We all know that project management is primarily a people business. As such, communicating with humans is the most important skill you possess to achieve success. How well do you communicate? I have been married for 40 + years and a project manager for over 25 years and I am still trying to improve my communication skills. Ask my wife. On second thought, don’t ask my wife because she will say I don’t listen.
Communicating involves sending and receiving information mostly through speaking, writing, listening and reading. How well we do each of these influences our communication competency as well as your effectiveness as a leader and influencer. Of the four skills, I think listening is the most difficult to do well.
How hard is it to really listen? It’s difficult, because in additional to surrounding distractions, your mind is usually in the process of formulating what you are going to say when the other person stops talking to you. How can you fully understand a verbal message if you are simultaneously thinking about your response.
To really listen and truly understand a verbal message, you must focus exclusively on the sender and hear each word, how it is said, observing eyes, facial expressions and body language. Even then, you must ask clarifying questions to make sure you fully understand the message. When you think about it, this is not an easy nor a innate process. I once had a boss who would “listen” to me while intermittently looking at his computer monitor and pounding on his keyboard. He wasn’t listening effectively although he thought he was. I also felt my messages were not very important to him.
Toastmasters, International is an organization with a program to develop its members to achieve basic management competency levels called Competent Communicator and Competent Leader. Members achieve these titles by practicing and demonstrating communication and leadership skills during weekly meetings. One particularly effective communication exercise is the Ah Counter role. Ah counting means you must carefully listen to each speaker during a weekly 90 minute meeting and keep track of the number of audible pauses such as Ahs, Ers, Ums, Hms, “you knows”, etc. The Ah Counter must then give a report at the end of the meeting on each speaker’s Ah count. As you can imagine, you really have to focus on the speaker and the spoken word to do this well. For my first try at this, I thought I did a good job but, afterwards, I was told by my mentor that I had missed over half of the Ahs and other audible pauses. Really? That was a wake up call for me. However, after practicing as Ah Counter a few more times, I was able to catch most of the audible pauses. Initially you will focus on the Ah count, but as you develop, you focus on the speaker and each spoken word and gain a clearer understanding of both the message and the sender.
Training yourself to listen well increases your ability to understand and demonstrates your sincere interest to the senders. Your project team members will want to honestly talk to you more when they feel you really listen. Try this exercise next time you are listening and notice how it enables you to understand better. However, don’t give the sender their Ah count because they will think you’re crazy. I do recommend Ah counting as an ongoing exercise for anyone wanting to improve their listening skills on their way to effective and successful communications.