Mindful listening


This paper focuses on the most overlooked aspect of communication, possessing strong listening skills. Since the project manager is the center of the project's information flow, listening is one of the most important responsibilities.

Project managers face numerous barriers to listening due to, among other things, time constraints, biases, and poor listening skills. However, stakeholder satisfaction and project team responsiveness may rise when the project manager practices mindful listening.

Mindful listening is especially important when working on complex projects due to the high level of uncertainty involved. This skill allows the project manager to better identify apparent and subtle issues, risks, and opportunities necessary when working with this level of uncertainty. In contrast, poor listening is often attributed to mistakes, reduced effectiveness, and missed opportunities.

The paper concludes by presenting ways to develop mindful listening skills by understanding the barriers that exist and addressing them.

The Forgotten Partner in Communications

Communication involves transmitting information between the sender and the receiver. The sender is the person who conveys the message, whether it is verbal or non-verbal. The receiver is the individual who receives the message by hearing what is being said, seeing words or objects, or picking up cues from the speaker's body language, or voice tone. A good balance in the communication equation occurs when both the sender and the receiver carry out their mutual responsibilities.

However, a much greater number of resources are available to the speaker than to the listener. A search on the Internet revealed a wide range of communication tools for sale, articles on speaking techniques, and training opportunities to become a better communicator. The amount of these resources focusing on the listener was significantly less. Therefore, the communication equation seems out of balance and leaning in favor of the speaker. This unbalanced situation is unfortunate because project managers need to be adept at both skills.

The Importance of Listening

The project manager is the center of the project's information flow and therefore good communications is one of the most important responsibilities (Knutson, 2001, p 182). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) identifies communication as one of the fundamentals of project management (Project Management Institute, 2013, p 287). The PMBOK® Guide identifies Project Communications Management as a Knowledge Area with the following processes:

  • Plan Communications Management
  • Manage Communications
  • Control Communications

Managing Complex Projects

Project managers must be good listeners because much of their work requires receiving and sending information (Brantley, 2012, Paragraph 2). Good listening is especially important when working on complex projects where there is less than a full understanding of all risks and opportunities (Kay, 2010, p 147). Therefore, project managers may need to take an iterative approach to addressing the issues that surface. This may require project managers to adopt an alternative way of thinking because there is always something unique to each issue or problem. But how can project managers adopt alternative ways of thinking when responding to issues arising during complex projects?

To adopt an alternative thinking capability, effective project managers should construct an inner circle or an advisory network made up of peer advisors (Joni, 2004, p 20). Project managers should create a diverse body of peers who are outside of their immediate network and should strike the right balance of long-term trustworthy relationships and “new blood.” Project managers with strong listening skills will then be able to rely on the advisory network for a useful exchange of ideas based on an outsider's perspective. For the inner circle to be effective, project managers must apply strong listening skills to, among other things, not rush to judgment, ask questions, and interpret verbal and non-verbal messages (Webb, 2013).

In addition to utilizing an inner circle of peers, project managers can successfully navigate through the uncertainties of a complex project by applying excellent listening skills when interacting with the project team and stakeholders. Project managers should spend time listening to the concerns of the stakeholders as well as focusing on status updates and issues raised by the project team. Through an iterative approach, project managers can apply their knowledge and experience to identify key points pertinent to the situation (Kay, 2010, p 157). A poor listener at best may only hear what is being said at the surface level. A good listener will also pick up the subtle issues that may help to address the risk or to take advantage of an opportunity. The subtle issues may be picked up by the project manager from a stakeholder or team member's words, mannerisms, or voice tone (Gore, 2013).

Faulty Listening

Faulty listening is often responsible for mistakes, reduced effectiveness and missed opportunities (Goodwin, 2011). There are numerous cases of failed projects where communication – the proper sending and receipt of information was listed as a prime contributor. This was the case in a 2012 report by the United Kingdom's National Audit Office (UK National Audit Office. 2012). The report presented the results of the review of the Department of Transport decision to cancel the InterCity West Coast franchise competition. The InterCity West Coast franchise operates from London Euston to Glasgow, and serves cities including Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and Edinburgh and was last let in 1997.

Among the findings was that the Department's documentation was poor and it did not submit required reports to internal decision makers within schedule. This delay created a communication problem because it prevented sufficient time for decision makers to consider the information provided within them. The watchdog agency concluded that the full cost is unknown but likely to be significant, with at least £1.9 million in staff and adviser costs, £2.7 million in legal costs, and £4.3 million on external advisers for the reviews that it has commissioned.

Communication problems in projects are not limited to public institutions. In a 2011 research report, the analyst firm Gartner attributed poor communication as one reason why 70% to 80% of corporate business intelligence (BI) projects fail (Goodwin, 2011). Gartner cited a combination of poor communication between IT and the business departments, the failure to ask the right questions or to think about the real needs of the business as prime reasons most BI projects fail to deliver. The report suggested that managers may not be aware of all of the information needed for BI implementation. Therefore, Gartner recommends that managers need “to think more like anthropologists, invite the right people to the table. Then the exercise becomes more like information gathering” (Goodwin, 2011). It seems apparent that excellent listening skills will be necessary during such an exercise.

Barriers to Mindful Listening

Too often, people confuse the concept of hearing with the act of listening. What differentiates the two is that listening involves being present in the conversation where there is a genuine interest in what is being conveyed and an effort to positively engage the speaker (Gore, 2013). Hearing is much more passive.

However, there are several barriers that can prevent good listening from occurring (Brantley, 2012, Paragraph 4). The barriers can be physical, involving noise, hearing disabilities, and so forth. There can be cultural barriers relating to language issues of the speaker, which may involve accent, loudness, use of certain words, etc. The listener also can have personality barriers involving strong feelings toward the topic or speaker. Finally, there can be cognitive barriers where the message is too complex or poorly communicated. Here are more specific examples of barriers to mindful listening (Webb, 2013):

  • Background noise — may make for easy distractions.
  • Judging the speaker based on gender, race, age or physical appearance — may limit the opportunity to hear new information, ideas and perspectives.
  • Stress — concentrating on other things limits the ability to focus on what is being said.
  • Past experience with speaker or topic — may also limit the ability to focus on what is being said.
  • Personal agenda and focusing on what you are going say — may result in tuning out the speaker's verbal and nonverbal messages.
  • Focus on outcome versus process of listening — may make you impatient and therefore not fully hearing what I being said.

Benefits of Mindful Listening

Listening is crucial to project managers as it guides, in part, how they are perceived by stakeholders, project teams and others. Poor listeners may be labeled as headstrong or insensitive (Joni, 2004, p 110). Benefits of mindful listening include (Shafir, 2000, p 28; Joy, 2013):

  • Better professional relationships — display that you are genuinely interested in what is being conveyed by the speaker.
  • Increased attention span — try to be interested in what the person is saying and not rushing to judgment.
  • More cooperation from others — acknowledge the feelings behind what is being said. Doing so will allow the speaker to believe he or she is being understood by you and therefore more willing to build a relationship.
  • Improved productivity — ask open-ended questions to gain more information to better understand the subject and helps you to be more discerning.
  • Stronger knowledge base — expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives by receiving the information without basing it on past experiences, perceptions, and other filters.
  • Improved self confidence — by listening to our unconscious fears and feelings, we may then treat ourselves with some greater compassion and kindness.
  • Better negotiation skills — listening without judging, interpreting, and assuming and then responding with the proper voice tone will allow the speaker to feel validated and may approach you with a spirit of openness.

Mindful Listening

It is important for project managers to be in the present with their full attention focused on the speaker (Shafir, 2000, page 105). By doing so, they can truly hear what is being said and also able to pick up on the non-verbal cues. It is through the non-verbal cues that project managers will often gain a deeper understanding of the true meaning of what is being said. To become a mindful listener, a project manager should:

  • Listen instead of thinking about what YOU are going to say.
  • Listen even though you don't agree with or don't want to hear what is being said. You may still learn something.
  • Try to learn something from each person you meet.
  • Try to keep eye contact with the person who is speaking.
  • Listen and do not interrupt the speaker.
  • Be in the present and do not fall asleep or daydream during meetings or presentations.
  • Do restate messages to be sure you correctly understood what is being conveyed.
  • Try to listen for the meaning behind the speaker's words through gestures and facial expressions.
  • Focus on what is being said and try not to feel frustrated or impatient when communicating with people from other cultures.
  • Do inquire about the meaning of unfamiliar words or jargon.
  • Do give the appearance of listening.
  • Do take notes to help you recall.
  • Do consider the state of the person you are speaking with (nervous, rushed, hearing impaired, etc.).
  • Try not to let the speaker's physical appearance or mannerisms distract you from listening.
  • Try not to assume you know what the speaker is going to say and stop listening.
  • Try to build a relationship with the speaker by watching “their movie” as we do when we watch bibliographical documentaries.


There is much to gain by a project manager conducting mindful listening. Conversely, for those who do not practice mindful listening, they may be more likely to make unnecessary mistakes and miss important opportunities.

Mindful listening can provide great benefits to project managers who are forced to think beyond their comfort zone when working on complex projects. Project managers will be able to tap into their advisory network for a useful exchange of ideas. They will also be able to better interact with the project team and stakeholders.

It is important for effective project managers to identify their own barriers to mindful listening. Once this is done, project managers can then address ways of removing the barriers and apply mindful listening techniques and methods. By conducting mindful listening, project managers can participate in the benefits to the project, stakeholders, the project team and themselves.

Brantley, B. (2012, January 31). Successful Project Managers are Great Listeners. Retrieved from http://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/successful-project-managers-are-great-listeners

Goodwin, B. (2011, January). Poor communication to blame for business intelligence failure, says Gartner. ComputerWeekly.com. [Electronic Version] Retrieved from http://www.computerweekly.com/news/1280094776

Gore, A. (2013, May). Joy Secret Number 8: Listening. HuffPost Healthy Living. [Electronic Version] Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-gore/joy_b_2313444.html

Joni, S.A. (2004). The Third Opinion. New York: Cambridge International Group.

Kay, J. (2012). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. New York: Penguin Group.

Knutson, J. (2001). Project Management for Business Professionals: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Project Management Institute (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)– Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Shafir, R.Z. (2000). The Zen of Listening. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Webb, M. (2006, March). Eight barriers to effective listening. Retrieved from www.sklatch.net/thoughtlets/listen.html

The Comptroller and Auditor General (2012). Lessons from cancelling the InterCity West Coast franchise competition. London, England: National Audit Office.

©2013 Marv Goldstein
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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