Typically, communication is seen as a ‘soft’ skill—because it’s not easily quantifiable. Compared to profits, losses, and even risk, it is intangible. Unless it’s either terrible or completely absent. Communication exercises and games are interactional activities that aim to develop how we relate to one another, including how we share information and get along.
They can be one-on-one or team exercises, but the goal is the same: they help us develop our interpersonal skills and improve our capacity to relate.
Communication is a whole lot more than just talking—although, that is a fundamental part of relationship-building and knowledge-transfer. To really grasp how big of an impact it has, we can touch on some of the theory. Surprisingly, taking a step back to look at some theory can sometimes be just as helpful, if not more so, than ‘getting on with it’.
Succinctly, they help us convey information to others in an effective way. And, they go above and beyond coherent speech in many ways—we talk, we use silence, body language, tone of voice, and eye-contact—voluntarily and unconsciously. With a broad and beautiful rainbow of ways to communicate, then, how do we know what’s considered a skill? What’s noise and what’s a message? What matters?
Drawing on empirical literature on communication skills in the workplace, we can look at Maguire and Pitcheathly’s (2002) study of doctors for a good example. In medical professions, it’s particularly critical not just to extract and interpret information—often, from conversation partners who lack crucial information themselves—but to convey it empathetically and with clarity. The authors described several key communication skills as follows.
The ability to elicit patients’ problems and concerns.
Swap ‘patients’ with clients, co-workers, managers, and so forth, and we can see that this is readily applicable in many other work situations. That is, the ability to understand, explore and clarify what others are talking about, and to solicit more details if and when the situation requires it. Doctors also described effective communication as being able to summarize what the patient/other had related to correct information and display understanding.
Benefits: In an objective sense, we need to extract information so we can channel our efforts accordingly. Deadlines, role boundaries, budgets, and the ‘why, how, what’ of tasks. But active listening encourages pleasant social interactions, which in turn, these boost our well-being and life satisfaction (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
The ability to deliver information effectively.
The doctors studied also checked with their patients what their beliefs were about what was wrong. In other workplaces, team situations call for clarity—a shared goal is the ideal, but very often we come at situations with at least a few different beliefs. Alternatively, we may be quick to assume that others understand what we are saying when situations actually require further explanation.
To deal with this, the doctors:
Benefits: Our messages need to make sense if we want to convey information in a meaningful way. That applies both to our language and the extent to which we empathize. Effective information delivery helps us define goals, transfer knowledge, and successfully accomplish shared tasks.
Discussing treatment options.
Communication, in its most basic form at least, is dyadic—a two-way, and (one would hope) mutually beneficial flow of information. In this study, giving a diagnosis and treatment options was only one part of the job. Doctors described how important it was to see whether patients wanted to participate in choosing their treatment. They determined their perspectives before decision-making; in other settings, this is inviting participation and engagement.
Benefits: As discussed, information delivery is crucial, but our focus here is opening up discussions. Giving others a chance to contribute allows us to factor in more perspectives and diverse opinions. We can encourage more engagement, commitment, and complement one another’s different skills for better results.
Doctors described empathy in terms of feedback and validation. They showed that they understood how their patients were feeling to relate at an interpersonal level; where they didn’t know, they at least made a stab at empathizing through educated guesses.
Benefits: We don’t need to look too far to find sources of workplace stress that might be impacting our colleagues. By empathizing, we not only build better relationships, but we show that we are available as key ‘job resources’ – social support for those around us to reduce the negative impacts of our job demands (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). Put even more simply, we make work a nicer place to be while avoiding unnecessary conflict.
Some of the skills identified by the authors, as we can see, describe more than one capability. As humans, we’re complex. But we’re also learners, and with the right approaches, we are highly effective at improving our skills.
Maguire and Pitcheathly’s (2002) clinical review offered several learning tips, the first of which was an emphasis on proper communication skills training. As well as identifying key communication deficits and their root causes, these included several that relate to our knowledge of positive psychology and communication.
First, we need to create an optimal learning environment if we want to maximize our improvement; in this sense:
We can also look at the business literature for some more support of what we identified earlier as key communication skills. Breaking these down into tips, here are 4 fairly broad ways we can enhance our communication skills to increase our effectiveness and well-being.
1. Work on your emotional perception
Perception of emotions is a key component of Mayer and Salovey’s emotional intelligence framework and covers the ability to read others’ non-verbal cues as well as their potential moods (Salovey & Mayer, 1990).
At the individual level, we can make conscious use of this EQ skill to gauge how others are feeling. Is your colleague overwhelmed, perhaps? Is now the best possible time to ask them for help on a task? Or, have you noticed someone in the corner of the room who has been dying to contribute to the meeting?
2. Practice self-awareness
Our non-verbal behavior and the way we speak is critical. Different studies vary on exactly how much of our intended message (and credibility) is non-verbal, but it’s undoubtedly important (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998; Knapp et al., 2013).
When the words we speak convey one message and our body another, we risk confusion and potentially, we jeopardize our intended impact. To enhance our influencing skills and the quality of our working relationships with others, it helps to practice being aware of your own non-verbal behaviors.
3. Give others a chance to engage
Communication is a two-way street, at the very least. And as more than one collective intelligence researcher has pointed out, teams are more than the sum of their parts (Woolley et al., 2010).
When we get together as humans, we need a chance to communicate just as much as we need our individual ‘smarts’, and essentially, it comes down to social sensitivity—emotional perception once again. We can look at Leary’s Rose for more insights on how and why, but this time, the tip is to understand when to communicate or step back (Leary, 2004).
4. Practice listening
Talking is essentially a form of content delivery, and it’s not really communication unless we listen. Active listening involves engaging with our co-workers and bringing empathy to the table to enhance the quality of our dialogue.
Sometimes mentioned along with ‘reflective questioning’, it involves, “restating a paraphrased version of the speaker’s message, asking questions when appropriate, and maintaining moderate to high nonverbal conversational involvement” (Weger Jr et al., 2014: 13). It helps us create more clarity, take in information more effectively, and develop our workplace relationships through empathetic engagement (Nikolova et al., 2013).
Some of these activities will require a facilitator, and some just a group of colleagues. None of them require professional facilitation per se, and any participant can easily volunteer to keep the process on track.
This exercise is about listening, clarity and developing potential strategies when we communicate. In communicating expectations, needs, and more, it helps to clarify and create common ground. This can show what happens when we don’t…
For this activity, you’ll need an even number of participants so everybody can have a partner. Once people have paired off, they sit back-to-back with a paper and pencil each. One member takes on the role of a speaker, and the other plays the part of the listener.
Over five to ten minutes, the speaker describes a geometric image from a prepared set, and the listener tries to turn this description into a drawing without looking at the image.
Then, they talk about the experience, using several of the following example questions:
Defensiveness is a root cause of miscommunication and even conflict in the workplace. We’re not always ready to receive and learn from criticism, especially when it’s delivered insensitively. This exerciseintroduces “I” statements, which describe others’ behavior objectively while allowing the speaker to express the impact on their feelings.
Employees can pair off or work alone, in either case, they will need a worksheet of imaginary scenarios like this one. Together or solo, they can create “I” statements about how the imaginary scenario makes them feel. When done in pairs, they can practice giving each other feedback on ‘meaning what you say’ without triggering defensiveness in the other.
Storytelling is an engaging way to convey information; when it’s positive information, narratives are also highly effective means of motivating and inspiring others (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012). Appreciative Inquiry, for example, is one type of positive psychology intervention that uses storytelling in a compelling way, as a means to share hopes and build on our shared strengths.
Through this exercise, we can practice structuring our narratives—essentially we’ll have one ‘information delivery’ tool to draw on when we feel it might help (like the doctors we looked at earlier). CCSG is a structure, and it involves:
To use the structure as an exercise, participants simply relate a narrative using CCSG. For example, one team member might describe a past success of the group or team, where their collective strengths helped them succeed. The Characters would then be whoever was involved, the Conflict may be a challenge the team faced (a new growth opportunity, perhaps). The Struggle might be something like geographical distance between team members, and the Goal would be just that: their objective or success.
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Because communication is so multi-faceted, we’ve included a selection of different activity types. These interpersonal and team communication games cover topics such as misinterpreting information, awareness of our assumptions and engaging others.
This activity is a slight twist on Chinese Whispers in that it uses a complex set of instructions rather than just a sentence. And here, we have only one link rather than an entire chain of people. Otherwise, the idea is identical—information gets misinterpreted thanks to noise, but we can improve our verbal communication and listening skills to minimize this risk.
First, pick a game with enough instructions that the information is a challenge to memorize. With 2+ co-workers, pick one person (a speaker) to whom you’ll explain the instructions. They are responsible for passing the information on to the rest of their team. The group then needs to play the game with only the instructions from the speaker.
Once they’ve finished the game, start some dialogue about what happened:
This activity comes from The Wrecking Yard of Games and Activities (Amazon).
Here’s an exercise on the pivotal role of clarification. When it comes to tasks and expectations, it goes without saying that clarity helps us avoid lots of unwanted things. And clarity plays a role on a larger scale when it comes to our roles more broadly, in fact, it’s a psychological resource under the Job Demands-Resources model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). Succinctly, ambiguity contributes to stress, and clarity is empowering—something that is easy to overlook and which this game reminds us of.
Any number of co-workers can participate in this very simple mime game. You’ll need a list of topics for people to act out, then invite players to break off into groups of two. In these pairs, they will take turns being a mime and being an asker. The mime reads the card, then attempts to act out what’s on it (you’ll first need to decide on a theme, like weather, activities, or what have you). While the asker can pose questions, the mime can only act out their answers.
It might unearth an awareness of implicit assumptions, bringing our conscious attention to the role these play in our judgments. Potential discussion questions will help you unpack this further:
This exercise from The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games is about self-awareness. How large of a role does it really play, and how does it influence our communication?
There is no limit to the group size for this game, which requires only enough pens and paper for everybody. It doesn’t take very long, either, and can be played in as little as ten to twenty minutes—perfect for breaking up the day.
Start with groups (or sub-groups) of between four and ten players; in each of these, someone will need to volunteer as a facilitator. This facilitator simply keeps the game on track and gets the discussion going afterward.
Each player writes down a feeling on a small piece of paper, folds it, then passes it to the volunteer facilitator. From him or her, they take another piece that someone else has written, and tries to act out that feeling to the rest of their group—using only their facial expressions. The other participants try to guess that emotion and this should lead to a talk about the role of expressions. Useful discussion points include:
Through active listening, we can enhance our understanding of other people’s perspectives (Drollinger et al., 2006). Practicing it during our interactions with others enables us to validate their feelings and potentially avoid the stress of misunderstandings. Exercises that boost our active listening skills help us engage better, through empathy, body language, and non-judgment where required (Rogers & Farson, 1957).
At the end of the day, active listening games can impact positively on our relationships by encouraging us to practice specific techniques, and these, in turn, find support in the empirical literature (Weger et al., 2014).
This large group exercise works best when you already have a topic for discussion. It is used a lot during inclusive strategy sessions, where diverse opinions are valuable but team size can hamper rather than facilitate good communication. For this exercise, everybody has a handout which summarizes the goals of the discussion.
Two circles of chairs are set up, one inside the other. Participants who sit in the middle are ‘talkers’ while those in the outer ring are ‘watchers’, and these roles should be allocated prior to the exercise. Armed with their handouts, talkers begin to engage with the topic. They use the goals as a guide for the conversation, while the watchers listen carefully and make notes.
After fifteen minutes of discussion, the watchers and talkers switch circles—those who were listening before now sit on the inner circle for a fifteen-minute conversation. It can be on the pre-chosen topic or on a different one, but the activity must conclude with a debrief.
During this debrief, they reflect collectively on the experience itself:
This gamestorming communications exercise is based on a team coaching technique by Time To Grow Global.
Here is another talker and listener exercise that can be done in pairs. In a larger group of participants, this can be done multiple times as players pair up with different conversation partners. And in each pair, of course, team members will take turns being listener and talker.
The talker discusses their dream vacation for three minutes, describing what they would like best about it but without specifying where it should be. While they talk, the listener pays close attention to the explicit and underlying details, using only non-verbal cues to show that they are listening.
After the 3-minute vacation, the listener summarizes the key points of their conversation partner’s dream vacation—as a holiday sales pitch. After they’ve ‘pitched’ the ideal vacation spot in the space of a few minutes, the pair discuss how accurately the listener understood the talker.
They outline how they could improve their dialogue with regard to active listening, then swap roles. A twist on this team coaching exercise might involve allowing the listener to make notes during the talker’s description, revealing them as a point of discussion only after they deliver the ‘sales pitch’.
Used with permission from Time To Grow Global.
How about a chance to blow off some steam and get that empathetic listening ear at the same time? And at the same time, helping your co-worker practice active listening?
In this game, one colleague has a full 60 seconds to rant about something which irks them. It’s best if this isn’t inappropriate for the workplace, but at the same time, it doesn’t have to be work-related. If you hate pop-up ads, for instance, you’ve already got great material for your rant.
The first colleague (Player A) simply lets loose while the second person (Player B) listens carefully, trying to cut through the noise by singling out:
Player B then ‘decodes’ the rant by repeating it back to Player A, isolating the key positive points without the fluff or negativity. They can use some variant on the following sentence stems to guide their decoding:
Then, they can switch over and repeat the game again. As you can probably see, the activity is aimed at helping teammates appreciate that feedback has positive goals.
When we give attention to our relationships as well as the task(s) at hand, we create trust and collaborate more effectively. The games and exercises in this section are about connecting on a human level so that we can communicate with more emotional intelligence in the workplace.
In large organizations especially, we may only bring a part of ourselves to the workplace. If we want to communicate empathetically and build relationships with co-workers—important social resources—personal storytelling is one way we can build our teams while developing communication skills.
There is no set time or place for storytelling, but it works best when a story is followed by an invitation to the group to give input. Feel free to use the CCSG technique described earlier in this article, and that the speaker uses a reflective tone, rather than purely informative, when addressing the group.
To try out personal storytelling, set aside a teambuilding afternoon, meeting, or workshop. Ask the group to each prepare a reading that they will share. Here are some ideas that nicely blend the emotional with the professional:
More personal storytelling ideas can be found in this toolcard.
We learn from our peers’ feedback, and that learning is most productive in a supportive work environment (Odom et al., 1990; Goh, 1998). Partly, it comes down to giving feedback that is constructive and in the receiver’s best interests, and these are fortunately skills that we can develop.
I’m Listening can be played with an even number of participants, as they will need to find a partner for this one-on-one game. In the book mentioned below, there are also hand-outs, but you can prepare your own for this activity. Ideally, more than one ‘Talker Scenario’ and more than one ‘Listener Scenario’:
The exercise is a good starting point for a conversation about constructive listening strategies. Together, the pairs can come up with more productive, empathetic, and appropriate responses, with the acting experience fresh in mind. Some discussion points include:
This game comes from The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games (Amazon).
Inspired by the kid’s game Telephone, this exercise draws on different elements of effective communication between team members, while highlighting where things often go wrong. It works with any sized team and requires only a facilitator and some novel objects that can be passed between participants. So, plush toys, tennis balls, or similar—but the more imaginative they are, the better.
Players stand in a circle and pass two of the objects along to each other. One object should be passed clockwise, and the other counter-clockwise. Prior to passing on the toy, ball, or what have you, players ask something about the object and answer a question about it. Essentially, the message will change as the object gets passed along, and players will need to stay sharp to remember who they are passing and talking to.
Debrief with a chat about the communication that went on. Did anybody end up with both items at once? How did they cope? Did others help them?
Other questions include:
This exercise comes from this Teambuilding Facilitation Manual: A Guide to Leading and Facilitating Teambuilding Activities, by Penn State University.
A lot of team situations are about creativity. We each have unique experiences, competencies, and viewpoints, the way we collaborate inevitably decides whether we synergize or fall flat. Here are two activities that will help your team work together creatively to solve a problem, as well as one about the role of silence.
This is a fun game in communication skills that will also give team members some creative freedom. They will need to communicate those creative ideas to one another, but also engage in joint decision-making for the activity to be a success. And that activity is to create a comic together, using their complementary skills and communication to realize a shared vision.
You’ll need more than 9 participants for this activity, as well as paper, drawing, and coloring materials for each colleague. From your larger group of co-workers, let them form smaller groups of about 3-6 participants and tell them their task is to produce a unique comic strip, with one frame from each person. So, a 6-person group will make a 6-frame strip, and so forth.
Between them, they need to decide the plot of the comic, who will be carrying out which tasks, and what the frames will contain. The catch is that they all need to draw at the same time, so they will not be seeing the preceding frame in the strip. Make it extra-hard if you like, by instructing them not to look at one another’s creative progress as they draw, either.
Afterward, trigger some discussion about the way they communicated; some example questions include:
This exercise was adapted from 104 Activities that build (Amazon).
This is similar in some ways to the Back-to-Back Drawing exercise above. That is, the Blindfold Rope Square exercise challenges us to look at how we communicate verbally, then think about ways to develop our effectiveness. In a large group of participants or employees, particularly, we often need to cut through the noise with a clear and coherent message—and this game can be played with even a large group of people.
You will need about ten meters of rope and a safe place for employees to walk around blindfolded in. So, flat and ideally with no walls or tripping hazards.
Find more information on the exercise here.
Silence is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it gives us a chance to reflect, in others it creates a space for others to take the floor. Nonetheless, we’re often inclined to view it as awkward—a gap to be filled or avoided—rather than a chance to listen. According to Shannon and Weaver’s Theory of Communication (1998), this simply creates more ‘noise’ and negatively impacts our ability to reach resolutions at work (Smith, 2018).
Zen counting is incredibly straightforward: team members simply sit in a circle but face outward. With nobody in particular starting first, they are asked to count from one to ten as a group, but each member can only say one number. Nothing else is said. When someone repeats or interrupts another group member, they start again from one.
The idea is to facilitate a sense of ‘okayness’ with being uncomfortable and silent, while team members practice letting others speak.
Imagine attending a communication workshop, in purely lecture format. Or, reading about how to communicate without actually trying what you learn. Communication exercises may not feel 100% natural at first, but they let us work with—rather than live in fear of—that discomfort. Whether it’s Chinese Whispers or making a rope square blindfolded, we can shake up old habits and create new ones by stepping into our ‘stretch zones’.
Try out activities which are best suited to your organizational goals so they have the most relevance. If you’re focused on innovation, try a creative communication exercise like Mime. If you’re a cross-functional team, why not try out an activity that challenges assumptions?
Tell me if any of these are particularly useful, and let us know if you’ve got tweaks for this current set of activities. What has worked in the past for your team?
Catherine Moore has a BSc in Psychology from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys researching and using her HR knowledge to write about Positive and Organizational psychology. When she isn’t getting super ‘psyched’ about her favorite topics of creativity, motivation, engagement, learning, and happiness, she loves to t