Last updated July 9, 2024

If you are in charge of training either managers or team members in the workplace on active listening (one of the most important communication skills there is), here are 12 free active listening activities, exercises and games for you to use.

12 Active listening activities

Free Active Listening Activities and Exercises

Below are 12 engaging active listening games and activities you can use for free.

1. Paraphrase

Purpose of the Activity: Paraphrasing is one of the key components of active listening. If you can do it correctly, it shows your understanding and empathy, and it helps you summarise what the other person was saying.

This is one of the most useful active listening activities that you can ask your participants to do, as it requires participants to practice listening carefully and paraphrasing what they hear.

How to Run the Activity: The participants work in pairs, where one person will be the listener and the other person will be the talker.

The talker tells a simple story to the listener. It can be something related to work, their personal life, something they heard in the news or anything else. However, advise your participants to avoid anything too personal or that might be considered a sensitive topic.

The listener will then paraphrase (i.e., repeat in their own words) what they have heard, trying not to miss important points and not to add their own interpretation.

Then, the talker will confirm whether they think the paraphrasing was accurate.

Ask the participants to switch roles, so the talker will now be the speaker and vice versa, so both participants have a chance to practice paraphrasing.

At the end, reconvene all the participants together for a class discussion.

Equipment Needed: If you are teaching in person, you will not need any equipment.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did it feel to be the listener vs the talker?
  • Was it easy or hard to try paraphrasing what the other person was saying?
  • How did paraphrasing help you understand the other person better?

If Using as an Online Activity

If you are teaching online, use a virtual video conferencing tool, with the capability of setting breakout rooms to allow participants to work in pairs.

2. Ask Questions

Purpose of the Activity: During this active listening exercise, participants are given a scenario and they are instructed to ask probing questions to find more information about something or solve a mystery.

The ability to ask relevant and open-ended questions is an invaluable workplace skill and this is much easier to do when you are genuinely and attentively actively listening to the other person.

This is one of the active listening exercises that helps participants practice their questioning skills.

How to Run the Activity: Participants work in small groups and you give each group a scenario about which they take turns asking questions.

At the end of the activity, the whole class will discuss how asking questions has helped them understand the scenario and what the most effective questions were.

You can use different types of scenarios, such as one in which participants need to come up with a plan or one in which they need to solve a mystery (such as a murder mystery or a heist scenario in which they need to find out who stole a precious item).

Example Scenario – Planning a Company Dream Retreat:

A scenario that requires participants to plan something might be called “The Company Retreat Adventure”.

This scenario asks participants to imagine that they are in charge of organizing a company retreat on a tropical island. The aim of the retreat is to build team cohesion and come up with new and creative ideas for the upcoming year.

The participants will need to plan activities, arrange accommodation, sort out catering and organize travel to and from the destination.

The group will need to ask questions that will be useful for planning a successful retreat, such as:

  • What activities are best for team building and to foster creativity?
  • How should we structure the workshops to make sure that everybody is kept interested?
  • What kinds of dietary restrictions should we consider?
  • What factors should we consider when arranging transport?

Equipment Needed: You will need some pre-prepared scenarios, which you can print out and hand to the participants (if teaching face-to-face) or share with them electronically if you are teaching online.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • What questions led to finding out the most useful information?
  • How did asking open questions direct the flow of the conversation?

3. Listening Bingo

Purpose of the Activity: This is one of those active listening activities and exercises that focuses on just listening, i.e. helping the participants practice focusing their attention on the words that are said.

How to Run the Activity: Prepare a short speech that you will read out to the participants.

This speech can be about a specific topic (for example, marketing, software development or anything that refers to your participants’ jobs) or just anything in general.

Alternatively, you can choose to read a passage from a book or magazine.

Then, prepare a set of bingo cards in which you will include some of the words that are parts of the speech you will deliver or the text that you will read.

To start the activity, hand a bingo card to each participant and explain that they will need to mark off a word from their bingo card, as soon as they hear it.

The person who first checks all the words on their bingo card wins.

Finish the active listening game with a discussion on the importance of listening.

Equipment Needed: You will need bingo cards (either printed out or distributed electronically if you are teaching online) and pens or markers (if you use printed bingo cards).

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did focusing on specific words affect your overall ability to listen to the whole meaning of the speech?
  • Did you notice that you were listening more attentively than usual? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn about your listening habits as a result of this exercise?

4. Revisiting the Topic

Purpose of the Activity: This active listening exercise focuses on the ability to summarize the information you receive. Being able to summarise is very important in active listening as it shows your involvement and that you try to ensure thorough understanding.

How to Run the Activity: Give a short presentation or a talk to your participants.

Afterwards, divide them into small groups of people who will work together to discuss what they remembered and understood.

Then ask each group to summarize the key points of the talk in front of the rest of the class.

Finish the activity by revisiting the original topic and highlighting any areas that were misunderstood or missed.

Equipment Needed:

  • Presentation materials (slides, notes)
  • Paper and pens for group notes

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • What strategies did you use to make sure you captured the most important parts of the presentation and summarised them effectively?
  • How can you apply these strategies to help you fully understand and summarise any information you listen to in the future?
  • How did revisiting the topic change your understanding?

If Using as an Online Activity

If you teach online, you can easily run this activity using an online videoconferencing platform that includes breakout rooms and virtual whiteboard functionalities.

5. Display Empathy Role-Play

Purpose of the Activity: Showing empathy is an extremely important aspect of active listening.

So, this active listening exercise aims to get participants to practice demonstrating empathy during conversations, using scenarios and role-play.

How to Run the Activity: Create a series of hypothetical workplace scenarios involving emotional content (both positive and less positive) such as frustration, disappointment, joy, pride, sense of achievement and more. It should be nothing extreme, but just common feelings that anybody can experience at work.

Pair up the participants and give a scenario to each person.

Instruct the pairs that each person should take turns to read out loud and act out the feelings portrayed in their scenario.

At the same time, the other person should show empathy both with their body language (for example by nodding and adopting an open posture) and by saying supportive statements such as “I understand how you feel”, “That sounds really tough”, etc.

At the end of the activity, start a group discussion with the class.

Examples of Scenarios:

One scenario, for example, might describe the situation of an employee who is working on a critical project with a tight deadline. Despite their best efforts, they encounter several problems that cause delays and they feel frustrated and stressed as a result.

The listener might say things such as “I understand how challenging this must be for you,” and “It’s clear that you’re doing your best under difficult circumstances.”

Another scenario might describe a situation in which an employee completes a major milestone in a long-term project. This milestone was particularly challenging to reach and it involved a lot of creative thinking and problem-solving, so the employee feels proud of it and is happy about helping the team move forward with the project.

The listener might say things such as “That’s fantastic! Your hard work is really paying off,” and “You must feel incredibly proud of what you’ve achieved.”

Equipment Needed: A set of pre-prepared scenarios.

This is one of the free active listening activities that can be taught either face-to-face or online using videoconferencing software with breakout rooms.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did it feel when the other person responded with empathy?
  • How did you feel while trying to respond with empathy?
  • What did you find difficult, if anything, in trying to show empathy?
  • How can showing empathy when listening to others improve your relationships in real life?

6. Omit the Obvious

Purpose of the Activity: This active listening activity focuses on helping participants pay attention to the subtleties of communication.

To do this successfully, participants will have to listen attentively and try to spot deeper meanings and unspoken messages.

How to Run the Activity: For this exercise, participants work in pairs and each person in the pair is given a simple picture that they have to keep hidden from the other person.

In turn, each person tries to describe to the other person in the pair the image they see, but they can only talk about the details and not mention the obvious.

For example, if they have a picture of a mountain, they cannot say it is a mountain scenery. Instead, they will have to describe the image differently saying things like, “There are tall natural formations that stretch to the sky, covered in greenery with patches of colourful wildflowers”.

The listener will have to guess what the speaker is talking about.

After both persons in the pair have covered the roles of the speaker and the listener, discuss any insight as a group.

Equipment Needed: Simple pictures that you can provide in printed form (for in-person classroom training) or electronically if you are teaching online.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did omitting the obvious affect your description and communication?
  • What techniques did you decide to use to try and get your message across?
  • What did this exercise teach you in terms of how to spot deeper meanings in conversations?

7. Active Listening Role-Play

Purpose of the Activity: This is one of the active listening activities that focuses on all the aspects of active listening.

Participants will engage in role-play, acting out and trying to spot (as an observer) as many active listening behaviours as they can.

How to Run the Activity: Put participants into groups of three and then allocate the role of ‘Speaker’ to one person, the role of ‘Listener’ to another, and the role of ‘Observer’ to the third person.

You can create a series of workplace scenarios for the participants to follow, one acting the role of the person talking and the other one listening (for example, a manager and their direct report during a one-to-one review).

Alternatively, you can ask the speaker to talk about something they care about or tell a short story to the listener.

Explain that the listener needs to try and do the following things that are essential for active listening:

  • Give encouraging verbal cues to create a supportive feeling, such as “I see”, “Go on”, “That’s interesting”, etc.
  • Give positive non-verbal cues, such as maintaining eye contact and an open posture.
  • Listen without interrupting, which allows space for the speaker to express themselves fully.
  • Give the speaker regular feedback (during natural pauses in the conversation), to help ensure they understand correctly and to show they are engaged, which includes summarizing, clarifying, and reflecting. For example, they can use phrases such as “So what you’re saying is…”, “To clarify, you mean…” during the conversation.

In the meantime, the observer watches, listens, takes notes, and gives feedback to the other two at the end of the conversation about the active listening behaviours they witnessed.

Repeat the exercise two more times to give each person a chance to cover all roles.

At the of the activity, start a whole group conversation.

Equipment Needed: Pre-prepared scenarios relevant to the workplace (optional).

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • Which verbal and nonverbal cues seem to encourage the speaker the most and how did they impact the flow of the conversation?
  • What types of feedback on the part of the listener were most useful and how did they influence the speaker’s storytelling?
  • How did listening without interrupting help the speaker feel at ease and the listener understand better?
  • Which aspects of active listening were the most challenging for you?

8. Background Noise

Purpose of the Activity: This is one of my favourite active listening activities to help participants improve focus during conversations, even when there are distractions around them.

The activity requires participants to make an effort to listen and block out external noise.

How to Run the Activity: Ask participants to work in pairs.

Then, they take turns talking (i.e., each person in turn tells a story to the other person) while you play some distracting noise (e.g. music, voices, random noises) in the background at a moderate volume.

The challenge for the listener is to focus and understand clearly what the speaker is saying despite of the background noise.

Discuss with all participants the impact of distracting noises and what they did to help them stay focused.

Equipment Needed: Audio device to play background noise.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did the background noise make it harder for you to listen?
  • Why is it important to block out background noise when listening to someone?

9. Spot the Mistake

Purpose of the Activity: This is one of those active listening activities that focus on concentration and attention to detail in listening.

Participants are required to spot mistakes or inconsistencies in a story they hear.

How to Run the Activity: Prepare in advance a set of stories or instructions in which you will have purposefully planted mistakes or inconsistencies.

Read each story aloud to the group and ask them to listen carefully to try and spot any errors or inconsistencies in the story.

After you finish reading the story, discuss with the group what errors they identified and why they stood out.

Repeat with another story as many times as you want, depending on how much time you wish to spend on the activity.

For example, a story could be the following:

Once upon a time, a group of friends decided to have a picnic by the lake on a sunny Sunday in August.

They packed a basket full of delicious food, including sandwiches, fruits, and a chocolate cake. When they arrived at the park though, they realized they had forgotten the blanket. Despite this, they found a nice spot under a large oak tree and laid out their picnic.

As they ate, they noticed the leaves on the trees were beginning to change color, turning vibrant shades of red and orange.

Suddenly, a rabbit hopped by, and one of the friends pointed out that it was strange to see a rabbit out during winter.

The story in the example contains the following inconsistencies:

  • It says that the friends had a picnic in August
  • Later on, it says that the leaves on the trees were turning red and orange, which usually happens in autumn
  • Lastly, a friend points out that it is strange to see a rabbit in winter

Equipment Needed: A set of written stories with mistakes.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • Which mistakes were easier to spot and why?
  • What was the hardest thing you feel was involved in trying to focus and listen attentively?

10. Absent-Minded Listener

Purpose of the Activity: This is one of the best active listening activities to help participants understand the impact that a disinterested behaviour on the part of the listener can have on the speaker.

This active listening exercise helps participants recognize the importance of staying present and engaged during conversations.

How to Run the Activity: Have participants work in pairs and assign one person the role of the speaker and one the role of the listener.

The speaker tells a short story. It can be any anecdote they can think of.

The listener, in the meantime, does everything they can to look distracted and disengaged. For example, they can look out of the window, check their phone, fidget, etc.

Allocate 5 minutes for this and then ask the participants to switch roles for another 5 minutes.

End the activity with a discussion for the whole class to share their thoughts.

Equipment Needed: None.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • As the speaker, what impact did the listener’s distracted behaviour have on you?
  • As the listener, did you take in anything the speaker said?

11. Train of Thoughts

Purpose of the Activity: This is a good active listening exercise to help participants develop the ability to maintain attention and connect ideas in a logical flow, which is essential in active listening.

How to Run the Activity: Depending on how many participants you have, you can split them into small groups of 5 or have them all sit in a circle.

One person starts the activity by sharing an idea on a specific topic.

The person that comes after them (decide in advance if the the activity will flow clockwise or anticlockwise) adds one sentence to build on what the first speaker said and so on.

So, each person continues the “train of thoughts” by building on what the previous speaker said, adding their own related thoughts or ideas.

Continue the activity until each person has contributed to the “train of thoughts”.

Then, conclude with a group discussion on the challenges of keeping the “train of thoughts” on track.

Equipment Needed: None.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How did you manage to keep on track? Which strategies did you use?
  • What was the hardest part of this activity?
  • How can the ability to keep track of a conversation help you in your life as you form relationships with people?

>> See the Active Listening Skills Training Materials

12. Looking vs Not Looking

Purpose of the Activity: The aim of this active listening activity is to help participants understand the importance of visual (i.e., body language and facial expressions) and non-visual (e.g., tone of voice) nonverbal cues when listening to someone.

How to Run the Activity: This activity is run in two phases.

To start with, ask participants to work in pairs. Then, start the first part of the activity by asking the participants to engage in a conversation facing each other.

After 5 minutes, ask the participants to turn their backs on each other and continue their conversation without seeing the other person. Ask them to talk like this for 5 minutes, before ending the exercise.

If you are teaching online, you can ask the participants to do the first part of the activity with their webcams on and the second part of the activity with their webcams off.

At the end of the activity, have a discussion with the participants on the differences between talking to each other with and without visual cues.

Equipment Needed: None if teaching face-to-face.

If you are running a session online, you will need devices with webcam capabilities and video conferencing software.

Possible Follow-Up Questions for Discussion:

  • How big was the impact of visual cues on your ability to listen to the other person and understand what they were saying?
  • How did things change when you could no longer see their body language?
  • Which other non-verbal cues did you rely on when you could not see the other person?

Benefits of Active Listening Activities for Adults

Active listening is one of the most important communication skills you can have (both in the workplace and in all other areas of your life), which can greatly help you improve trust, collaboration and influencing capabilities.

However, active listening is often overlooked as everyone is eager to be listened to at the expense of paying attention to what others say.

It is never too late though to improve your active listening skills and the free active listening activities we have listed in this post can help you support your participants do this.

Working on active listening with the help of these free exercises can help employees, managers and individuals in general develop other skills too, such as:

  • Improve their relationships with others by showing empathy and respect to other people.
  • Increase their understanding and retention of information.
  • Be enriched by listening to others, as there is a lot we can learn from other people if we just care to listen.
  • Get along better and manage conflict more effectively.
  • Enhance critical thinking by really paying attention to what other people say, which allows us to gather useful information and spot inconsistencies.
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Dr Valeria Lo Iacono
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