The Art of Active Listening

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Categories: Communication

"To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation."
-- François 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: 

  1. Be 100 percent attentive to what your speaker is saying.
  2. Let the speaker know that you are listening: establish eye contact and nod often. 
  3. Be open to what he or she has to tell you and encourage honest communication, no matter what.
  4. 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..."
  5. 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?
Posted by Jorge Valdés Garciatorres on: July 22, 2013 06:12 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Marc Wong
I define listening as the art and practice of putting someone else’s speaking, thinking and feeling needs ahead of our own. Give people a chance to think about and express their project ideas and concerns. Often it's helpful to be a sounding board and just let people talk about project steps.

Emad E. Aziz, PgMP, PMP
Thank you Jorge for this piece. Very much to the point and addresses an often over looked though very much needed skill for every project manager. Most of the people I have seen grow in our profession have mastered their interpersonal skills, and of course focused on active listening. Many references state that the 70% to 90% of a Project/Program Manager's time is spent communicating, and I would tend to argue that without proper active listening, the PM would be delusional of the real issues, dependencies, and risks on their project/program. Only one thing I would add to your list, which is the ability to interpret para-lingual communications and body language. We have all be in situations where what was said to us had a completely different meaning when matched to the non-verbal communication style of the sender.

John Sebrasky
Right on point.

Also would like add that good communication happens when the receiver understands, and comprehends what the sender is sending. Active listening is a part of that process.

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.

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