IN GENERAL, we’re not very good listeners. We are constantly distracted by cell phones, text messaging, social media, and more. Yet, active listening is critically important for improvisation. It’s also what keeps an actor’s performance real.

Below are two exercises that can help you be present and be a better listener. You can try these with a friend or even by yourself to strengthen your listening skills.


Stand up, stretch, then relax. Start a stopwatch or timer, then close your eyes. See if you can tell when a minute has elapsed. Don’t tap your fingers or count in any way. Try to feel it. When you think a minute has passed, open your eyes and check the stopwatch to see how close you were.

  • What did it feel like to be present?
  • Could you just “be,” or did you have to count or distract yourself?
  • What was it like not to be conscious of time?


This is a fun game to play with a partner. Start a conversation, with each person alternating by speaking one sentence at a time. When it’s your turn to speak, you must start your sentence with the last letter of the sentence you heard from your partner. For example, your conversation might sound like the following.

Partner One: “I’m really excited about the game tonight.”
Partner Two: “Totally. It should be fun.”
Partner One: “Naturally, I’m going to get there early.”

This isn’t meant to be a spelling exercise, so if you want to grab the last sound of the sentence rather than the last letter, that’s OK too.

Partner One: “Here’s my first sentence.”
Partner Two: “Say, I’m getting the hang of this.”

Photo from the Harry S. Truman High School 2014 ITF production of The Twilight of the Golds
Active listening keeps an actor’s performance real. Photo from the Harry S. Truman High School 2014 ITF production of The Twilight of the Golds by Susan Doremus.

If you don’t have a partner, you can play this game in real life without anyone knowing. When you’re talking to your mom or a friend, challenge yourself to respond using the rules of the game — just don’t tell them that’s what you’re doing.

Most people think what makes this game hard is spelling. Actually, the exercise forces you to do something you often don’t — listen to someone until the very end of their sentence. Often we interrupt each other, starting our response before the other person has finished their sentence. Then we apologize and ask them to finish their thought. In our minds, we have already tuned out. We know what our answer will be, and our friend’s words will not affect our response. We’ve already decided what to say.

This exercise makes players stay in the moment. You can’t move on until the other person has finished speaking. If you listen to your parents, teachers, siblings, and friends this way, you’ll have developed a real skill for life.

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