Boost Your Listening, Decision-Making and Creative Skills with These UCB Workshop Exercises

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Can people change? We know from firsthand experience that the answer is yes. Organizations large and small often ask us to find ways to catalyze change and improve their teams’ daily interactions -- among one another and with their clients.

The exercises below come straight from UCB workshops. They’re designed to address essential challenges every team faces: listening, making choices and creative collaboration. And they help participants rethink the way they work and communicate. Best of all, you can try all of them on your own.


We’re often asked to help our clients’ employees become better listeners. Why aren’t most people good listeners? It’s not that they’re being difficult or unkind. (Usually.) Rather, most people are often too preoccupied with themselves. They might be thinking ahead to the next meeting, or an email they need to send, or even what they want to say to the person they’re talking to. So they invariably struggle to really hear what that person in front of them is trying to communicate.

Listening is a major focus in most of our improv exercises. The guiding principle is to force the participants to hang on to each other’s every word and limit their ability to make plans while the other person is speaking. This eliminates both distraction and hesitation and fosters engagement, presence.

One-Word Story is one exercise we often use in workshops to improve listening skills. Participants form a circle and attempt to tell a story together, with each person contributing only a single word at a time. We begin with the instructor and move clockwise until the instructor declares the story has finished.

Each participant in a One-Word Story exercise is entirely at the mercy of the person who speaks before they do. While everyone will have a general sense of where things are going as the story develops, any attempt to overplan will cause a participant to let their guard down and stumble when it’s their turn. This forces everyone to get out of their heads and pay close attention to what’s being said, rather than what they think will be said.

Making Choices

Listening only means something if you can make choices based on what you’ve heard. You then must be able to reconcile your ongoing choices with how your client, customer, or collaborator receives them.

Whereas One-Word Story teaches participants to listen by reacting in the moment to other players’ moves, Mind Meld requires participants to think and strategize. In this exercise, two participants face each other and silently think of a random word to say. On the count of three, they say it aloud. Then, they are allowed a few seconds to think to themselves about what the connection is between those two words, and boil that connection down to another, single word. They then say that word on the count of three.

This continues until the two participants finally land on the same word. For example, if one person says “orange” and the other says “Frisbee,” the connection word might be “circle” — but even when the solution seems obvious, the pressure can cause participants to overthink or get distracted.

Plus, the person who said “orange” could have been thinking of either the color or the fruit. Lots of room for miscommunication in such a simple game! It’s hard to do in the moment, so it often takes a few turns.

Note that the participants here aren’t making choices just to appear decisive and strong. Rather, they’re making an active, collaborative effort to get on the same page. Confidence in decision-making comes from trust that you’re working towards the same goal as your collaborator. This kind of trust leaves zero room for judgment.

These exercises will help your employees learn one another’s habits and thought processes, helping them get a better feel for how to work together. This does the double duty of getting everyone comfortable together and providing a rough framework for both workers and managers to begin building their unique collaborative framework. Then you can start to get creative.

Creative Collaboration

Creativity doesn’t come from some secret sauce. It comes from teams that trust one another with their best and worst ideas and impulses and understand how to build up from them.

Dueling Companies is a trial-by-fire creativity exercise where participants are put into groups to defend the worst ideas the activity leader can dream up. Each group represents a company and a hypothetical bad idea; upon receiving their brief, each group must brainstorm and execute a presentation about why that idea -- whether it’s a new product, an internal initiative or an overarching decision -- is actually great.

No, you’re not learning the best way to put lipstick on a pig. (Though you probably will get better at that, which doesn’t hurt.) You’re pulling it together with a group of trustworthy collaborators with zero time to second-guess your impulses. Second-guessing is a creative’s worst habit; a time limit can be their best friend.

Moving Forward as a Team

Exercises like these can be thrilling for teams -- and we don’t use that word lightly. They allow employees and managers to step out of the trenches and experience the bigger picture of what’s possible and what it’s like to communicate better. That’s powerful stuff: not just talking about change, but instead experiencing it in the moment.

Put aside a day to run through these exercises with your team and see what happens. You might just have some breakthroughs about setbacks your team members have been facing individually, or as a group. And if you and your team like what you see, there’s much more where that came from.


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