When I started teaching Business Writing and Communication eight years ago, I designed an application-based course with in-class exercises and activities. Peter Cardon’s Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World, 4th edition, forms the foundation for the course, with students reading chapters before class, so that class time could be dedicated to applying the concepts from each chapter. Students would work in small groups while I would walk around the classroom, reading over their shoulders and eavesdropping on their conversations.
In Fall 2020, I still taught the course in-person in an auditorium so students could sit six feet apart. Students wouldn’t work in small groups, and I wouldn’t roam the classroom as they worked. But I wanted to do exercises and activities, despite the limitations.
One of my best adaptations was a series of listening and non-verbal communication activities to coincide with Chapter Two of Cardon’s text, “Interpersonal Communication and Emotional Intelligence.” In the second week of the course, students learn how a message is encoded by the sender and decoded by the receiver. They learn about emotional intelligence. They focus on the differences between speaking and writing, how speech uses the voice—tone, breath, pitch, pace—and, if face-to-face, expressions, posture, gestures. The activities I had designed wouldn’t work when students were six feet apart, so I adapted four, using a PowerPoint to give instructions to some students while others faced the back of the classroom.
Activity 1: The difference between active and passive listening
To explain active listening, Cardon says “Listening requires hard work. And it requires more than simply hearing. It requires one’s full attention and all senses. In fact, great listeners respond physically to others” (p. 38). In this activity, students would experience how it feels to have someone actively listening to you, someone responding physically to you as you are speaking, and how that feeling changes when the listener stops listening.
To begin, students chose a partner nearby. One person was designated “A” (Alpha) and the other “B” (Beta). First, Alpha would face forward and get a set of instructions, while Beta faced the back of the room. Then, they would switch so Beta could receive instructions.
For the first activity, Alpha faced forward to read the prompt: “Talk for 3 minutes without stopping, no matter what Beta does.” Then, Alpha faced the back of the room to think of a topic and Beta faced forward to get the prompt: “As Alpha talks, raise your hand every time you want to respond to something Alpha says, but do not speak.”
The classroom got loud as the Alphas, animated and excited, told a story to the Betas six feet away. The Betas raised and lowered their hands as the Alphas spoke. After two minutes, I asked the Alphas to stop talking and face the back of the room. On the slides, I changed the Betas’ instruction: “Now stop responding to Alpha while they talk. Don’t raise your hand, don’t make eye contact, don’t nod. Start looking around the room, checking your phone, etc.”
When the Alphas resumed their stories, the classroom got loud again for a few moments, but then the volume and energy started to deplete as the Betas looked away from the Alphas, slouched their posture, pulled out their phones, and did everything to indicate they were no longer paying attention. The Alphas got quieter and slower in their talking and within a minute they had stopped entirely. At that point, we discussed the exercise. The Alphas talked about how it was strange when the Betas were raising their hands, but they felt the Betas listening. They said after the Betas changed their behavior, the activity was much harder. The Alphas felt silly, awkward, uncomfortable, and couldn’t keep talking when the message wasn’t going anywhere. The Alphas reported having a powerful experience of the value of active listening, where people are engaging, even if they aren’t speaking. The Betas also reported feeling very bad about ignoring the Alphas, realizing how important they were to the Alphas ability to continue with the exercise.
Activity 2: Emotion charades
Cardon explains in Chapter Two how important sight-reading non-verbal signals is for developing empathy, “By various estimates, nonverbal communication accounts for 60 to 80 percent of meaning in various face-to-face business situations, including in conversations, meetings, and negotiations. Gestures, expressions, tone, and other nonverbal signals convey seriousness or sarcasm, enthusiasm or disinterest, caring or lack of concern, attentiveness or boredom, and many other messages” (p. 47). In the second activity, students acted out emotions to help them recognize how much information can be conveyed nonverbally and to practice sight-reading the components of nonverbal communication analyzed in the textbook. While we had talked explicitly in class about the components of nonverbal communication, this exercise helped students remember that content.
Students chose a number between 1 and 10. Then, I showed a slide that had an emotion listed next to each number. The students acted out that emotion, without words or sounds, until their partner guessed the emotion. The students found this exercise challenging since they had masks on. Surprise was much more difficult when it rested in just the eyebrows without the open mouth that we associate with it. But students found ways to mime symbols like handcuffs for guilt and the meditation gesture of thumb to middle finger with eyes closed for calm.
Activity 3: Instructions challenge
As another mechanism for illustrating to students the challenges with effective communication and helping them understand the concept of “noise” as described in the textbook, students tried to get their partner to draw a picture that only the person giving instructions could see. Cardon describes four types of noise and how they can interfere with the successful encoding or decoding of a message: “Noise causes distortion to or interruption of messages. Four types of noise affect the quality of message delivery: physical noise, physiological noise, semantic noise, and psychological noise” (p. 30).
For this activity, we resumed the use of “A” and “B” as we had done in the first activity, with only one group of students looking at the PowerPoint instructions at a time. The Alphas looked at a picture, like a simple drawing of a rocket ship, and tried to instruct the Betas to draw the image. But the Alpha could not say “Draw a rocket ship.” Instead, the Alphas had to tell the Betas to draw squares, triangles, and circles of a particular size and arrangement.
In this activity, students realized how hard it is to get people to do what you want or to understand the concepts that are so clear in your mind. Physical noise was easily experienced by the noisy classroom where students were shouting to their partner six feet away. Semantic noise came out in instructions like “draw a triangle at the top of the page,” which led to various results that didn’t quite match what the Alpha had in mind. Students discussed psychological noise primarily as experiencing stress in trying to “get it right” and “make their partner happy” in doing the activity. The students liked the experience so much, we switched the picture, and the Betas also tried to give instructions to the Alphas.
Activity 4: Zen counting
For our final activity, we tried Zen counting. The idea of Zen counting is that a group counts out loud from 1 to however many people are in the group, which was 25 for our class. Each person says one number, but no one is assigned a number, no order for saying numbers is established, and no one says start. If two people speak at the same time, the group starts over, but without any signal to start over.
The goal for this activity was to bring all of the listening and nonverbal skills together in one experience. Students have to practice active listening, emotional intelligence, empathy, and sight-reading all at once in order to be successful.
We took a deep breath and then began counting. This was an amazing final activity as it had them all working together, listening to each other’s numbers and nonverbals like the quick intake of breath before someone speaks. Again, this was harder with masks, since we couldn’t see the opening of a mouth that would signal the intention to speak. After about 4-5 tries they were able to get to 25, and when they did, they clapped.
Creating activities to practice listening and nonverbal communication when students are six feet apart and masked was a challenge, but these exercises gave students concrete and visceral experiences of the concepts they had read about in their textbook. The application of those concepts made them much more memorable for students and they were able to connect these concepts to further coursework throughout the semester.
Jenny Morse teaches practical writing skills for business communication at Colorado State University. She draws on her experience in publishing, her ongoing work as a freelance writer and editor, and her 10 years teaching creative writing and composition.
Jenny Morse. (2021). Listening and non-verbal activities for the COVID classroom. the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.1.