising hands, explaining that it was every time they heard their own inner voice rather than focusing on the speaker. Emphasize the point that each raised hand indicated a moment of distraction from active listening. “Essentially, when they raised their hand, they weren’t listening to you!”

This always gets a good laugh.

The purpose of this exercise is to emphasize the loud volume of our thoughts, which can spark a meaningful discussion about the importance of practicing active listening and developing disciplines to enhance our listening skills.

Active Listening is a Skill You Can Improve

Listening is a skill, and skills are like muscles:  the more you work them out, the stronger they become. Conversely, the less you exercise a skill, the more it atrophies.  Whether you lead adults or children, we need to give them practice at this skill. It doesn't take long scrolling through social media or watching the news to discover that active listening appears to be a rare commodity nowadays. We all need to get better at listening to each other, and this requires developing practices and disciplines to do it well.

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