Early on in my career when I was in the hospitality industry, one of the first courses that I was asked to attend was an active listening course. The fact that I was exposed to this early on has improved my communication skills. Active listening is a simple yet powerful method that every project manager should have as part of their repertoire.
Let’s first make a distinction between being an effective communicator and just being good at communications. Part of being able to be effective at communicating is that our communications must be clear and successfully delivered, received, and understood. We spend a lot of time with the delivery aspects but often not enough on the receiving and understanding elements. Part of any essential communication process is the act of listening. In order to be better than just good at communicating, you will need to spend some time perfecting your listening skills. This is where active listening comes into play.
Active listening allows us to employ a specific, easy to follow, repeatable process to listen to and understand the message. This process is not new and was first quoted in a paper by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957 in the context of business communications. Active listening was subsequently introduced in areas of training, counseling, and conflict resolution with varied supporters, detractors, and results. In the hospitality setting where I was introduced to it, it was taught as a means to diffuse tense or heated conversations with guests. Thinking about it now, I use it the same way at times in project management to clarify situations with my stakeholders.
Active listening is based on a simple model that can be explained and quickly remembered with the use of an acronym. Let us see how to make use of this method to become an active listener.
A is for ATTENTION
You must try your best when having a conversation to reduce distractions so that your full attention can be paid to the person talking.
C is for CONCERN
Consideration for the person, the process, and the project objectives have to be clearly voiced and expressed during the exchange.
T is for TIMING
More accurately appropriate timing. There is a time and a place for conversations, one needs to ensure that it is within the right context.
I is for INVOLVEMENT
You need to be vested in the conversation both mentally and physically. Ensure that you are not distracted.
V is for VOCAL TONE
Having an appropriate tone to match the discussion is key. A tone that is too high, too low or monotone can often be perceived as the incorrect tone for certain situations.
E is for EYE CONTACT
Keeping eye contact with the other person shows that we are paying attention. You will need to be careful with this one as in some cultures; this is often perceived as intrusive or rude. My instructor for the class that I was part of suggested that you get into the habit of looking at someone’s left or right ear at eye level. I have tested this several times, and people feel as if you are looking at them directly in the eyes but somehow don’t feel as threatened by it.
L is for LOOK
More specifically observe the other person’s body language. It is often recommended that you mirror their body language, but in cases of very heated discussion, this is where you want to feel non-threatening and have slow, purposeful movements.
I is for INTEREST
Take an interest in the person as a human being. Use supportive language and be comforting when need be.
S is for SUMMARIZE
This is often called paraphrase. Restate the conversation using your own words not unlike a playback to confirm with the person that you have gotten the meaning of the discussion. This, by far, is the most crucial element of active listening. It needs to be done well and not perceived as if you are mimicking or just repeating like a parrot.
T if for TERRITORY
In other words, being considerate of a person’s personal space while having the conversation. Brush up on the notion of distance in a conversation if you need to. Managing the space appropriately, leaning in when needing to solidify the attention being paid.
E is for EMPATHY
Listening beyond the words to get the emotional tone of the conversation and get the message that sometimes is totally hidden or different. One needs to be cautious here not to become too “sympathetic,” there is a level of emotions to empathy but not to the point of exaggeration. Your emotions need to come across as authentic.
N is for NOD
A small nod of the head in understanding of the conversation goes a long way. Again here, a word of caution with the fact that in some cultures nodding yes or no is not necessarily a means of showing that one understands.
So now that we’ve covered this simple acronym, the next time you are in a conversation with someone start using these principles and applying them to your listening. The more you practice, the more these will become second nature. You will find that it will provide you with the means of being more involved in each conversation. It will also prepare you for those conversations that can be more difficult or emotionally charged.
Active listening is not difficult, but it requires dedication. We are often cornered into conversations at the wrong time or place and expected to make decisions or rapid assessments from them. Using this method, you are prepared to listen and better yet setting yourself up for a clear understanding of any situation. What will you do to become an active listener?
Sylvie Edwards, PMP, MCPM, STDC, CMP, FPMAC has 25 years of project management experience spanning various industries and is the owner of SRE Solutions, catering to clients in need of project management course development, education, project risk management, PMO setup/evaluation or recovery services. She has worked with one of the top five consulting firm, where she led projects in the information technology, banking, government, and securities sectors as well as being a manager in the risk management practice. Sylvie writes about risk management, communication, and PMO.