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.”

Practice self-control

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.”

Ask questions

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.

Comment by Marcus Raitner at 08:33 on 29 June 2010.
Thanks for sharing this! I fully agree with you on the importance of active listening; it is truly the no. 1 skill of a successful project manager. Yet, I think this importance is not adequately reflected in trainings and education, where mostly tools and techniques are taught. Communication skills is where experience and culture makes the difference, not tools. (My thoughts about communication in general and especially enterprise microblogging you can read here, although only in german, sorry for that:
Comment by Ron Rosenhead at 12:17 on 29 June 2010.
The trouble is that from an early age listening is not taught as a skill. You somehow acquire it with the reality being few develop really good listening skills.

Good article thanks Jo Anne
Comment by Geoff Crane at 18:01 on 29 June 2010.
It's an honour to be quoted here among these distinguished people, Jo Ann. Thank you so much for spending the time to interview me.
Comment by Jo Ann Sweeney at 06:28 on 30 June 2010.
Thanks Marcus, Ron & Geoff
I consider myself lucky as I learnt active listening skills when training to be a journalist and have found them incredibly useful in every job I've done since.
You're right that so few people have the opportunity to learn active listening unless they have a manager willing and able to teach them.
Regards, Jo Ann
Comment by Nick (Mykola Dudar) at 19:59 on 30 June 2010.
Great summary. Thanks for posting! Quick comment on the question you stated at the top. Why is active listening so important?
It is important because using it we confirm that we heard the other person. We appreciated their opinion, we understood it and we valued it. And if we make someone feel important and valued, she is likely to support us and respond well to what we have to say. To summary, active listening helps us to stay in open dialog and this really helps in achieving success.
Comment by Project Management Tools That Work (Bruce Benson) at 13:59 on 01 July 2010.
I stumbled upon "active listening" when I worked as a phone solicitor in my teenage years. I could tell almost immediately in the first words I heard after my spiel if I could make a sell or not.
I find it fairly hard to do all the time. It is too easy to get "lazy" especially during long meetings or with people who just love to talk.
I called it the "Ultimate Project Management Tool" in the article
Good review and summary.
Bruce Benson
Managing Consultant, Benson Consulting
Comment by Jo Ann Sweeney at 20:35 on 06 July 2010.
Nick & Bruce
Thanks for your comments, I'm glad you found the article interesting. Nick you are spot on about how active listening also builds relationships.
Thanks for the link to your article Bruce, I enjoyed reading it and the graphics made me smile.
Regards, Jo Ann
Comment by Deanne Earle at 16:38 on 15 July 2010.
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me Jo Ann. Your post is excellent and, as Geoff said, it's an honour to be included.
Comment by anitti at 19:56 on 25 August 2011.
One of the problems of a leader to listen is that the leader thinks that He/she is superior and the dominating character, through which they dont allow their team members to put forth their views.Can you suggest ways to overcome this type of problems?
Comment by Jo Ann Sweeney at 07:49 on 05 September 2011.
Hi Anitti, a great question that people face around the world. There are lots of ways to overcome this and difficult to know what to suggest without talking with you to get more detail.

Having said this, at the root is things like trust and respect. Do the team and leader trust each other and if not, why not? Greater the levels of trust and respect the more likely they are to listen to each other.
Comment by anitti at 19:01 on 05 September 2011.
Thank you Jo for valuable response !! So we can say that Trust and Respect for human is necessary in every step of life for things to go well in any organization !!! is it??
Comment by gundip at 15:35 on 06 October 2011.
ya i agree that active listening is necessary in any organisation,. but the leader & sub ordinate communication has some type of barriers ! how to overcome this???
Comment by Seona Cruz at 11:28 on 17 January 2014.
Nice information. PMP study corroborated with similar studies on the improved communication between the development of greater leadership quality awareness and stakeholders, with formal training courses helping attendees understand the material discussed in team and stakeholder meetings. Many respondents viewed professional certification & its free resources like as a necessary part of progression in this field by equipping project managers with an in-depth knowledge of a successful project’s attributes.
Comment by Lydia Perry at 11:29 on 17 January 2014.
I agree with pretty much everything you say here. To deliver the greatest amount of value in the shortest amount of time, Scrum promotes prioritization and Time-boxing over fixing the scope, cost and schedule of a project. An important feature of Scrum is self-organization, which allows the individuals who are actually doing the work to estimate and take ownership of tasks.You can learn the agile way of managing project through

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