How Active Listening Can Improve Your Project Management Career

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4 minutes

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I love the way Jordan B. Peterson thinks. I was recently introduced to his ideas by a friend of mine, who literally forced me to read his book, “12 Rules Of Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. Towards the end of it, I stopped at rule #9, which encourages you to assume that the person you’re listening to might know something that you don’t. The chapter advocates in big lines that meaningful communication involves mutual exploration where people have decided to discover the unknown through an active way of listening to each other.

So I thought, how does that apply to project management?

Let’s analyze the communication going out in a project altogether. To start with, the project manager receives the project vision from the sponsor or the client. Then, they have to transmit it to the project team in a clear manner so they can act upon it accordingly. The team in return updates them on the project progress and points out potential bottlenecks to make sure that the project will be delivered on time and on budget. In parallel, the project manager also consults the stakeholders to see if they have any suggestions or concerns regards the project execution.

Bear in mind that all these people come from various backgrounds and have different perspectives and interests that might spark potential conflicts. This makes active listening essential to managing a successful project.

But what exactly is active listening?

It refers to the listener’s efforts to clearly understand the other speaker.

As opposed to normal hearing, where you listen just to reply and not to understand, active listening requires being present in the moment and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.

This way, you’re able to connect with your partner on a deeper level and find out about their true goals.

At its highest form, active listening becomes reflection, i.e. to state what the other person has said with your own words. Put differently, it is to digest the information and pass it through your own thinking process. Other weaker listening forms include repetition, where no thinking is passed, rephrasing, which makes use of synonyms to pass the same idea, and mirroring, where the listener intentionally borrows the speaker’s words to make themselves more familiar with the topic.

You might ask yourself “Awesome, why isn’t every project manager using it?”. That’s because there are certain obstacles to it:

  • Physical ones: background noise, hearing disabilities
  • Cultural ones: bias towards the speaker’s gender, race, age, physical appearance, or authority
  • Linguistic ones: differences in the form of accents, idioms, voice pitch, and speech speed
  • Self-centered ones: having an own agenda, personal dislike of the speaker

Or, because project managers can’t see the real benefits of active listening:

  • Increased cooperation – through active listening, one can understand people’s intentions beyond their words. This turns every project manager into a trustworthy confidant. It also encourages team members to collaborate and form relationships on a deeper level.
  • Better decision making – by taking into account the team’s feedback, project managers get a clear vision of the project progress and potential bottlenecks.
  • Improved insight – asking open-ended questions helps leaders gain more knowledge about the project and what it takes to deliver it on time and on budget.
  • Heightened negotiation skills – leaving behind the need to be right encourages the other person to open up and be more willing to accept external ideas.

Even if they catch up on those, it’s quite difficult – but not impossible – to engage in this kind of listening. As a project manager, you might take an iterative approach and test it on your projects or adopt a new way of communication that implies less thinking about what you’re going to say. If none of these works, here’s my cheat sheet for you:

  1. Gather an advisory board. It’s best if they’re outside of your immediate circle so you can exchange perspectives with them. Ask them to poke holes into your ideas and search for a common solution.
  2. Think about the other person’s real goals. There’s always a real one, which is personal and hence unspoken, and a fake one for the crowd. Dig deeper and pick up on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language to find it. You can also ask yourself “Am I missing out on something?”, then act accordingly and observe the other person’s behavior.
  3. Do not interrupt the speaker. Nor judge them or assume you know what they’ll say. Listen even though you don’t agree with them 100%. The odds are that you’ve missed an important project detail that you didn’t even consider in the first place.
  4. Build relationships. Or, to use the proverbial saying: put yourself in their shoes. See the situation from their perspective to encourage openness from their side. In return, you’ll get more support from project sponsors and stakeholders who will perceive you as a confidant.

And relax a bit. With so many listening situations with sponsors, clients, project stakeholders, and team members, it’s quite easy to lose your head. Remember that active listening is the hidden key to a successful project and keep the checklist within close range.

I’ll leave Jordan B. Peterson to sum it up elegantly:

So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.

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