Five activity ideas to improve students’ communication skills

Communication skills don’t come naturally to most students. Books and lectures only get you so far, but like most learned skills, practice makes perfect. Communication games are a fun way for students to learn helpful methods through team interaction. Here are five games you and your students can play to improve their communication skills.

 

$2 NEGOTIATION

This is an activity in which participants negotiate with each other for $2. Participants find creative solutions to simple problems; they see that a majority vote is not always the most effective way to decide.

Use this when:
  • Students are focusing too much on their own needs.
  • Students need to practice creativity (in problem solving).
  • The group relies heavily on “majority rules” for making decisions.
Materials you’ll need:

Two one-dollar (or any) coins for each team of three participants.

Here’s how:
  1. Divide the group into teams of three.
  2. Give each team two one-dollar coins.
  3. They have 5 minutes to decide between the three of them who will keep the coins.
  4. If all else fails, a simple majority vote can decide.
  5. After 5 minutes, any team still undecided will lose the coins back to you.
For example: 

“We agreed Olivia would get both dollars. We trust she will donate them to her son’s soccer team fund.”

“We agreed Roger would get one, and Therese would get the other. They will let me be first to close my register the rest of the week.”

“We agreed that Kenji would get both dollars. He gave each of us one-minute shoulder massages!”

Ask these questions:
  • What strategies did you use during the negotiation? Which were most helpful?
  • Did everyone rely on majority rules? Why or why not?
  • How did the time limit influence how you negotiated? (I felt rushed; It put more pressure on us; It made me cave in quicker; I was more aggressive; etc.).
  • How did you find out what the others valued? (I just asked them what they wanted; I listened to what they were offering me and assumed they valued that, etc.).
  • What implications does this have for us back on the task?
Tips for success . . .
  • Emphasize that this is not just an exercise. Whoever ends up with the coins gets to keep them.
  • Two participants can end up with one coin each, or one participant can get both coins.
  • Give a 2-minute warning before the play is to end.
  • Most teams will not come up with the obviously easy solution: two participants collude and vote to award one coin to each of themselves. Explore why this did or did not happen during the debrief and compare it to how things happen on the job.
Try these variations . . . 
  • Give each team only one coin to negotiate.
  •  Use something other than money that all participants would value.
  • Divide the group into pairs. Give each pair one coin to negotiate between them.

 

CARD TRIANGLES

This is a  negotiation activity in which teams trade pieces of playing cards in hopes of finding complete cards.

The purpose is that students learn to see others’ perspectives before they can influence and persuade.

Use this when: 
  • Students are focusing too much on their own needs.
  • Students need to hone their sales skills.
  • Students need to develop their negotiation skills.
Materials you’ll need:
  • A deck of playing cards.
  • Cut each card in half diagonally, then in half diagonally again, so each card is now in four triangle quarters.
  • Mix all the pieces well, and place an equal number of pieces in the same number of envelopes as you will have teams.
  • Small prizes for the winners (optional).
Here’s how:
  1. Divide the group into teams of three or four.
  2. Give each team an envelope containing playing card triangles.
  3. The teams have 3 minutes to examine and sort their pieces and plan their strategy for bartering.
  4. Open the bartering. Everyone participates by bartering for the pieces their team needs. (They may  barter individually or as a team.).
  5. Allow 8 minutes for bartering.
  6. Count the teams’ completed cards, and announce the winning team.
Ask these questions:
  • How willing were others to trade with you?
  • What negotiation tactics were most successful for you? (Seeing what they wanted and offering that; Being aggressive; Being a nice guy, etc.)
  • How did your strategy change during play? Why?
  • What other skills did you have to draw on to be successful? (Listening, empathy, giving a personal touch, creative problem solving, etc.).
  • In what work situations do we find ourselves negotiating for time, information, or resources?
  • What implication does this have for us back on the job?
Tips for success . . . 
  • You must have at least three teams for this activity to work well. If necessary, have the teams consist of two participants.
  • They can barter individually or as teams.
  • Give a 2-minute warning before play is to end.
  • Observe whether two or more teams combine might. Comment during the debrief.
Try these variations:
  • For smaller groups, give each participant an envelope, and have them all barter individually rather than in teams.
  • After 4 minutes of play, give the teams 2 minutes to form a coalition. Any two teams that want to merge may do so before resuming play. Make sure there was an even number of teams to begin with. What influenced your team’s decision to merge? And with whom?

 

LISTEN UP

This is a speaking activity in which participants listen as others share their views on a controversial topic.

The purpose is that participants practice listening skills, even when they are anxious to agree emphatically or strongly challenge.

Use this when:
  • Individuals are not listening well.
  • Individuals feel like others are not listening with open minds.
  • Individuals want to get to know each other better.
Materials you’ll need:
  • An identical set of 10 to 15 index cards for each team. On each card in the set, you will have written  a different controversial topic.
Here’s how:
  1. Have the participants pair up.
  2. Give each pair a set of prepared index cards.
  3. One partner draws a card and speaks for 3 minutes nonstop about her views on the topic.
  4. Her partner may not say anything, just listen.
  5. After 3 minutes, her partner has 1 minute to recap what he heard. This is not the time to rebut, debate, or agree—just summarize.
  6. Reverse roles, and repeat with a new topic.
For example: 

Controversial topics can include gay marriage, abortion, prayer in schools, euthanasia, election finance reform, capital punishment, income tax reform, needle exchange for drug users, unions, social security reform, non-English-speaking communities in the USA, the space program, AIDS, nuclear arms, and so forth.

Ask these questions:
  • How did the speakers’ tone and body language contribute to the message?
  • How did you feel listening without being able to speak your mind? (Frustrated, anxious, made me listen better, etc.)
  • How did you feel speaking without your listener saying anything? (Like I was being heard; Frustrated that I did not know where she was on the issue, etc.)
  • How was the listener’s summary?
  • When is it especially important for us to listen this attentively at work?
  • What implication does this have for us back on the job?
Tips for success . . . 
  • Participants can reject up to two topics if they are uncomfortable discussing them.
  • You can use one large set of index cards for the whole group. Duplicate cards are fine. Have enough cards for each participant (and a few extras). Distribute one card to each team. After one person has talked, distribute another card to the other participant. Do not give both cards at once. The second participant will be tempted to focus on what he may say when he should be listening to his partner!
  • Give a 30-second warning before play is to end.
Try these variations:
  • Choose the controversial topics so that they are all  related to your industry, field, or organization.
  • After the first participant speaks on a topic for 3 minutes, allow the second participant to speak on the same topic for 3 minutes. Discuss how two monologues are different from one discussion.
  • Allow the listener to speak, but only to ask questions to understand better the other’s position.

 

ME, MYSELF, AND I

This is a  story-telling activity that forces participants to communicate about anything except themselves.

The purpose is that participants see how often their communication is centered on themselves.

Use this when:
  • Individuals need to improve their communication skills to focus less on self and more on others.
  • Individuals need to focus on listening skills.
  • Individuals need to practice creativity (around communication techniques).
  • You don’t have prep time and/or materials for anything more elaborate.
Materials you’ll need:

No materials are necessary for this activity.

Here’s how:
  1. Have the participants pair up.
  2. One partner begins by speaking for 3 minutes nonstop. He must continue talking, no pauses.
  3. He may speak about any topic or several topics.
  4. He may never use the word “I.”
  5. The listening partner may not speak at all, not even to ask questions or say “uh-huh.”
  6. After his 3 minutes, reverse roles, and repeat.
Ask these questions . . .
  • Which role was easier for you, the speaker or the listener? Why?
  • How did you feel listening without being able to ask questions or contribute your own thoughts? (Left out, less connected, more focused on the speaker, etc.)
  • How did you feel speaking without being able to check in with your listener? (Worried that he was not understanding or did not care, uncomfortable with the attention on me, enjoying the attention and focus, etc.).
  • How difficult or easy was it to keep talking non-stop? Why? 
  • What creative ways did you find to talk about yourself without using “I?”
  • How can we phrase our communications to focus better on the other person?
  • What implications does this have for us back on the job?
Tips for success:
  • Be prepared to demonstrate a portion of a 2-minute monologue without using “I” if the group demands it. Have the group try to catch you using an “I.”
  • Give a 30-second warning before the play ends.
Try these variations . . .
  • Add a get-to-know-you element by having them determine who is the first speaker and listener by who is oldest, who lives furthest from your location, who has the next birthday, the cutest pet, is most physically fit, and so forth.
  • Extend the speaking time to 5 minutes to make it more difficult.
  • Add competitiveness by allowing the listeners to gain two points for each time the speaker say“I” and one point when they pause more than 5 seconds. Be prepared with small prizes for the winner(s). During the debrief, ask how competitiveness impacted the activity.

ORIGAMI

This is an activity in which participants follow instructions to fold a sheet of paper while keeping their eyes closed.

The purpose is that participants see how instructions can be interpreted differently, and thus how clear our communications need to be.

Use this when: 
  • Students are not communicating clearly or specifically.
  • Students make too many assumptions of their listeners.
  • You don’t have prep time and/or materials for anything more elaborate.
Materials you’ll need:
  • One sheet of paper for each participant.
Here’s how:
  1. Give each participant a sheet of paper.
  2.  Announce that you will give them instructions on how to fold their paper.
  3. Have them close their eyes. They must keep their eyes closed, and they may not ask questions during your instructions.
  4. Give instructions to fold and rip their papers several times.
  5. Have everyone open their eyes, unfold their papers, and compare what they look like.
For example: 
  • Fold your paper in half 
  • Now, fold it in half again.
  • Then, fold it in half one more time.
  • Now, rip off the right corner.
  • Turn your paper over and rip off the upper corner.
Ask these questions:
  • Did everyone come up with the same end result?  Why or why not?
  • How would the results have been different if your eyes were left open? (We could have compared and copied what others were doing; etc.).
  • How did you feel as I was giving the instructions? (Confused, I wanted to ask questions, frustrated with you, etc.)
  • How could my instructions have been improved?
  • What implication does this have for us back on the job?
Tips for success: 
  • Give the instructions slowly and deliberately. You are not trying to lose them or trick them. Repeat as necessary.
  • Do not correct anyone as he or she is folding. There is no one right answer. The instructions are ambiguous on purpose.
  • Watch to see if anyone opens his or her eyes. When is it appropriate to break the rules?
Try these variations:
  • Invite participants to give the directions to the group. See if they can accomplish more consistent results after your debrief.
  • Allow the participants to keep their eyes open, but make the folding more complex. Use origami paper, and give the instructions for folding it into an origami shape.

 

About the author

Mike from LessonTunes

Mike from LessonTunes

Hello! I’m Mike, a full-time classroom teacher, researcher and ed-blogger. I teach communication and social studies.

My mission is to help as many students as possible by helping their teachers understand them, reach them, and make their classrooms an incredible place to learn.

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