Project Management Institute

Listen and learn


All good project leaders should listen to their people, but pay attention to cultural differences.


If you want to foster involvement among your team members, you have to listen to them constantly. Listening is such a routine project activity that few people think of developing the skill. Yet when you know how to really listen, you increase your ability to acquire and retain knowledge. Listening also helps you understand and influence your team members and project stakeholders.

“In the first stages of a project manager's career, communication in general and listening in particular is very low priority,” says Javier Oteo from UNISYS in Spain. “As the project manager grows, then communication skills and listening become critical.”

Remco Meisner from Getronics in the Netherlands agrees. “Obviously you will need to know what customers consider important, what the project team has accomplished so far and where the flaws are. For all that, you need to be able to listen well.”

Listening effectively is dependent on the culture, though. As Blaise Pascal said in his classic book of essays Pensées, “There are truths on this side of Pyrenees, which are falsehoods on the other.” Listening means different things to different people. It can even mean different things to the same person in different situations.

I have observed various types of listening behaviors among European project professionals:

  • Hearing: They hear your comments but they're not processing the message.
  • Information gathering: They're collecting information—but not listening.
  • Cynical listening: They nod and seem to be listening to you, but they're really not.
  • Offensive listening: They're not focused on what you're saying, they don't look at you or they're doing other things.
  • Polite listening: They take care to mind their manners.
  • Active listening: They immediately validate that they understand your message.

Listening is hard work. Unlike hearing, it demands total concentration. It is an active search for meaning, while hearing is passive. Try to listen with questions in mind:

  • What's the speaker saying?
  • What does it mean?
  • How does it relate to what was said before?
  • What point is the speaker trying to make?
  • How can I use the information the speaker is giving me?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Am I getting the whole story?
  • Are the points being supported?
  • What does this relate to what I already know?

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Maintaining eye contact and an appropriate nod or two help to let the speaker know you are listening. Ask questions and paraphrase when you want to make sure you have understood, when you're not sure you have caught the meaning, and before you agree or disagree. Paraphrasing also is useful when dealing with people who repeat themselves—it assures them they have communicated their ideas to you.

Different cultures sometimes take different approaches to listening. Spanish people, for example, look at the person who is talking; however in some Asian countries this practice is considered offensive. For project managers in any culture, however, the lesson is the same: Listening must be a priority. Executives and upper managers must encourage their project managers to listen at three levels in cross-cultural exchanges:

1. Pay attention to the person and the message.

2. Create rapport.

3. Share meaning.

Listen better to your project stakeholders, and you will learn more about your project.

Alfonso Bucero, PMP, is an independent consultant who manages projects throughout Europe and Asia. He is the author of Project Management—A New Vision, contributor to Creating the Project Office and coauthor of Project Sponsorship—Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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