Leading Others

Be an Active Listener

The purpose of this activity is to introduce the concept of active listening and practice the skills of composing and asking powerful questions, an important technique for applying active listening in the workplace. Active listening is giving your full attention to the other person, which includes making eye contact, using receptive body language, being totally present, and asking powerful questions. Active listening helps to build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, and resolve conflicts.

For more information about Being an Active Listener, click here to read the corresponding section in the Playbook.


1-2 hours

Group Size


Skill Level


Comfort Level



Flip Chart, Markers, Sticky Notes

Step 1

In advance of the meeting, ask participants to read these two brief articles from the Playbook: 10 Steps To Effective Listening and How To Ask Better Questions. Do a brief introduction to active listening, explaining the concept and the benefits. Share with the group that these exercises will help practice an important active listening skill: asking powerful questions.

Step 2

Next introduce the concept of empowering questions by sharing examples and tips from this article. You can share the examples on a Powerpoint slide, write them ahead of time on a flip chart, or print out the document. Ask participants to brainstorm other examples of powerful questions. Capture their powerful questions on the flip chart page.  The brainstorming should last no longer than a few minutes.

Once you have filled a flip chart page of powerful questions, review the questions with the group and identify any questions that are close-ended, leading questions, or those that start with why. Ask the group how they might rephrase these questions into powerful questions.

Step 3

Share with participants that they will practice asking empowering questions in small groups of three. Each person in a group of three should be assigned one of the following three roles (you can write these roles on a flip chart page or a Powerpoint slide):

  1. Talker:The Talker’s role is to explore a question or challenge they are facing. They will have opportunity to share and be asked empowering questions by the Active Listener for 15 minutes.
  2. Active Listener: The Active Listener’s role is to listen with full presence and focus. The Active Listener is curious and guides the subject with empowering questions. Remember to ask open questions in order to support the subject’s reflection. Rather than offering advice, try to listen with the entire body.
  3. Observer: The Observer’s role is to take note of the process without speaking. In other words, this role makes observations from an outside perspective and sees and hears things that the Listener and subject may not. Ideally, the Observer stays silent throughout the process and observes and makes notes about what he/she sees or hears. During the last five minutes, the Observer will share observations with the other two people in the group.

Step 4

Ask participants to organize into groups of three. Count off each trio, 1-2-3, so each person in the trio has a starting assigned number and role. Each participant in the group will have a chance to play a different role for a total of 20 minutes. Keep track of time. At 15 minutes, let the groups know it is time for the Observer to share, and at 20 minutes ensure that groups switch roles and repeat the exercise. Participants should stay in their same groups. The exercise should take 60 minutes in total.

Step 5

After participants complete the exercise, facilitate a reflection with the full group. Ask participants the following questions and capture key words of their responses on a flip chart:

    • How did it feel to be the Listener?
    • How did it feel to be the Talker?
    • What insights did you learn about asking powerful questions?
    • What are some opportunities for you to practice asking empowering questions?