Active listening is a valuable management and leadership skill, and when practised correctly, it will reward you with insight that allows you to solve problems, improve learning, and be more influential in your organisation. 

Mastering this skill will help you to build trust with your team and form solid work relationships with them and with others in your organisation. These benefits empower you, enabling you to lead strongly, confidently, and more successfully.

Below we look at what active listening is and then go into six active listening exercises where you can try to build this skill. Professional development is essential in leadership, and we’d recommend developing this particular skill.

What is active listening? 

Essentially, active listening is a communication skill in which you focus closely on what the other person is saying, without interrupting them with questions or comments and provide verbal and non-verbal signals to show the speaker you’re listening. The purpose of active listening is to be present in the conversation and hear and understand the speaker’s whole message. This is different to passive listening, in which there is no feedback, or little feedback, from the listener, who may not be giving you their full attention, even if they look as if they’re listening. 

Six exercises to develop your active listening skills

The exercises below will help you to develop your active listening skills. They’re short and straightforward. For some of them, you’ll need a partner. 

Recognising verbal and non-verbal cues

The purpose of this exercise is to heighten the awareness of non-verbal cues and to stress that sometimes that our assumptions of the meaning of non-verbal cues will be wrong

  1. Divide your team into groups and give each group a topic and a list of the following non-verbal cues:
    • Yawning
    • Looking around the room
    • Nodding
    • Leaning forward in their chair
    • Leaning back in their chair
    • A facial expression that suggests intense, serious or a light-hearted presence of mind
    • A facial expression that suggests an emotion
    • Look at their watch
    • An animated or subdued gesture that suggests an emotion such as boredom, happiness, anxiety, confusion, anger, surprise, fear, disgust or other emotions
  1. Each person should choose a cue to describe how they feel about the topic. Group members can choose the same cue if they wish.
  2. Then the person should imagine they’re in a discussion about the topic and mime their cue for about 15 seconds to express how they feel about the topic.
  3. Everyone else should write down what they think the person feels about the topic.
  4. The person miming must then explain why they chose that cue.
  5. Compare your notes to see if you were right about what they were feeling. 

Tell me what you see

As well as improving your listening, this exercise helps you to develop the skill of asking questions and requesting information to clarify your understanding. 

  1. Choose a volunteer and take a pen and paper.
  2. Ask your partner to choose from a set of images, but not let you see the image they choose.
  3. Take five minutes to ask as many questions as you wish about the image. Your partner can answer them and describe the image.
  4. Draw the image, based on what you’ve heard.
  5. After five minutes, stop and compare what you’ve drawn with the actual image. What went right? What went wrong?

Listen without interrupting

This exercise serves two main purposes. The first is to help you quell the urge to interject with your own comments in gaps in a conversation. The second is to shift your internal dialogue and focus from yourself and what you wish to say next, onto the speaker and what they’re telling you.

  1. Find a quiet place where you and a volunteer can speak without distractions.
  2. Create a list of topics or conversation starters
  3. Let your volunteer pick one. 
  4. Ask them to talk about it for four minutes.
  5. Listen to them, without interrupting or interjecting. Think about the key takeaways, the main themes, what matters most to the speaker, and what interests you most.
  6. After four minutes, stop the speaker, and share what you think you heard the speaker say.
  7. Give them the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.

The three whys

When someone doesn’t share our views, it’s tempting to dismiss the opposing viewpoint. The ‘three whys’ exercise encourages you to dig deeper when someone expresses a view conflicting with your own so that you understand the person and their perspective better. 

  1. Create a list of topics or statements, and ask a volunteer to pick one.
  2. Ask them to state their belief about that topic or statement
  3. Ask them why they believe the thing that they believe.
  4. When they reply, ask them the reason for their explanation. Soften the statement to make it seem less direct, instead of repeatedly asking ‘Why?’, which can come across aggressive or even child-like. An example would be ‘Why would you feel this way?’
  5. Repeat this process one more time.

Listen first, speak second

You don’t need a partner for this exercise, just a quiet place to think. The ‘listen first’ exercise will help you to develop a listening mindset. Rather than entering meetings to speak, you’re entering them to listen first. Then you’ll switch to the role of the speaker.

  1. Think of a regular meeting in your schedule in which you interact with another colleague. 
  2. Visualise yourself entering the meeting intending to listen first. You might use questions such as ‘Have there been any developments since we last spoke?’
  3. Imagine yourself asking questions for clarification, for more information, or for confirmation of the speaker’s meaning. 
  4. Keep rehearsing until you form a clear picture of yourself listening actively.
  5. Reflect on how active listening would benefit you and your relationship with this person, and also on practical steps, you could take at the next meeting.
  6. Write all of this down to reinforce it in your mind. 
  7. Follow up on what you’ve written, by implementing it in the next meeting.

Increasing self-awareness and emotional intelligence

This final exercise is a solo exercise, designed to make you aware of the heightened emotions we can feel during a discussion. People say things that trigger our emotions, and how we respond to these emotions determines how well we listen. To become an effective listener, we must build our emotional intelligence.

  1. Find a quiet place and think of a recent discussion that triggered strong emotions in you.
  2. Write these emotions down.
  3. Ask yourself why you responded in an emotional manner. Which statement triggered your response? Did any of the other person’s non-verbal expressions or gestures cause it? 
  4. If you experienced anger, fear, or similar emotion, and it stopped you from thinking clearly, visualise yourself avoiding saying anything that could damage the other person. Acknowledge the emotion.
  5. Now imagine yourself back in the discussion, but this time asking an open-ended question relating to the emotion. For example, if the person offended you, you might ask ‘That’s a strong opinion. How did you come to that point of view?’ This allows you to gain more information.

Book a course with us

Active listening is an important communication skill for a leader, allowing you to gain insight that will help you identify issues and solve them, build knowledge, and, overall, lead more effectively. Several of our courses, such as our CMI-accredited coaching and mentoring programmes, and our CMI Level 5 leadership and management, include sessions on listening skills and/or other aspects of communication for strong leadership. We understand just how crucial it is for good leaders to listen.

To find out more about our coaching and mentoring training, visit our Courses page and click on the relevant course, or send us an email to enquiries@inpd.co.uk, send us a message using the form on our Contact Page or call us on 0161 826 3139. We look forward to answering your questions and welcoming you to our courses.


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