Active listening – the no.1 skill for project managers
by Jo Ann Sweeney - 06:13 on 29 June 2010
When we asked project managers about the skills they need for leading teams top of their list was active listening.
Back in March I asked project managers from all four corners of the globe for the top five communication skills they need to lead their teams. Since then I’ve tested their views against those of people attending my communicating projects workshops. Every time active listening comes out on top.
So why is active listening so important? What difference does it make to project success? And is it a skill that can easily be learnt?
Pay attention to words and behaviour
At its heart the secret of active listening is taking our focus off ourselves and putting it on other people. When we listen we hear their interests and concerns and begin to understand how these affect their attitudes and behaviour. The better we listen the more we hear and understand.
Reading non-verbal signals – facial expressions, body language and tone of voice - is part of active listening. Does the other person looked bored or nervous, are they fiddling with their hands, or often checking the time.
For New Zealander Deanne Earle, now working in Italy: “It’s listening to everything going on with that person while they’re speaking. Does what you are seeing match with what they are saying? If not ask what is going on here.”
Active listening means paying ful attention to what the other person is saying, rather than planning what we will say when they finish talking. It requires self discipline, keeping our own emotions in check and not taking things personally.
“Many project managers do not listen, they interrupt and impose their viewpoints,” said Dubai-based Kareem Shaker PMP. “A true leader has to listen and give the team a chance to express themselves. Listening is the main gate to trust and solid relationships.”
Reflect back to check understanding
As they speak we are analysing what they’re saying. We’re asking ourselves whether their words reflect what they really feel or think, and whether there is anything left unsaid. We spot their key points and reflect these back to check our understanding.
“Active listening is the most important leadership skill for any project,” said South African Linky Van Der Merwe PMP. “We need to listen so we can understand requirements and needs, especially with regard to stakeholders.This should happen throughout the project, not just at the beginning.”
Not everyone is good at articulating what they think and feel. Some people take time to think about things, they may get tongue-tied, or use abstract words that have multiple meanings. Open-ended questions help you make sense of their confusion.
Here are some I often use to help my clients connect with their tacit knowledge – they’re from The Seven C’s of Consulting by Mick Cope. Why has this problem surfaced? What are the implications of doing nothing? What are the criteria for a good solution? How will things be better or different once your project is complete?
Canadian Geoff Crane, owner of Papercut Project Monitoring, said: “We work with all kinds of people from different walks of life, we have to be able to understand them to get things done. Its part of being a project manager. If we’re not listening and understanding we’re going to wind up in lots of trouble down the road.”
Use friendly silence
Silence is a very powerful listening tool. Most people are uncomfortable with silence. Rather than letting a silent pause continue they speak into the gap and reveal more than they intended about what they are thinking and feeling.
According to Indian project manager Nirav Patel CAPM: “Every project manager should know how to listen. The benefits include getting people to open up and due to that lots of misunderstandings and conflicts can be resolved.”
Is it worth the effort
UK-based Penny Pullan PhD PMP, founder of Making Projects Work, answers by retelling the legend of the elephant and the six blind men. Each, having touched a part of the elephant, is convinced he has the full picture. They are all right in the detail but wrong when it comes to what an elephant is like. “If the six blind men had listened to each other they would not have carried on arguing.”
“As project managers we need to actively listen and practice actively every day. If we work at it and practice we can develop strong listening skills,” said Washington-based Jhaymee Wilson PMP.
This article is based on interviews that were originally published as Five Essential Rules for Project Leaders on the PMI Career Central website.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking in detail at each of the essential communication skills identified in my research, asking how project managers can develop those they need in their roles.
Jo Ann Sweeney is a communications consultant who helps project teams win the support of their sponsors, senior executives and end users.
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