Successful Project Managers are Great Listeners

“Ninety percent of a project manager’s work is communication.”

You have probably seen this commonly quoted statistic but what you don’t see is a statistic that tells you how much of the 90% is devoted to listening. Why is that important? Because, poor communication is at least one of the three causes for failed projects. There may be several reasons for poor project management communication but I am going to argue that the number one reason is poor listening by the project manager, project team, and stakeholders.

Much of the work that the project manager does is receiving and transmitting information. He or she starts by receiving the project vision from the executive team and/or project customer and then having to communicate the project vision in an implementable form to the project team. The project manager also spends time listening to the concerns of the project stakeholders. Project team members communicate their progress to the project manager who needs that information to determine how well the project work conforms to the project plan, schedule, and budget. You can see by the number of listening situations that a project manager that doesn’t listen well cannot successfully manage the project.

So, what causes problems in listening effectively?
1. Physical barriers – Too much noise, hearing disabilities, or a poor speaker.
2. Cultural barriers – Language issues, little respect for the speaker, or fear of confrontation with the speaker.
3. Personality barriers – Listener preoccupied with personal matters, personal dislike of the speaker, or personal dislike of the listener.
4. Cognitive barriers – Cannot understand the concepts being communicated or speaker constructed the message poorly.

Please realize that these problems can work together to compound the problem. For example, if you fear confronting the speaker then you certainly won’t say that the speaker has constructed their message poorly or is using concepts you cannot understand.

Now that you know the possible barriers to listening, what can the project manager do to overcome these barriers? What actions can you take to be understood?

Before You Communicate: Remove the physical and cultural barriers by analyzing your audience and the location in which you will give the message. Maybe, you need a quiet room so that you can be better heard or you need a translator to help you overcome language barriers. If you are sending out videos, use captions for those who have hearing issues.

Make sure that you structure your message effectively by clearly identifying and stating your purpose. Use signposts and transitions in your message to signal your main points. I know this is basic advice but use an outline for any written/oral messages that are vital to executing and controlling the project so that you and the listener(s) have a record of what was said. Be sure to answer the question of why the listener(s) should listen to your message and what they should do after they hear the message.

Communicating the Message: Do not give your message until you have confirmed that you have gained your audience’s attention. Present clearly and constantly check for nonverbal signals that your audience is paying attention and understands your message. Be aware of any personal issues that may prevent the audience from listening and strive to not let those issues interfere with your message.

After You Communicate: Ask your audience for questions so that you are sure they understood the message and what is expected of them. If it is a complex message, consider giving out a written summary of your message or following up with an email. It may also be helpful to have a follow-up message scheduled after some time has passed so that you can reinforce your points.

The above are good tips for you on how to speak so that you can be understood but what about improving your listening skills? You can start by helping your project team develop their own communication skills by using the tips above. If you are lucky, you can also help your stakeholders to develop the same communication skills so that they can speak for more effective listening. Here are three other strategies to make you a better listener:

1. If you find your attention wandering, then repeat in your head what your speaker is saying. I find that this helps me to regain attention and banish distracting thoughts.
2. After the speaker has finished, restate what you think the speaker said and then confirm with the speaker that this is what they intended to communicate.
3. Take notes. If you can’t take notes while the speaker is communicating, then take as soon as you can after the speaker has finished. Use whatever note taking method works for you. I use the Evernote app on my Android smartphone to record voice notes. I’ve seen others use a smart pen that records audio that corresponds with his written notes and another person uses a Flip cam to video their notes.

As the project manager, you are the center of the project’s information flows. Your work depends on how well you receive, interpret, and transmit information. Being a good speaker is important but, even more importantly, being a good listener is what separates the successful project managers from the project managers who fail in delivering the project on time, within budget, and meets the project customer’s expectations.

Disclaimer: All opinions are mine and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations I belong to and should not be construed as such.

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Jay Johnson

Sort of like an Air Traffic Controler of knowledge.

  • Lots of information flying around
  • Ensuring smooth take offs and landings
  • Avoiding crashes
  • Maintain regular contact
Andrew Krzmarzick

I find the biggest barrier to listening is just a matter of focus. With so many competing priorities, it’s easy to get distracted by what’s going in your own mind. That’s why I like these particular points, Bill:

1. repeat in your head what your speaker is saying.
2. restate what you think the speaker said and then confirm with the speaker that this is what they intended to communicate.
3. Take notes.

#3, I’ve found, is the most important as it forces you to pay attention and capture what’s been said. I’ve been using Evernote lately as well.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andy – Yes, and I firmly believe lack of focus is 80% of the speaker’s fault and 20% of the listener’s fault. When the human brain is confronted with confusing and/or ambiguous information, it will shut down or switch focus as a defensive mechanism. Thus, it is on the speaker to make the message clear, easy to follow, and worth the listener’s time. As my debate coach once told me, “attention is a gift and not an expectation.”