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Project Management Chronicles: Being a Better Listener

"No one is as deaf as the man who will not listen."

-- Jewish proverb

If there was a problem…
Listening is one of those skills that many take for granted. It's one thing to listen to what is being said, and it's a much more involved exercise to comprehend what is being expressed. After all, a speaker is much more likely to be responsive to feedback if they trust that the listener truly understands the point(s) that they are trying to convey via the conversation.

Conversations are a cultural exchange of thoughts, ideas and emotions. In any wholly successful exchange, all parties walk away feeling personally satisfied with the outcome. Therefore, it behooves listeners greatly, to their own end, to ensure that the speakers are being clearly understood; scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

This holds true in conversations w/clients, co-workers, spouses, friends, etc. Have you ever been frustrated after investing a good deal of time explaining something, and the listener's first and immediate response is "That's great, but…" or "Well I think that…" or some other dismissive or inattentive response?

Likely, as most of us have been on both sides of this interaction. And It's highly likely that you'll perceive the response negatively and possibly counteract their rebuttal in a similarly disagreeable way, continuing the devolution of the conversation. Ahh, the birth of an argument.

…yo, I'll solve it!
In an attempt to aid, here are some tips that I've found are helpful, in business and in life, in becoming a better listener:

  • Be receptive and actively express your receptiveness to the speaker. Let them know you are really listening.
  • Allow the speaker to finish their thoughts. After all, Mom always said that it was rude to interrupt others.
  • Once they've finished speaking, pause to internalize and comprehend. Actually think about what was said, before responding. A snapback answer usually conveys that you weren't really listening or that you were biding your time to trump the speaker w/your comment.
  • Positively reinforce that you understood by restating or rephrasing the speaker's points. This builds trust with the speaker in acknowledging your understanding their perspective first.
  • Restate and inquire regarding anything that was unclear or misunderstood. Running w/a false assumption is dangerous and liable to backfire.
  • Before providing specific feedback, try to envision how your response will be received by the other parties. You may not always get this right, but trying to put yourself in others shoes, if nothing else, is a great learning experience.
  • Whenever possible, ensure that all parties leave the interaction on a positive note and that their concerns have been expressed. Even if it takes a verbal confirmation, it's best it's clear that everyone feels as though they have, or haven't (!), been heard.
  • Understand and acknowledge when you don't understand. False empathy is toxic and diminishes other's trust that you're listening honestly.
  • Walk away having learned something. Whether it be a realization that you had a fundamental misunderstanding or merely picked up a bit of trivial info, try to find something that you can internalize and build on. After all, most of us are familiar with what George Santayana wrote about neglecting the past: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

What are some of your tips on being a better listener? Do you have any experiences and/or tips to share on reeling back in conversations that were headed in a less-than-positive direction?

Date posted: August 14, 2012


I'm going to print a card with all those bullet points to hand out to people who are terrible communicators. Nothing feels more frustrating than having a conversation with someone who is just waiting to talk at you rather than actually collaborate in a dialogue with you.

I agree, those bullets are solid gold. Especially the "False empathy is toxic" line. I've run into that so many times. Rad post/good points Barrett!

Barrett - I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome this article is. ;-)

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