Active Listening

Active Listening Workshop

Aim & Context

What is the aim of the exercise?

This session aims at familiarizing the participants with listening levels and skills and the power it can have. By exploring different types of listening and collectively brainstorming non-verbal and verbal aspects of active listening we prepare for a listening exercise that aims at making participants aware that their listening style and dedication has considerable effects on a conversation and their conversation partner.

In what context is this exercise useful?

This exercise is useful to support individuals and teams to understand the importance of listening skills and it can be connected as a preparation for the powerful questions exercise, once active listening is required for that exercise.

Quick facts

Preparation time: 20 min

Online / Onsite: Both

Workshop time: 1h 20 min

Ideal group size: 16/20 (groups of 4)

Contact of Workshop Developer:

Equipment and tools needed:

  • Flip Chart if onsite or if online use slides/miro/google doc to:

  • expose model levels of listening

  • to collect brainstorm aspects of active listening

  • expose exercise instructions

  • Online or Onsite Room to run the session

  • Post-it’s & pens (if onsite)

  • Markers (if onsite)

  • Paper with listening instructions

Detailed Description of Activity & Method

Please list step by step how the activity should be facilitated

Activity & Format



Facilitation Notes

Check-in and Session Introduction

10 min

  • Introduction of facilitators and participants if needed

  • Present today’s topic and agenda

  • Check-in on participants mood, expectations, or other. You can suggest a check-in question as “In one sentence, how are you arriving today?”

Start with answering the check-in question by yourself and then hand the word over to someone else, allowing everyone to share. Nice start for hearing all the voices in the room.

Topic introduction

10 min

  • Start creating the space for the reflections and conversations of today: you can ask the audience if they are paying attention to the ways they have been listening.

  • Then highlight that listening is a super underrated leadership skill. However, it is a super important skill, because the way we listen and pay attention in a conversation can profoundly shift the quality and depth of that conversation, and the quality of relationship we are able to build to one another.

  • By listening deeply and actively, we are able to connect and make sense of each other, it helps us gain a deeper understanding of different perspectives, allowing individuals and groups to connect to each other in a way that is more inclusive, open and respecting potential differences. Changing the way we listen changes the way we experience and build relationships.

  • Comment that improving our listening takes practice and that we will try that later, but first it is important to look at interesting inputs on listening levels before we collectively brainstorm what active listening is composed of.

- Explain that you will show today “The 4 levels of listening”. This model is part of the Theory U process, developed by Otto Scharmer from the Presencing Institute at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). According to Otto Scharmer , “Listening is probably the most underrated leadership capacity today, but listening is really at the source of all great leadership. When we see leadership failures, and today we have many opportunities to see that, very often at the source of these failures is a lack of listening. A lack of connection to what is really going on in reality right now.

- Explain the model:

  • The 1st Level of listening is called Downloading.

This first level of listening is characterized by when we listen from our habits, from what we already know. We are just reconfirming what we already know, nothing new can come to us, because we just stay in our bubble, not focused or interested on what other people have to say, but maybe more interested on what we will say next. So basically we “download” and project our assumptions into the present situation, hence we also listen to what we already know.The result of this kind of listening is that we only reconfirm our existing opinions and judgements. Now in some situations this can be a very helpful way of attending to the world outside. If we think for instance of an apple, we know from experience that it is a healthy and tasty item to eat, so it saves us time if we can use our previous assumptions about apples so that we don't need to reevaluate every single time if an apple is healthy or potentially poisonous. Nevertheless in human interaction this level of listening blocks us from understanding other perspectives and opening our mind to new possibilities, and makes dialogue and collaboration impossible.

  • The 2nd Level of listening is called Factual.

When listening from level two we are starting to open our mind.

We notice disconfirming information/data, what the other says start to penetrate our own bubble. We actually focus on what the other person says, that is, we start to pay attention to what is different from how we thought it is. This level of listening is embedded in our scientific paradigm, all good science teaches to pay attention to disconfirming data as it is the source of innovation. The main driver of this kind of listening is curiosity.

  • The 3rd Level of listening is called Empathic.

Empathic listening is where we start to see the world through another person's eyes. It is only from this level of listening that our center of attention starts to move “outside of us” or beyond what we know. When I engage in downloading, my center of attention is within me, not noticing what is going on outside. Level two is still centered within me, but I am starting to pay attention to what is going on outside and I notice the differences to what I assumed to be true from my own experience. At this level, we see situations through the eyes of others, turning to the other person’s point of view. When practicing empathic listening with an open heart, the center of attention is focused on the experience of the other person(s). In fact, this allows us to gather much more information about the situation than what we might think. When seeing a situation from another person's perspective and experience we may experience feelings and thoughts we would otherwise not have connected with. It is through experiencing those feelings and perspectives that a deeper connection can unfold as the other person will start to feel heard, understood and seen as who he/she is.

- The 4th Level of listening is called Generative.

This fourth level of listening is something we don’t usually experience on a daily basis in our interactions with others. The key difference here is that there is something happening with the center of attention. It is no longer located in one specific person, rather the center, or source, from where the listening happens has no specific perspective anymore. It is somewhat “between '' people. It is in these moments when something really new can emerge, as we let go of our own sense of Self and together engage in a conversation where we let come what we don’t yet know, together. It holds space for something new to be born, listening with openness to what is unknown and what wants to emerge. Here we open our will to be changed by the conversation. We start to see reality with fresh eyes, and welcome yet unknown aspects. In generative listening we connect with one another and with an emerging future potential.

  • Comment that great leaders are able to sense what type of listening is needed at the moment and can adjust the quality of listening to the situation.

  • Explain that this model helps us to gain an idea about how diverse and complex listening can be. Maybe in future conversations, you can gain the awareness about what type of listening you are engaging in at the moment and what type of listening would be appropriate.

  • You can raise these questions for people to reflect and comment to the group (if you have enough time): Do these match? In general, where do you spend most of your own listening time? Can you actively try to practice the appropriate type of listening? How does your conversation change by doing so?

Check the resources list below for learning more and prepare yourself to explain the Levels of Listening Model.

Make sure you have prepared the flipcharts if onsite and if online the slides/miro/google

doc to:

  • expose the model levels of listening

  • to collect brainstorm aspects of active listening

  • expose exercise instructions

Collective Brainstorm

10 min

  • Now you can move your audience to a second moment of the session.

  • First, we have talked about internal attitude towards listening and what type of listening we engage in, and now we will collect the external signs of active listening, these can be verbal or non-verbal.

  • Ask people to answer: What comes to your mind? What do we need to be mindful of while listening?

  • Gather their answers and add the ones below in case people don’t mention it:

  • Eye contact

  • Posture and body language

  • Facial Expression (eg. smile, frown, …)

  • Lack of distractions(eg. phones, fidgeting, …)

  • Physical setup (eg. side by side, across, walking, …)

  • To show verbal reinforcement (eg. hmm, ah, …)

  • Paraphrasing (summarizing what the person has said).

  • Asking clarification questions

  • Asking reflection questions that support the person to reflect further.

  • Ok now that we have this whole list of things that play into active listening, we will practice it with the next exercise.

  • Gather their answers (if onsite in a flipchart or if online, share your screen and use a document/slide/


Instructions Exercise

(5 min)

  • For this exercise I need you to all take your chair, get together in pairs and set your chairs up vis-a-vis each other. All the pairs should be positioned parallelly.

  • Now each of you will get 6 minutes to talk to your partner about an experience you had. This does not need to be deep or special, but it needs to be a topic that you can effortlessly talk about for 6 mins. Maybe a vacation, your last weekend, a hobby you have, or anything that you want.

  • The other person should try to listen actively and follow the instructions that I will have on this flipchart during the exercise. Remember that as we have just discussed there are many, especially non-verbal, aspects that play into active listening.

  • Ask if people understood the instructions or if they have any questions.

Check the next table below in the document for exercise options for an online session.


15 min

  • Start the exercise.

  • For the first round the prompts (shown in your flipchart) for the listeners will be:

  • Listen actively (1min)

  • Think about your to-do list for next week (2 min)

  • Criticize what your partner is saying in your thoughts (2 min)

  • Listen actively (1 min)

After 6 minutes, ask the pairs to change the roles (the one talking, now listen and vice-versa).

  • For the second round the prompts (shown in your flipchart) for the listeners will be:

  • Listen actively (1 min)

  • Listen with pity (1 min)

  • Listen with love (2 min)

  • Listen impatiently (1 min)

  • Listen actively (1 min)

Check the next table below in the document for exercise options for an online session.

Reflection in Pairs

5 min

  • Now instruct the pairs to take 5 mins to reflect with each other about how the experience of listening (with and without attention) and the experience of talking to someone who shows or not attention was.

Check the next table below in the document for exercise options for an online session.

Group Debrief

15 min

- Gather participants back in a circle, and facilitate the discussion into the feelings/ sharing/ impressions of the participants.

- You can ask them how their sharing time was; how this exercise made them feel (both roles: listener and speaker), what stood out for them, what were the insights, what they have learned about themselves and about others.

- Don’t forget at the end to ask what were the key take-aways from the session.


10 min

- Provide logistical info about the next planned workshop (if any) or any necessary announcement.

- Check-out question: For example, get each person to say what they are leaving with from this session.

- Thanking people for joining and closing the session.

You can provide a document or in your preferred way the opportunity for them to provide feedback from this session.

Feedforward: Tips for future facilitators

Make sure to prepare yourself beforehand by for example meditating and being ready to give all your attention & empathy to the session. Focus on the present moment, speak slowly and clearly, breathe a lot and smile.

Also try to make it personal and share with your audience your experiences and how listening helped you down the road!

Resources (Helpful websites or books for further reading)

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