Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.
"To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation."
-- FranÃ§ois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
Interpersonal skills are crucial to project management. There's a lot of literature about them, even a section dedicated to them in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)--Fifth Edition. Still, some of us think it is too much work to improve on an interpersonal level.
I believe that good interpersonal skills can transform you into a "WOW!" project manager, as U.S. business management writer Tom Peters would say.
In my view, one of the most challenging interpersonal skills to develop is communication. And communication is equal parts listening and speaking. However, I would say it's twice as important to be a good listener than a good speaker. Greek philosopher Epictetus said: "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."
Being an active listener is not easy. I think it is more art than skill, so I often encourage my colleagues to review and use this checklist every time they have an important meeting with stakeholders and team members. It includes five elements; if you try to work on one at a time, you will end up becoming an active listener:
Be 100 percent attentive to what your speaker is saying.
Let the speaker know that you are listening: establish eye contact and nod often.
Be open to what he or she has to tell you and encourage honest communication, no matter what.
Avoid making judgments about what you are hearing. Try to be empathetic about what is being said and wait until the conversation is concluded before responding. When something is not clear, try to rephrase it to make sure that you understood correctly, prefacing it with: "What I am hearing is that..."
Provide feedback appropriately. If you feel upset or annoyed in any way, then call for a pause. The worst thing you can do is to continue a conversation that is making you feel uncomfortable, because inevitably, you'll stop listening and the speaker will stop talking.
That's what I try to put in practice to be better at my listening skills, although I recognize it is very difficult and usually this takes a lot of conscious effort and self-discipline.
Do you have more tips to add to this checklist on how to become an active listener?
Epictetus offers timeless advice about the importance of listening. I have often thought of communication as a partnership between sender and receiver. It has been even more important in my professional capacity to not only listen actively but with an open mind. It is often difficult to turn off preconceived notions - about stakeholders, team members, even potential market segments. We are, after all - human. But I personally find it helpful to take a few moments before I step into a meeting or hop on a teleconference - to clear my mind and orient on the project and not the individuals in the meeting. When I can come to a conversation with an open, neutral mindset, it is easier to actively listen to what my conversation partners are trying to communicate.