The Power of Active Listening

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“ It is only in listening that one learns.” J. Krishnamurti

Communicating is central to optimal performance. Listening is a powerful capability for success. It is the most critical part of communicating. As a project manager, or in any role, in any relationship, listening both shows respect for others and informs you, so you are better able to learn and respond effectively. Listening enables a meeting of the minds.

Hearing, Listening, and Active Listening

Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. A sound is received by the ears and registers in the brain.

Listening is active. It exercises focus, self awareness, and social intelligence. It is giving attention to (“I am listening to what you are saying”), making an effort to hear (“I am listening for a signal”), or it can mean to act on what someone says (“The kids/my boss/the staff just don’t listen”). Not listening is ignoring or not making the effort to hear and understand.

In the context of relationships, leadership, and management, we have changed the meaning of to listen from “give one’s attention to a sound”[1] to give attention to the communication experience. We refer to this as active listening. active listening is not just about sound. It is paying attention to the full experience of the sounds, words being spoken (or written), tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and  “vibe” or emotional state.   Active listening involves questioning to validate understanding. And it includes listening to one’s inner voice and feelings.

Meeting of the Minds

Communication is an act of sharing. It consists of giving, listening, and understanding. It is most effective when it achieves communion – the sharing of detailed and thorough thoughts and feelings to reach a meeting of the minds – mutual; understanding. Active listening promotes mutual understanding.

Some may question whether the sharing of thoughts and, especially, feelings has a place in organizations and business relationships. This kind of sharing does not mean sharing one’s deepest feelings when that is inappropriate. But with detailed and thorough knowledge, there can be the mutual understanding that leads to better decisions and healthier relationships.

Mutual understanding transforms the state of mind of the participants. It implies that the people involved meet one another with open mindedness and the intention to understand one another’s meaning. With that kind of understanding, team members are motivated to act, to follow through on agreements, or to know that the there is disagreement.

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A Scenario

I recently requested information from a colleague. I was clear that obtaining the information was important to me and he made it clear that while he was aware of that, he was not going to share it.

We had a meeting of the minds. It was an agreement to disagree.

My sense was that while he was listening to me and I to him, we were not thorough in our sharing. We had listened to one another’s words. I had listened to my feelings, and they gave me the sense that he had not shared the underlying reason for his position.

I was satisfied that my sense of a hidden agenda was not driven by my disappointment but from an interpretation of his tone and unwillingness to address his motivation. Unless he shares it, I can only guess at his thinking. While we had a meeting of the minds regarding the content, we did not meet on a deeper, more meaningful level.

You might ask, “What does meet on a more meaningful level have to do with project management and performance?” The answer is that when there is unwillingness to honestly share, relationships suffer. When relationships suffer, performance suffers.

Listening is a Challenge

“And for most of us, listening is one of the most difficult things to do. It is a great art, far greater than any other art.”  J. Krishnamurti Excerpt from What Are You Looking For?

Listening promotes healthy relationships and optimal performance. But it is a challenge. It requires the intention to actively listen, and the mindful self-awareness to know if you are paying attention or are distracted by our own thoughts and feelings; to assess your patience, and focus.

Are you busily planning what to say next or caught up in judging yourself or others? Are you verifying that the other party has understood what you meant and that you accurately understood what they meant?

For example, I have a habit interrupting others because I think I have understood their meaning before they have finished talking. Most of the time I do understand, and often they are going on and on repeating the same thing. But my interrupting is driven by impatience. It violates one of the most important parts of listening, respecting others’ need to express themselves.

Questions as a Way Of Listening

Working with my impatience (habits are hard to change), I am learning to step back and let the other party speak his piece. If I feel it is useful, I interrupt with a question. For example, “What I think you are saying is … . Do I have that right?” Questioning in this way shows that you are interested in what is being said and gives the other party an opportunity to see if you do understand and to correct or further describe their content. Questioning can also be a way of making sure the other party is paying attention and that there is successful communication.

What if the Other Party Isn’t Listening

Communication seeks mutual understanding. Listening is an individual act. When one party is not listening, communication is limited, mutual understanding is not achieved.

In the midst of conversation, there are ways to manage the situation to get the other party to listen. One way is to stop talking. It gets the other party’s attention and once you have it you can continue. Questioning is another useful way. In this context, you can say “I’d like to make sure I am being clear. Would you mind telling me what you think I’m saying?” Questioning engages the other and lets you know if they were listening and whether they ‘got’ what you were trying to get across. It transforms the conversation from a lecture to a dialogue.

Seek to Improve

In the long run there is a need for training in communication skills.

Start with yourself. Assess your skills, particularly your listening skills, and make a commitment to get them to be as sharp and effective as possible.

Then do what you can to promote effective communication in your team and other relationships. You can raise awareness by implementing a team training or engaging a coach or facilitator.

[1] Oxford Languages