Active Listening

Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - December 2011

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert McCloskey

Have you ever heard the phrase "we were in violent agreement?" It's a little embarrassing to discover during a heated discussion that you are actually in agreement with the person you're talking to. This happens because neither party is really listening. With active listening, you'll avoid needless conflict and misunderstanding, gain different perspectives, build trust, and be in a better position to influence and negotiate. It means being patient and a little humble but the payoff is worth it.

Listening is a vital skill on all projects. Think of all the opportunities for actively listening: obtaining status and other project information from team members, understanding proposed solutions, learning new skills or processes, problem-solving with vendors, brainstorming risks, team-building, negotiating for name just a few! Studies report that we remember only 25-50% of what we hear. So in a one-hour project team meeting, you may walk away with only 15-30 minutes of the information shared. And we can hear four times faster than we can talk so there's lots of opportunity for minds to wander.

Involve More Than Just Your Ears!

Active listening is more than hearing and remembering what someone tells you. It requires you to understand what a person means when they speak to you. So it involves noticing voice inflection, body language and other visual cues, and knowing meaning can be culturally influenced. Active listening to a team member or other stakeholder builds respect and greater understanding.

To actively listen, try these tips:

Be attentive
This is simple but not always easy. You must put aside other thoughts and distractions that prevent you from listening fully. Stop yourself from formulating a response to what you are hearing. Look at the speaker and take in their body language. If you need to take a hallway conversation to a more private place to avoid distractions, do it. And don't start talking as soon as the speaker takes a breath; respect the time they may need to stop and think.

Use active, open body language
Nod, smile appropriately, maintain comfortable eye contact, and make your posture open and approachable. That could be leaning forward slightly, not folding your arms, and other gestures viewed in your culture as caring. You want to encourage the person to say what's on their mind. Encourage with small phrases like "I see," "Interesting" or simply "uh-huh." You may need to get clarification from the speaker and open-ended questions work best. But keep them simple, such as "What did you say to her then?" or "What happened after that?" Brief note-taking can help you remember major points as you go but don't make it a distraction to yourself or the speaker.

Reflect back
Here's where it starts to get tricky. The purpose of reflecting back the speaker's message is to support the speaker, and clarify the meaning and content of their message. You don't want to parrot back the person's same words or it will seem artificial. Instead, paraphrase what you've heard and inferred from being attentive. This includes the content and the feelings behind the words. Be sure your own filters aren't distorting the message you are hearing. You must be "other-directed", suspend your emotions, and try to reflect back to the speaker their meaning. Ways to do this could be, "Sounds like you're saying..." or "What I'm hearing is..." If there's some emotion evident in the conversation, a tactful way of reflecting could be something like, "I get the sense that you're really angry with the sponsor for rejecting the change request. Is that right?"

You'll be doing some summarizing periodically, too, with "You've made several points. Let's make sure I've got it all. I heard..." Remember that you are asking the speaker if you understand their meaning. They will either agree with what you've said or clarify it for you. When you summarize, never add additional ideas that the speaker didn't convey or you can't readily support with your observations. Sentences beginning with "I" will help defuse conflict. Keep your summaries to brief statements of the major points and emotional overtones you noticed, but keep them tentative allowing the speaker to confirm or clarify. Your summary should give a sense of what happened as well as provide closure for the speaker.

Defer judgment
Don't interrupt the speaker with counter-arguments, advice, or problem-solving, as tempting as that will be. Allow them to finish what they have to say. Stay focused on understanding the message they are trying to convey. It may be an emotional one or difficult for you to hear but do your best to stay focused on the intent and purpose of the conversation. You may need to say, "I find myself taking what you seem to be saying personally. What I think you are saying is XXX; is that what you meant?"

Respond appropriately
When the speaker has finished and confirms that you have understood their message, don't feel you have to respond immediately. Tell them when you can give a response, if not right away. Always be sincere and respectful of the speaker, and be sure to honor requests for confidentiality.

Additional Resources & Quotes
Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead (J-B CCL (Center for Creative Leadership))
Center for Creative Leadership (Author), Michael H. Hoppe
Listening: The Forgotten Skill: A Self-Teaching Guide (Wiley Self-Teaching Guides), Madelyn Burley-Allen

"To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation."
Chinese Proverb

"So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it."
Jiddu Krishnamurti

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