Active listening is a key to building trust in any personal or professional relationship. Planning to lead a group or individual through exercises to practice this important communication skill should include learning how to maintain eye contact, remain objective, avoid distractions, concentrate on the speaker, focus on the main idea and when appropriate, take notes. Encourage your learners to resist the temptation to interrupt speakers. Demonstrate how to use body language, such as nodding and hand gestures, to indicate attentiveness.
Explain that repeating what the speaker has said ensures that the listener has heard him correctly. This may be important on telephone calls when the connection is poor or if the two parties are not native speakers of the language in which they are conversing.
Set up role-play activities to allow participants to practice being both the speaker and the listener to recognize effective and ineffective listening. For example, divide into pairs for a 20-minute exercise. Instruct the first person to not say or do anything to show a reaction to what the second person says. Have the second person describe their home. Finally, have the second person describe what it feels like to be relatively ignored by the impassive listener. Repeat the exercise with the first person showing interest by repeating parts of what the speaker says (for example, "So you live in Oregon?") to show comprehension. Switch roles and run through the sequence again.
Explain that paraphrasing is a skill that helps ensure what is being said is actually understood. Paraphrasing is particularly important if a situation is complex. This technique is frequently utilized in customer support or medical situations. Help your students build skills in paraphrasing by restating a conversation in their own words.
Divide into trios for a 30-minute activity. Assign one person to be the observer for the other two. Ask the first person to describe a situation he is having with a malfunctioning computer. Ask the second student to paraphrase what the first person said. Allow the observer to provide constructive criticism to the second person. Rotate the roles so each person has the opportunity to play each role.
Explain that we may not always interpret what is said in the manner in which it was intended. Prepare your group to listen to some instructions to give an individual response. To make it fun, you may even promise a prize for the first correct answer. Tell this short story: "You are driving a taxi in New York City. You travel east for three miles and then south for two miles before picking up your fare and traveling four additional miles. How old is the taxi driver?" Most participants will not catch the trick that the taxi driver is themselves. We often get caught up in the details without seeing the "big picture." Discuss times this has happened and what can be done about avoiding this communication barrier. Encourage participants to always reflect on what is said before responding.
Tara Duggan is a Project Management Professional (PMP) specializing in knowledge management and instructional design. For over 25 years she has developed quality training materials for a variety of products and services supporting such companies as Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq and HP. Her freelance work is published on various websites.