Announce that you will soon lead them through a brief exercise that will help to sharpen their listening skills.
Form pairs or small groups of 3 or 4 people.
Ask one person in each pair or group to volunteer as the first speaker.
Prompt these volunteers to respond to a question you pose, eg What are you most looking forward to today?
Allow each speaker 2 to 3 minutes to share with their partner(s.)
Instruct all other members to only listen to the speaker, ie offer no judgement or immediate responses.
When the speaker has finished sharing, invite the listeners to respond by following the Active Listening Prompts (see Resources tab) one at a time.
Allow several minutes for listener responses to be shared.
When ready, repeat this process with a new speaker responding to a new question, eg What is one of your favourite memories?
When all group members have spoken, regather your group.
Invite your group to reflect on their experience in groups or as a whole.
How To Play Narrative
Active listening is an important skill for improving our relationships – both personal and professional. It requires both attention and intention, two skills we could all improve and become better at using.
Have you noticed that many times we listen to what a person is saying without really listening to what the other person is trying to say? This disconnects us from that person and each other. This activity is especially well suited for difficult conversations and for offering support.
In advance, you’ll want to download and print a copy of the Active Listening Prompts sheet from the Resources tab, one copy for each person.
Once gathered, tell your group that you’ll soon lead them through a series of conversations that will provide an opportunity to truly listen to one another.
Break into pairs or groups of 3 or 4 people (at the most.) Ask one person in each group to volunteer to be the first speaker.
Then pose a question you would like all of the speakers to respond to. There are a million topics to choose from, but here’s a short list to whet your appetite if you’re running short of ideas:
What are you most looking forward to today/this week?
What are you not looking forward to today/this week?
What’s one of your favourite memories?
What do you normally do on the weekends?
What’s something you would love to invent?
What is your favourite thing about where you live?
What is one thing that frustrates you about living in your town?
At this point, you should observe a number of your speakers looking eager to start sharing but ask them to hold on for a moment.
The most important role of this exercise is that of the listeners. Instruct them to only listen to their partner without judgement or offering any responses for the whole time.
That’s right, say nothing. Just listen, really listen to what the speaker is sharing. Accept that this will be hard for some members of your group.
When ready, invite all of the speakers to share. Give them a couple of minutes, or whatever timeframe makes sense.
Next, distribute the Active Listening Prompts sheet to each listener. Guided by the prompts on this sheet, instruct them to respond to their partner’s sharing in an effort to truly hear what the speaker had to say. This will take several minutes.
If some of the listeners are unclear about what you are actually asking them to do, invite them (at least) to paraphrase or repeat back what they heard the speaker say to check for accuracy. And, importantly, invite the speaker to correct anything that has been misunderstood as they hear this feedback.
Now that you have one round under your belt, you are ready to lead this exercise several more times until every person has been a speaker. Pose a new question for each round.
Your ultimate ambition is to engage your group in a few rounds of intentional active listening. If possible, find a few minutes at the conclusion of the exercise to explore what was discovered as a part of the experience.
Look to the Reflection Tips tab for some useful starting questions to explore the impact of actively listening to others.
Practical Leadership Tips
When you distribute the Active Listening Prompts sheet is up to you. You could do it right from the start but I like to wait until the listeners actually need it for the very first time.
Note, the questions you pose for the speakers is less important than the role of the listeners but to be fair, you should aim to ask questions that will elicit interesting or meaningful responses.
An interesting thing about asking for volunteers. I prefer to preserve the adventure and not say what the volunteer will be invited to do. I think this reflects the strength of a group’s cohesion when people willingly raise their hand to do something in front of their group, at the risk of looking foolish. Not that I would ever want a participant in one of my programs to look foolish, but the volunteer does not know this. In contrast, the risk of describing what the activity is in advance is that no one may choose to volunteer, and then you look kinda silly.
Lisa Dresdner says “Importantly, though, deep listening requires that we push the MUTE button on our internal commentary. And this last step is probably one of the hardest because rather than truly listen to what another says, we too often merely hear a word or an idea that connects with something we want to say.” You may have heard the saying “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” To be fair, it would be more accurate if this saying was explained as the reason for two ears and one mouth is that it’s twice as hard to listen as it is to talk. Hence the need to practice this vital skill.
This exercise will only work if people can hear each other, ideally from within a distraction-free space. If necessary, invite pairs and small groups to find a space that they find comfortable to help make their experience successful.
Remember that this is not a test but a fun exercise. Keep the attitude light-hearted and allow everyone to have fun. It’s okay to make mistakes.
You could integrate Active Listening as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand the perspectives of and empathise with others including those from diverse backgrounds.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Demonstrating Self-Discipline & Self-Motivation
Taking Other’s Perspectives
Demonstrating Empathy & Compassion
Understanding & Expressing Gratitude
Recognising Strengths In Others
Communicate & Listen Effectively
Seeking and/or Offering Support
Build Positive Relationships
Demonstrate Cultural Competency
Resolving Conflict Constructively
Demonstrating Curiosity & Open-Mindedness
Making Reasoned Judgements
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
Active listening is a powerful tool to promote mindfulness and to help your group be present with others. Invite your group to reflect on the impact of being present with one another more often. In addition to those described in the Reflection Tips tab, you could ask the following questions:
How does it make you feel when others really hear you?
What does it feel like when you intentionally listen to someone more deeply?
Did you hear something that surprised you, or you didn’t expect?
Did you hear something that changed your mind about the speaker?
What’s the impact of heightening our understanding of others.
At what times should we really exercise our active listening skills?
It would be fair to say that active listening also heightens our access to certain emotional intelligence competencies such as empathy, compassion, trust and cooperation. And, in many ways, you would want this skill to become a behavioural norm of your group.
Storytelling: Consider using storytelling as a way to foster active listening, making sure to include active listening prompts and questions.
Peer Leadership: Consider training selected students or leaders in your group to use this activity to facilitate team/partner discussions. This type of training can develop a peer network of leaders who can be responsible for guiding active listening and cohesive conversations.
Repeat Back to Me: Leverage the skill of active listening to help manage conflict and resolve misunderstandings by asking listeners to repeat back what they just heard from a speaker. This one simple action can help people take real steps towards healing a division or solving a problem.
Take a look at Aristotle’s Cafe for another powerful active listening and conversation model.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
This activity can be presented virtually but to help your group prepare for their experience, ask your group to switch off their phones and invite them to be fully present with their partner(s) hopefully in a quiet, distraction-free space.
After your briefing, share the Active Listening Prompts sheet (download file or direct your group to a web page) and then allocate each pair or small group to a unique breakout room.
Participants can switch off their webcams if they feel more comfortable.
Creative story-making exercise to build connections.
Non-threatening method to invite sharing in a group.
Useful Framing Ideas
Being a better listener can improve your relationship with yourself and others. Here’s a quick exercise that will help us develop our listening skills…
A lot of what most people call listening is really just waiting for one’s turn to speak next. We’re not really listening and therefore, we are not really responding to what has been shared. Typically, can often make the other person feel invisible…
Research suggests that using a strategy called active listening can help others who share with us to feel more understood as well as improve the quality and satisfaction of our relationships…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this powerful partner listening exercise:
What are some things we need to keep in mind to make sure we are actively listening?
How do we actively listen to someone? What does that mean?
What was most difficult about this exercise?
What did you like most about this activity?
Was there something you heard that, when repeated back to the speaker, needed to be corrected? What’s an example?
Did you discover something new about listening?
In what real-life situations have you been an active listener?
When are good times in our life to have an active listener with us?
Where do you think this skill would be useful in your life?