How to Practice the Art of Active Listening

How many people do you know that approach a conversation as if it were a competition, going something like this: When I pause, you jump in with your thoughts; when you pause, I jump back in so I can top your story or hijack the conversation back to my side.

It’s a fight for control.

Your conversations will be smoother and more successful if you remember that every sentence in a conversation has a history, and you have to practice deliberate listening skills to understand that history better so you can understand the person behind it better.

There’s another way to look at it. The human brain can process somewhere between 350 and 550 words a minute, while most people usually only speak around 120 words a minute. In virtually every exchange of communication, each participating brain has room for 230-375 extra words’ worth of thought to float around. That gives our minds plenty of chance to drift and wander, whether we’re the one speaking or listening.

It’s so easy to slide into the basic communication pitfall of drifting away from the person speaking, often thinking about what we’re going to say next rather than being focused on what we’re communicating or what’s being said to us.

It’s time to challenge your brain to stay in the moment, to be fully present in listening to a conversation, not just preparing how you’re going to respond.

It’s called active listening.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Communication Skills Training by James W. Williams

Have you ever been misunderstood and misinterpreted? Do you sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret the signals you are receiving?

These situations indicate the inability to communicate appropriately, and it can prove to be detrimental in life and your career. You might be surprised at how many opportunities you could be missing out on. Likewise, a lot of relationships have been ruined because people do not know how to send out the right signals or receive them properly.

What if I told you that “communicating” is not only simple and straightforward but also easy to master?

However, with so much false information taught by the “gurus,” it is sometimes hard to cut through the noise. That’s where this book comes in.

This book will give you everything you need to become a better and more effective communicator.

The book Communication Skills Training: How to Talk to Anyone, Connect Effortlessly, Develop Charisma, and Become a People Person provides a comprehensive guide on how you can quickly move through conversations, and express yourself in a manner that is conducive to relationship-building and productivity.


According to author James Williams, many people do not fully realize the impact successful, two-way conversations have on our daily lives.

While most of us feel comfortable at some level speaking to others, many people do not understand the importance of “listening” in a conversation.

You might be surprised to find out that the ability to process information being directed at you is just as important as clearly conveying your thoughts and ideas. 

But listening is not enough. You also have to do it in an empathetic and attentive manner in order to carry on a conversation.

Surprisingly, one of the most important tools that you need to develop in your communication skills is not your mouth. It is those two things on either side of your head.

James W. Williams

The most basic explanation of active listening is that it is the kind of listening that involves the use of one’s full concentration. The goal of this type of listening is to understand the person delivering the message.

Active listening is a skill which you have to develop over time. To do this, here are some steps to help you make yourself an active and effective listener.

  1. Eye Contact

When you talk to a person and you try your best to avoid meeting their eyes, this is a telltale sign that you are not giving the conversation your full attention. When a person is speaking to you, stay focused on your gaze to lock your attention to the conversation at hand.

2. Relax

There is a difference between making eye contact and staring fixedly at the person. The goal is to maintain focus while tuning out all distractions.

3. An Open Mind

Indulging in mental criticisms in the middle of a conversation will impede your ability to effectively listen to the other person. You must listen without making any hasty conclusions.

4. Visualize

The best way to retain and process information in your brain is to convert that information into a “mental image” of sorts. This could be a sequence of abstract things forming a narrative or even an actual mental picture.

5. Avoid Interjections

When you interrupt a person, you convey messages of self-importance or pressing time. What you have to understand is that people think and feel at very different paces.

6. Wait for the Stop

A stop in a conversation happens when a person does not add anything else after a second or so of not talking. Once the stop has occurred, you can then present your response.

7. Maintain Course

The things that we say right after a person is done talking have, more often than not, nothing to do with the topic, but it is easy to derail an entire conversation this way.

8. Step in Their Shoes

Learn to synchronize your emotions with that of the speaker’s. Make your reactions visible through the words you say and the expressions you show.

9. Give Feedback

It is not enough that you see things from that person’s perspective or understand what they are feeling. You also have to visibly confirm to the speaker that you are listening.

10. Pay Attention to What Isn’t Said

Most of the direct forms of communication you will regularly encounter are non-verbal. It is up to you to know how to pick up on non-verbal clues.

James W. Williams, Communication Skills Training


Set aside an hour of time to use the list above as a “self-check” on your active listening skills.

First, review the list above to make sure you have a good understanding of what the author is trying to convey in defining the characteristic of listening.

Next, write each phrase down the left side of a chart tablet for use during the rest of this exercise.

Next, thinking back over the past week, briefly write words or a phrase that demonstrates when you DID or DID NOT use this characteristic in a conversation. Your goal should be to have at least one example (positive or negative) for each of the ten characteristics.

Next, review the list, and circle up to three characteristics that you DID NOT practice. Choose one, and brainstorm how you will improve in this area in your conversations over the next week. At the end of the week, reflect on how you have done. 

Repeat this last step for the next two weeks if you listed any characteristics that needed improving.

This exercise can also be easily adapted for use in your team meetings.

Part of a regular series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

During my elementary school years one of the things I looked forward to the most was the delivery of “My Weekly Reader,” a weekly educational magazine designed for children and containing news-based, current events.

It became a regular part of my love for reading, and helped develop my curiosity about the world around us.

Along with early and ongoing encouragement from my parents – especially my father – reading was established as a passion in my life that I was happy to continually learn from, share with my children, and watch them share with their children.


Listening is an Active Verb

At Starbucks, listening is synonymous with connecting, discovering, understanding, empathizing, and responding.     – Joseph Michelli, Leading the Starbucks Way

The benefits of this type of listening fuel the entrepreneurial and adaptive spirit of a brand that could have easily lost its nimbleness as a result of its growth and scale.

courtesy 360degreefeedback

courtesy 360degreefeedback

According to organizational consultant Joseph Michelli, many leaders are either too busy to listen or are more interested in speaking. As a result, listening intently, regularly, and respectfully to team members separates the great leader from the good one.

In the Starbucks organization, listening takes many forms. While leaders listen informally at an individual or team level, Starbucks also has a formalized department that consistently listens for the needs and engagement level of partners.

Virgil Jones, director, Partner Services at Starbucks, notes:

Our team conducts surveys, focus groups, and continuously takes a pulse on our partner population. Within that department, the most important thing I do on a daily basis is listen to our partners. The second most important thing I do is continue to touch base with our partners and adjust, because with the way technology is advancing, the things that are hot, interesting, and engaging with our partners today is going to be completely different 18 months from now.

Michelle Gass, president, Starbucks Europe, Middle East, and Africa, like many other Starbucks senior leaders, demonstrates a different kind of regular and personal listening that fuels partner engagement. Her approach comes in the form of “listening tours.” According to Michelle:

I travel across my region regularly and conduct listen tours and roundtable meetings. These are informal meetings where we spend about 90 minutes paying attention to the thoughts, needs, and ideas of those we serve. While listening is important, taking swift action to elevate experiences is essential. These tours are an ongoing process of connection and discovery, not an event.

Michelli adds:

In many ways, when leaders demonstrate formal and informal listening, they not only engage employees but also gain access to information that helps them stay relevant to the needs and observations of their team members.

ChurchWorld Application

  1. Do you practice regular, scheduled “listening tours” with your front-line team members?
  2. What are your systematic approaches to other types of leadership listening?
  3. How do you complete the listening cycle (what actions do you take to inform your team members that they have been “heard”?)

Are you really listening to your teams? What are you hearing? Most importantly, what are you doing?

Part 5 of a series in the 2013 GsD Fall Term

Leading the Starbucks Way: Information, Insights, and Analysis Needed to Create a High-Performance Guest-Oriented Organization

inspired by and adapted from Leading The Starbucks Way, by Joseph Michelli