This is like classic children’s game of Telephone, but with people’s real-life stories. This is important because listening skills are essential for developing greater empathy and compassion. Indeed, it’s an essential part of all social and emotional learning.

Group Size
  • Any Size
  • None


  1. Give everyone a card with a number on it. Then pair people up randomly: perhaps 1 with 2, 3 with 4, etc.
  2. Tell all the people who are holding an odd number that they will tell a 3-minute story about something interesting, wild, or crazy that happened to them in the past 5 years. The people holding the even-numbered cards will just listen. This is not a conversation; it’s more like a soliloquy. Only the people holding odd numbers will be speaking for now.
  3. After 3 minutes, you switch. Now all the people holding even numbers will tell their own 3-minute story about something interesting, wild, or crazy that happened to them in the past 5 years.
  4. After the second 3 minutes, you halt the storytelling. You can say the following: “Thank your partner for listening to your story. Now you are going to give your card to your partner. So #2 will be holding card #1, and vice versa. #4 will be holding #3, etc. “Here’s where it gets interesting. You are going to find a new partner. You now have to tell the story you just heard (the one associated with the card you are holding) to another person as if it were yours! You will re-tell the story, except this time you will tell it as if it happened to you. Try to remember all the details and tell it as accurately and completely as possible.”
  5. Have people spend 3 minutes telling each other the story associated with the person who gave them the original card. In other words, this is similar to steps 2 and 3 above, except for the fact that people are telling other people’s stories as if it were their own!
  6. Then the process repeats itself: Everybody in the room trades cards one more time. Then everybody finds a third partner. And for the final time, the people tell stories associated with the card they are holding – as if those stories were their own. So again this third round will go for 6 minutes: 3 minutes for each story.
  7. Finally everyone trades cards for the third time. In other words, the card is now in the hand of a fourth and final person. Now you ask for volunteers to tell the story associated with that card. Again they are going to tell the story as if it happened to them! Mind you, these are stories that they heard third-hand. When each volunteer has finished telling the story, you can ask whose story that was originally. That person will be able to tell everyone how accurate the fourth-hand version of the story is! There will probably be a lot of laughter and bewilderment. As in the children’s game of Telephone, the story has probably been garbled in numerous ways. It may not even have any relation to the original story.
  • It’s very important that you don’t give away the point of this game. It’s really a game about active listening. But don’t tell people that at the beginning. Instead you should keep it a secret. You can tell people that it’s another storytelling exercise. And it is that, but it has a big twist.
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Talk to the participants about what they believe to be the lessons of this game. If, indeed, the stories changed dramatically, why is that? (Presumably, after the first round, when they knew the trick of the game, they were trying to listen more closely. Yet still it’s probable that the story changed in numerous ways.)

It’s like the children’s game of Telephone. People tell each other stories. Yet we all know how often people don’t really listen to each other. They often are just waiting for others to finish speaking, so that they can contribute their own brilliant idea. Or they are lost in their head, thinking about what they are going to say next. Or they are distracted, thinking about what they are going to do about a problem at home. In other words, we rarely ever truly pay total attention and listen to another. This game will reveal that in a humorous way.

Moreover, this game emphasizes the importance of empathy – of being able to stand in another person’s shoes and take on their perspectives.


Harvard professor Steven Pinker even theorizes that the significant decline in violence around the world over the past several decades is likely correlated to an increase of empathy. As we read books and see films about the lives of people of different cultures, genders, nationalities, and sexual orientations, we are more likely to respect them.


Transformative Action Institute, based on the traditional game

Additional Readings

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature