Active Listening Technique
Created by Anna Fredgaard
Communication is a crucial aspect of project, program and portfolio management. According to the Handbook  80% of a manger's time is spend on communication. Purdy  defines communication as a two-dimensional phenomenon: speaking and listening. Researchers claim that listening competencies are hugely important in managerial communication . Active Listening is an important tool in people management that increases the empathy and trust between the speaker and the listener .
Active Listening gives the listener a set of tools that helps him focus on the person he listens to. This improves the relationship with the speaker who often plays an important role for the project, program or portfolio. Listening actively also allows for the listener to gain more knowledge. It provides the listener with a better understanding of the topic as well as the person they interact with which can assist to avoid misunderstandings  .
Active Listening is a powerful tool since it is applicable throughout the entire lifetime of any project management process. Improving communication skills will improve the success of the project management. However, there are limitations to the application of Active Listening since it relies on communication being verbal and preferably also face-to-face.
Communication is a crucial aspect of project, program, and portfolio management. The ISO 21500 standard: Guidance on project management  claims that:
“Success or failure of a project may depend on how well the various project team members and stakeholders communicate with each other”
This is also why project managers spend most of their time on communication . Since projects are carried out by people for people, one of the essential roles of the project manager is to ensure that all stakeholder needs are met and that tasks are delegated to be performed by the project team. This way, communication relates to the people perspective of doing projects . This also means that the more people that are involved in a project, and the more complex a project is, the more critical it becomes to have strong communication skills as a project management practitioner .
Project communication management is a knowledge area that contains elements of determining a strategy for how to communicate effectively and hereafter carrying out this strategy . As a project manager your job is to make decisions, and every decision you make is based on knowledge you gain from communicating with other people. These people can be part of the project team or external stakeholders. It is up to you to collect this knowledge, create plans based on this, and hereafter distribute project information to your stakeholders . All these processes will be most effective if communication between stakeholders is strong. Good communication will promote understanding and corporation between stakeholders while ensuring that information is passed on accurately and unbiased . Also, effective communication will decrease the number of issues and misunderstanding arising in a project.
According to the Project Management Institute Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge  the Manage Communications process go beyond just sending a message. It seeks to ensure that information is received as intended. It also wants to ensure that stakeholders can ask clarifying questions or request additional information. This includes making efforts to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication by carefully selecting methods for communication. One technique that assist project managers in achieving effective communication management is Active Listening .
Purdy  defines communication as a two-dimensional phenomenon: Speaking and listening. Researchers  claim that listening competencies are hugely important in managerial communication however, these are often forgotten when project management practitioners learn communications skills. As a consequence of this greater focus on delivering a message rather how to receive one, project managers lack important listening skills . According to Michael Webb most of us are terrible listeners, and he claims that the most effective way to improve communication is by learning to listen more actively .
The purpose of Active Listening (also referred to as Mindful Listening or Effective Listening) is to actively engage with the speaker and to express a genuine interest in the speaker and the topic. This will also make the speaker feel more comfortable telling his story. Amanda Gore  expresses it this way:
“True listening happens when you are in your heart, present and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. Your desire is to understand them.””
By learning Active Listening you gain a set of interpersonal skills that can be applied in you Project Management practice but also anywhere else in your life where you want to strengthen communication with other people .
Active Listening is applicable in all stages of the management of projects, programs, and portfolios. Communication is key in all aspects of managing projects and sending and receiving information happens all the time . Therefore, every project management practitioner will benefit from applying Active Listening techniques to their everyday practice. The Project Management Institute Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge  defines active listening as:
“Techniques of active listening involve acknowledging, clarifying and confirming, understanding, and removing barriers that adversely affect comprehension”
Active Listening teaches you to stay engaged with the speaker and express a real interest in the person you talk to. This builds strong relationships with stakeholders and subordinates. This way, Project Communications Management strongly relates to another knowledge area that also concerns the people of the project, namely: Stakeholder management . Analysing stakeholders' expectations to the project requires that you are able to listen. When you listen, your stakeholders feel that they have been heard and their respect for you increases.
Active Listening can be supported by other techniques for effective communication such as Communication Styles Assessment, Cultural Awareness and Political Awareness skills. These techniques help the listener understand and decode the content of a message .
Active Listening in use
Active Listening relies on communication being verbal, and preferably also face-to-face . In a basic communication model (figure 1), there are two actors: A sender and a receiver. The sender is the one who desires to deliver a message. Thus, in verbal communication the sender is the speaker. The receiver is the listener in verbal communication, and thereby the one listening to the spoken message. Basic communication follows three steps which are explained below . Examples are provided for each step using a conversation between a Project Manager and an employee as a case:
- 1 Encode
- The sender forms the message in words.
- Example: The employee decides on what to say and starts talking.
- 2 Transmission
- The message is sent or transmitted to the receiver.
- Example: The sound of the message travels from the mouth of the employee to the ears of the Project Manager.
- 3 Decode
- The listener receives the message and translates the content.
- Example: The Project Manager hears the message and its immediate content. The Project Manager makes his/her own interpretation of the content.
In the basic communication model the message is simply send off by the speaker and then received by the listener. In this model, the responsibility of the success of the communication lies with the sender alone and his/her ability to send a clear message . This is different in an interactive communication model. Here the focus is not only on delivering a message but also on clarifying and confirming that it is understood correctly. This adds another two steps to the communication that makes it more interactive (figure 2) :
- 2.1 Acknowledge
- This step takes place after the message has been transmitted to the listener. The listener lets the sender know, that the message has arrived. This can be done using body language or brief verbal affirmations.
- Example: The Project Manager nods his/her head to let the employee know, that the message has been received.
- 3.1 Feedback
- After the listener has decoded the message, he/she encodes their own interpretation of the message and transmits it back to the sender. This means that the listener formulates how he/she hears the message and sends it back to the speaker to get a confirmation of whether it was understood correctly. The sender then verifies if the feedback matches the original message. If it does so, the communication has been successful.
- This step can only be performed if the receiver has strong listening skills and is able to hear what the speaker says. This also include the elements of the message that exist between the lines or can be decoded from the speaker’s body-language, cultural background, personality etc.
- Example: The Project Manager says: “What I hear you say is this […], is that correctly understood?”. If the employee confirms that the Project Manager’s interpretation of the original message is correct, the communication has been successful.
In the interactive communication model the Project Manager provides the employee with feedback and thereby gives him the option to further clarify the meaning of his message. This is a good technique to avoid any misunderstandings. In this communication model both the sender and the receiver carry the responsibility of a successful communication. The speaker must be clear and concise when delivering the message. At the same time, the listener must ensure that all information is received, that the content of the message is interpreted correctly, and acknowledge and respond to the message appropriately. Effective communication only happens when both carry out their responsibilities , Michael Webb  even argues that the listener bears more responsibility for the quality of the communication. Since listening is such an important, yet underestimated element of communication, it is hugely important for project management practitioners to learn good listening skills.
How to practice active listening
The primary thing to pay attention to when practicing Active Listening is the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a passive act while listening is active and engaging . The overall mindset to apply when listening actively is to positively engage with the speaker. Here are some things to be aware of that will help you to become an active listener.
- Do not interrupt
- Do not interrupt the speaker. Do not try to finish their sentences even if you think that you know how they are going to finish them.
- If the speaker stops talking or pauses to search for the right way to phrase a sentence do not interrupt the silence. Stay quiet and let them think, they might surprise you with their answer.
- Pay attention to what the speaker says rather than focusing on what you are about to say .
- Be curious
- One of the main purposes of Active Listening is for you to learn more about the person in front of you as well as the content they share with you. One way to be curious is to ask clarifying questions to the knowledge you are provided with. This also assists to uncover any misunderstandings in the communication. Asking questions shows the speaker that you are interested in what they tell you, and that you hear what they are saying .
- Ask the speaker to explain jargon or abbreviations that you do not know. The same word or abbreviation might mean something different to the speaker and the listener depending on their culture or work area.
- Provide feedback
- As described in the section above, providing feedback is a part of listening actively. Let the speaker know how you interpret their message and give them the option to correct any misunderstandings or miscommunications .
- You can use phrases like: “What I hear you saying is …” or “Do I understand it correctly that …?”
- Take notes while the speaker talks so you have something to base your feedback on.
- Pay attention
- Try to focus on the person you talk to. Do not let yourself be disturbed by the environment around you or distracting thoughts in your mind. When you focus actively on the speaker you will be able to pick up both verbal and non-verbal clues in the conversation that will assist you in decoding the message correctly .
- Do not judge
- Listen to the speaker even if you do not agree with what they say .
- Do not let the physical appearance of the speaker disturb you.
- Do not let different cultural background, language, area of expertise, political opinions or the like affect how you interpret the message from the speaker.
- Show that you listen
- Show the speaker that you listen to them either by nodding your head, smiling or by small verbal affirmations from time to time. This lets the speaker know that you are engaged in the conversation. You can also focus on your body-language. If you have an open posture you will seem more open and willing to take in the message .
- Keep eye contact with the speaker.
Barriers to active listening
Communication might be disturbed by so called noise that hinders the receiver from fully understanding the message . There are multiple barriers that can make Active Listening challenging and cause loss of information.
- Physical barriers
- Background noise.
- Hearing disabilities, or a poor speaker .
- Lack of focus
- Lack of interest in the topic.
- Focusing on what you are going to say next rather than focusing on the speaker.
- Impatience if you focus more on the outcome than on what is being said.
- Concentrating on other things limits the ability to focus on what is being said .
- Variation of perception
- Speaker and listener has different cultural background.
- Speaker and listener has different professional background or area of expertise.
- Judging the speaker based on biases regarding gender, race, age, or physical appearance.
- Personal barriers
- Previous experience with the speaker or the content of the conversation.
Benefits of Active Listening
If Active Listening is successfully applied to project communication, it will first and foremost improve relationships between stakeholders in a project. When the listener expresses a genuine interest in the speaker the listener will come across as empathic while leaving the speaker feel comfortable in telling his/her story . If you as a project management practitioner apply Active Listening, you will experience better relations with stakeholders or subordinates, and they will most likely also express a higher willingness to cooperate with you when you acknowledge their feelings and opinions .
Active Listening will also broaden your knowledge and draw your attention to new areas. When you pay attention to what the person in front of you is saying without interrupting or judging you will gather more information and get a better understanding of the subject . If the project manager succeeds in actively listening when interacting with every stakeholder of the project, the sum of knowledge will increase significantly. This will make it easier to react to unforeseen events, discover potential risks before they occur and act on these timely. This way, Active Listening can also contribute to easing the management of uncertainties in a project . Marv Goldstein  explains it this way:
“A poor listener at best may only hear what is being said at the surface level. A good listener will also pick up the subtle issues that may help to address the risk or to take advantage of an opportunity.”
This is what is illustrated in figure 3. The captain who does not know how to listen to the stakeholders around will only see the tip of the iceberg. Whereas the captain, who makes decisions based on knowledge gained through actively listening to stakeholders, will also se the part below the surface. He has a more solid foundation to base his decisions on, and thus, he has better options for predicting risks and exploiting opportunities in the unforeseen event.
Active Listening is practiced in verbal communication and cannot be used in written form. It works best for interactive communication between two people or two minor groups. The Project Management Institute Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge  describes it like this:
“This communication model can assist on developing communications strategies and plans for person-to-person or even small group to small group communications. It is not useful for communication artefacts such as email, broadcast messages or social media”
A lot of project management communication takes place though e-mails or other written media which do not allow for the project manager or other stakeholders within the project to practice Active Listening. During the Covid-19 pandemic a lot of project communication has been transferred to online platforms. Active Listening can be practiced in online settings if the speaker and the listener are still able to see each other and talk clearly. In this case, some additional barriers may occur that could affect the quality of the communication. These could be things like poor image quality, bad connection, or distractions from working from home.
If the actions performed to practice Active Listening is overdone, the practitioner may come across as fake. It may seem as if the interest for the speaker is not genuine. If for example the listener nods his head too much, he might seem like he tries too hard and his efforts are useless.
Also, Active listening requires the listener to be open-minded and tolerant. This can be challenging for people if we have prejudices or biases about each other before going into a conversation. Thus, Active Listening depends very much on the self-awareness of the listener and the listeners commitment to engage in the conversation .
 - This article investigates the attitude of eight different project managers towards Active Listening as a management tool. It shows that project managers generally express a positive opinion on the use of Active Listening and the effect of it on their daily work. The study also seeks to reveal whether listening is a forgotten element of managerial communication.
 - This article provides four categories of barriers to Active Listening. It presents a section that tell project managers how to remove some of these barriers and thereby get an audience’s attention. Hereafter, the article focuses on how project managers can improve their listening skills. It provides three steps for project managers to become better listeners and alludes to why it is important for a project manager to be an active listener.
 - This article focuses on how we can all benefit from becoming better listeners. Michael Webb presents eight barriers to Effective Listening and which consequences it has for communication if we fail to overcome these barriers. The article also presents strategies for overcoming each of the eight barriers.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Geraldi, Joana; Thuesen, Christian; Oehmen, Josef; Sting, Verena (2017) Doing Projects. A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects, Engineering Systems Division, Management Engineering Department, Technical University of Denmark.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Purdy, M. (1997). What is listening? In M. Purdy & D. Borisoff (Eds.), Listening in everyday life. A personal and professional approach (pp. 1–22). Lanham, MA: University Press of America, Inc.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Welch, S. A.1; Mickelson, William T. (2013) A Listening Competence Comparison of Working Professionals, International Journal of Listening, DOI:10.1080/10904018.2013.783344.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 Inga Jona Jonsdottir & Kristrun Fridriksdottir (2020) ACTIVE LISTENING: IS IT THE FORGOTTEN DIMENSION IN MANAGERIAL COMMUNICATION?, International Journal of Listening, DOI:10.1080/10904018.2019.1613156.
- ↑ 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 Project Management Institute, Inc.. (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition), Inc. (PMI). Retrieved from https://app.knovel.com/hotlink/pdf/id:kt011DXH02/guide-project-management
- ↑ 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 Goldstein, M. (2013). Mindful listening. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2013—North America, New Orleans, LA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 International Standards (2012). ISO 21500:2012 Guidance on project management
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Michael Webb (2006) Eight Barriers to effective listening. Retrieved from: http://docplayer.net/52766786-Eight-barriers-to-effective-listening.html
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Bill Brantley (2012) Successful Project Managers Are Great Listeners. Retrieved from: https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/successful-project-managers-are-great-listeners/
- ↑ 10.0 10.1 Amanda Gore (2013) Joy Secret Number 8: Listening. Posted on the HuffPost Contributor platform. Retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/joy_b_2313444