Improve communication with active listening

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Developed by Sofie S. Martinussen



Communication is the act of delivering or receiving information and can be written and oral, formal and informal, even nonverbal in the form of body language and the actions one performs. Common to all forms of communication is that when performed effectively, they create relationships between different stakeholders and eliminate misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the information delivered or received. Project managers spend most of their time communicating with different stakeholders, and efficient communication is the key to project success[1]. A means to eliminate such misunderstandings and misinterpretations while communicating is Active listening, an interpersonal skill which can be learned. Active listening includes acknowledging the receipt of the information through e.g. nodding, clarifying and confirming by asking questions, understanding and removing barriers which can affect the receivers understanding of the information communicated.

To understand the concept of communication, the sample interactive communication model, confer figure 1, is used as the model illustrates the process of communication between two parties as well as the noise obstructing effective communication and active listening [2].

When practising active listening with different stakeholders, a project manager will illustrate respect to the person speaking by attempting to understand their point of view. On the other hand, if active listening is not utilized correctly or overperformed it will have the opposite effect as the project manager will seem arrogant for repeating and interrupting the speaker.

The communication tool active listening is limited to face-to-face or telephone conversations and barriers to performing active listening exist both verbal and nonverbal. The purpose of this article is to describe what active listening is and how it can strengthen stakeholder relationships and project success.

Communicating with active listening

Communicative competencies are described as crucial skills for project managers to possess as communication is the tool utilized to deliver the correct information to the correct stakeholder and receiving and decoding information from the stakeholder to understand their wants and needs [2]. In fact, a project manager’s ability to communicate effectively, directly influences the achievement of objectives as well as the satisfaction of the team members because they have the experience of being heard [3].

In the interactive communication model, communication is described as two parties engaging in a process of delivering information and put emphasis on the information being understood but it also responds to the noise inflicting the understanding of the delivered information. Hence the receiving party has to acknowledge the reception of the information as well as provide feedback to ensure the information has been received and understood correctly. In figure 1 below, an illustration of the communication process can be seen[2].

Figure 1: Interactive communication model. Inspired by PMBoK[2]

The communication process requires and comprises of elements such as people, a message, a medium to send the message and inevitably noise to obstruct the communication. The different elements are described and elaborated in the following section.

1. The communication process comprises of a sender who phrases a piece of information in a message and a receiver who receives the message and decode the information. In this article, the receiver is project managers engaging with different stakeholders who are the senders [4].

2. In order for the message to be sent and received a medium must be utilized and is at first decided by the sender, however, can be changed by the receiver [4]. This medium can have several formats such as face-to-face meetings both formal and informal, emails, instant messages, phone calls, Skype sessions and so on [2].

3. A message is necessary to initiate the communication process and the message can also have different formats. According to Rajkumar (2010), a message can have a hard message in the form of written on paper while a soft format is electronic.

4. Feedback from the receiver is required in the communication process for the sender to ensure that the message has been understood correctly. When the receiver has decoded the message, in this case, the project manager will encode thoughts and suggestion into a feedback message and sends it to the sender of the original message. If the sender's perception of the feedback is corresponding to the meaning of the initial feedback, the communication is successful. In this step of the communication process, active listening can be a useful set of techniques to support the success of communication [4].

5. Feedback is a means to determine if a communication process is a success, as the original sender decodes the feedback message from the original receiver, however, both parties abilities to decode messages are affected by noise in the process[4]. The noise can influence how the receiver understands the message being sent depending on the emotional state the person is in [2]. This includes several aspects such as values, beliefs, biases, experiences, the content of the message and the medium used to deliver the message[4].

In face-to-face, telephone or virtual communication such as Skype, feedback of understanding the information correctly can, confer previously mentioned, be achieved through active listening. Specifically, the ability to listen is rated as a top 10 skill out of 50 skills a project manager needs to possess to have success with projects [3]. According to the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition) - 10. Project Communications Management active listening consist of four elements:

Acknowledging the reception of the information by nodding or saying “yes”, “okay” or “mmh” sounds.

Clarifying and confirming what is being said by asking open questions or by now and then repeating what the sender is saying. Furthermore, one can express doubts about was is meant in order to clarify and lastly confirm that is it correctly understood equal to the next element of...

Understanding what has been said through the above-mentioned clarification and confirmation.

Removing barriers which can inflict the understanding such as distractions, personal biases, judging the sender, stress, time constraints etc. [5].

Another important aspect of active listening is devoting one’s full attention to the speaking person and actively deciding to focus on what is being said in contrast to allowing one’s mind to wander. To have a full focus on the speaker it is important not to think about what the response should be or other irrelevant things. Furthermore, looking the speaking person in the eyes let the person know that you indeed are focusing on the conversation and are present. A third important aspect of listening is not interrupting the speaker but allowing the person the finish the sentence and avoid assuming to know how the sentence will end.

Nonverbal aspects of active listening

Active listing is more than just being ‘all ears’, humming and nodding, it is also several nonverbal aspects which can support or inhibit the perception of ones listening skills. Our body language can reveal several things and every person will interpret body language differently thus it is important to pay attention to one's appearance in order to communicate the right thing. For example when listening to someone speaking, having your arms crossed can be interpreted as if you are uninterested in what is being said or closed for suggestions. Another example, which can be interpreted as impatience or uninterest, is tapping the table or fiddling a pen. To signal interest it is important to keep a calm facade [6]. Looking someone in the eye when you are listening to them is not only helping you to keep your focus on the speaking person, but it also shows respect to a person who is speaking as you show that you are paying attention by not looking at your phone or out the window [6].

Other nonverbal aspects of active listening are Space related aspects such as how you position yourself, how your body is oriented and lastly the distance you keep to the speaking person. In order to make the speaking person more comfortable you can position yourself as the speaking person, e.g. mirroring the person by sitting down or standing up. Secondly, to show respect to the person you are listening to, orient your body in the direction of the person. By pointing your torso in the direction of the speaking person you are showing interest in what is being said. Further, it is also important to respect people's personal space while listening to secure they are comfortable speaking [6]. Lastly, time is of the essence, if you seem in a rush when listening to someone they might interpret it as if you are not present and they are disturbing you which can lead to them withholding information which could be useful. So as a project manager when listening to a team member or other stakeholders, take the time to listen, be present and use the necessary amount of time [6].

In addition to paying attention to your own body language, it is also important to pay attention to the body language and tone of voice of the speaking person. As well as your tone of voice and body language can tell the speaking person how you feel, their tone of voice and body language can also tell you more than the words they are actually saying [7].

Verbal aspects of active listening

The verbal aspects of active listening are techniques to illustrate to the speaking person that you are actively listening and participating in the conversation. A very important element of active listening is to understand the perspective of the speaking person and verbal actions are supporting your understanding. Often when people feel supported when speaking, they elaborate and detail what they are talking about. Acknowledging, as previously mentioned, is a technique that signals support and encourages the speaker to continue. The key techniques to make sure that you understand the speaker’s perspective correctly is to ask questions to clarify what the speaker is meaning. Asking question will not only help you to understand what is being said, but it will also help the speaker to understand the topic or issue which is addressed in the conversation. Lastly, to illustrate that you have been listening actively and have understood what the speaker was talking about, you can reflect and restate it in your own words. It is very important not say what the speaking person said as it can be perceived negatively as mocking which can lead to affect a team member or another stakeholder's willingness to speak openly in another situation[6].

Barriers to active listening

When communicating with others, not only within project management but also in general, noise from within and from without can affect the understanding of the information. Several barriers to active listening exist why it is important to be aware of them to prevent these barriers from obstructing active listening. Both physical and people-related barriers exist [2].

Physical Barriers to active listening[8]

  • Noise from other rooms in the form of music, other people talking, construction work, traffics and generally sounds from external sources.
  • Microphones or speakers blurring the sound and bad connections breaking up the conversation.
  • When the speaker has the microphone too close to the mouth or too far away.
  • Interruptions by phone calls or messages or people entering or leaving a room.
  • The temperature of the room is either too cold or too warm.

People-related barriers to active listening[8]

Physical people-related barriers include:

  • Illness, feeling tired or exhausted, stress, feeling uncomfortable, hunger or thirst can obstruct active listening.
  • Bad hearing or the speaker's tone of voice.

Psychological people-related barriers to active listening

Psychological people-related barriers are related to the behavioural aspects of both the speaker and the listener and include [8], [9]:

  • A harsh tone of the speaker which has no effect on the listener so the message is not received.
  • If the speaker mumbles, speaks too fast or has a monotonous voice which can affect the interest in what is being said.
  • If the listener perceives the speaker to be unprepared or not informed properly about a topic.
  • Allowing one’s mind to wander thinking about irrelevant things such as what to have for dinner or deadlines to reach.
  • The listener's state of mind can affect how well one can listen. If you are filled with worry, are depressed, angry or other emotions it can obstruct your listening skills.
  • When the listener loses motivation because the subject is found to be irrelevant, or because the speaker fails to explain.
  • Taking notes, as you concentrate on writing and then lose focus on the speaker.
  • Being biased by own preferences and experiences and the speaker's gender, race, accent and age among others.
  • Having a closed mind to suggestions or concerns of others.
  • Avoiding eye contact with the speaker
  • Improper posture or continuously changing position
  • Lack of facial expressions and nodding
  • Interrupting the speaker

How to overcome the barriers to active listening

Being aware of the different barriers that exist to active listening will allow one to take preventing action in order to hinder these barriers from obstructing the listening skills [9].

1. Do not talk, just listen. The first step towards becoming an active listener is to put effort into actually listening to what is being said instead of speaking all at once.

2. Use the nonverbal aspects of active listening to make the speaker comfortable by sitting down, having mild facial expressions, acknowledge the person so the person feels comfortable talking and elaborating the meaning.

3. Be prepared to listen and keep a positive attitude. This again refers to the nonverbal aspects, as body language is important here. Have a good posture, pay attention and even have pen and paper ready to note the key points and ideas.

4. Eliminate distractions. Push away irrelevant thoughts, close the door to remove noise from the hall, put the phone down, do not look at your watch or fidget with pens or paper.

5. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. Show empathy and try to understand the speaker point of view even though you might not agree.

6. Have patience. When allowing the speaker to complete a speech the whole message will be delivered. Avoid making sarcastic comments, interrupting often or disturbing the speaker in other ways, as signs of impatience may hinder the speaker in opening up about the subject. Also, make sure to allow the speaker to have a pause and deliver the entire message without being interrupted

7. Do not let your temper get away with you. Make sure to understand what the speaker is saying before reacting.

8. Maintain eye contact, do not stare but make sure to focus on the speaking person as this shows genuine interest in listening which will encourage the speaker to continue.

Why is active listening relevant to project management?

As previously mentioned effective communication is the key to success and to communicate effectively you need to be able to listen actively. A project manager is responsible for making the right decisions and considers the needs of different stakeholders which in turn will determine the success of the project[1]. In order to make sound and correct decisions, active listening is essential as it improves one’s ability to decode and understand the information received by stakeholders. Also in regards to problem-solving active listening is useful to understand the origin of the problem [8]. Another benefit of active listening is the ability to gain a deeper understanding beyond the words, as a good listener will pay attention to the body language and what is said between the lines. This will contribute positively to the corporation between the project manager and the project team, as one will appear trustworthy and open to ideas [8]. By coming off as a project manager who is open-minded members of the project team will feel confident to express emotions and concerns as well as present ideas on how to perform better and participate in the decision-making which can provide valuable suggestions [8]. By listening actively to stakeholders a project manager will gain more insight which will decrease the possibility of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the deliverables and objectives of the project.

Annoted bibliography

[2] Chapter 10 in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge addresses the importance of communication in project management and presents active listening as a tool to secure correct feedback which is a key element to successful communication. The chapter sets the scene of communication however have very limited information about active listening and the aspects of the technique.

[6] This chapter addresses effective and active listening from a psychological perspective and presents and explain the aspects of active listening in depth with examples from crisis situations. Gerard, A. J. explains the width of active listening and the benefits of utilizing the techniques to empathize and understand the people who are speaking.

[8] The article "Good Listening Skills Make Efficient Business Sense" addresses the importance of project managers possessing the skill of active listening and the impact this skill has on business success. The article addresses the vast number of barriers that exist to be able to listen actively when engaging in a conversation. Lastly, the article presents suggestions on how to overcome the different barriers.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Frank Cervone, H. (2014). Effective communication for project success. Oclc Systems and Services, 30(2), 74–77. Retrieved at
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Project Management Institute, Inc.. (2017). “Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition) - 10. Project Communications Management.” Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). Retrieved from
  3. 3.0 3.1 Henderson, L. S. (2008). “The Impact of Project Managers' Communication Competencies: Validation and Extension of a Research Model for Virtuality, Satisfaction, and Productivity on Project Teams.” Project Management Journal, “39”(2), 48–59.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Rajkumar, S. (2010). Art of communication in project management. Paper presented at PMI® Research Conference: Defining the Future of Project Management, Washington, DC. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute
  5. Goldstein, M. (2013). “Mindful listening.” Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2013—North America, New Orleans, LA. Newtown Square, PA Project Management Institute.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Gerard, A. J. (2016). 6 – Active listening. In Community-Based Psychological First Aid A Practical Guide to Helping Individuals and Communities During Difficult Times" (pp. 49-66). Retrieved from
  7. Keyser, J. (2013). Active listening leads to business success. T And D, “67”(7), 26–28.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Rane, D. B. (2011). Good Listening Skills Make Efficient Business Sense. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 5(4), 43–51. Retrieved from
  9. 9.0 9.1 © SkillsYouNeed (2017) Barriers to Effective Communication. Visited February 18th 2019.
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