The Art of Listening

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.   – Stephen R. Covey

Back to the arts! So far, you may have read my thoughts on the art of asking questions and/or the art of facilitation. The next great art is that of listening!

So, listen up.

You have likely heard about active listening, which can be defined as “fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker.” That is, you listen actively. You are completely focused on what is being said, how it is being said, who is saying it, what verbal and non-verbal cues are being sent… and the list goes on.

I think active listening is really important for a lot of reasons – especially as a project manager. Not only will you be better in tune with what is happening with regards to your projects and stakeholders, but your reputation as a team player will grow if you become known as someone who is a good listener.

On the productivity side, listening has some great benefits. First, if you really listen, you will be able to ask the right questions to better understand the information that is being delivered to you. If you not only listen to the words someone is saying, but also read her body language, hear her tone of voice, and consider the full context of what she is saying and to whom, you will be better able to understand what your stakeholder is trying to communicate and why. And when you are a very advanced listener (combined with asking great questions), you will be able to read between the lines and listen for the things that people are not telling you – which can help you get to the root cause of underlying issues and/or uncover true stakeholder needs.

On the reputation side, being a good listener will make you look like an all-star.  You will really get to know your team members and stakeholders by truly listening to what they say and how they communicate, which will allow you to manage your team and facilitate better discussions. You will be seen as someone who is patient, cares about others’ opinions, and is an engaging person whom people will gravitate toward – both personally and professionally. All of those positive outcomes will help you build lasting relationships that are based on trust and mutual respect.

If you find yourself not yet mastering the art of listening, here are a few tips to help you get on track.

  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • Do NOT think about what you are going to say next – In short, pay attention! If you are thinking about what you want to say next, you are not listening. This one is a tough one, especially if you are working with sponsors and stakeholders who are superior to you and you want to say something intelligent. With practice, and as you get to know the topic/project/organization/stakeholder a bit better, you will feel comfortable allowing yourself to simply listen and thoughtfully react versus worry about what to say next.
  • DO respond with a comment, question, or transition – Instead of thinking about what you are going to say next when someone is speaking, really listen to what they are saying, and then determine how you will respond, if at all. Whether it is a thought, question, or some sort of transition that connects what the person is saying to a different topic, following this rule will highlight the fact that you were listening and make you look smarter and more engaged.
  • Do NOT jump in and interrupt the speaker – I unfortunately find myself guilty of this one at times, and it is something that I am actively working on. Like me, you may be so excited about a topic that you want to get your comment out there to enrich the conversation – or so you think. Instead, what interrupting does is show the person who is speaking that you do not respect her, that you are not listening, and that are more concerned with what you have to say than what she will add to the discussion.
  • DO take notes if an idea comes to mind and you think you may forget it – Instead of interrupting, write down your thoughts so you can come back to them later. This kind of tactic shows organization and thoughtfulness, and will allow you to continue listening. Another benefit of taking notes is that you will not fall victim to the ever-familiar “Oh, I had something to say, but I lost it…” phenomena. I actually know a bit of sign language, and I sometimes discreetly form the first letter of a word that will remind me of what I want to say if I do not have a pen handy. Random, I know – but somewhat effective in a pinch!

So take a step back and let your colleagues and stakeholders have the stage for a bit. Listen to what they have to say, ask questions, and use the information you have gained to be a better project manager.