Critical Listening

The Art of Critical Listening is improving the personal connection you make with team members and project stakeholders by intensely engaging as you listen to what they say. This works because most people are not accustomed to having their words carfully listened to by others.

You’re probably familiar with the terms “critical thinking” and the “art of listening.” Both are important skills to cultivate in the project management profession. But just as important is the ability to use both skills in combination in communications with your team members and stakeholders. Project Manager Skills Main PageCritical Listening

What is “critical listening?” Simply put, it is the ability to pay attention to what other people are saying while assessing the validity and value of the information they are conveying. This skill—and it’s a learned skill for most of us—is an important one to consciously work on and use in your daily project manager role. Here’s an example that illustrates why critical thinking and critical listening, working together, are important.
Not long ago, I was a member of a “kaizen” (i.e., a process improvement team) on a large government contract that was experiencing numerous process management issues. Our team’s objective was to identify the failures or rough spots in our processes, analyze their causes, and suggest corrective actions. The team consisted of eight people, one from each major organizational component: Project Management (me), Finance, Contracting, Engineering, etc. Our team leader did a fairly good job of leading the group through the initial problem identification phase. But it quickly became apparent that the Finance Office representative, who was quite young but also quite competent, was being all but dismissed by the team leader. Each time she attempted to speak (in her too quiet voice), she would be talked over by others, including the team leader, or quickly moved past without being acknowledged. Before long, she’d had enough and simply stopped trying. Around the end of the third day, the team leader finally asked for her thoughts on something in a too-late attempt to engage every team member. Without mincing words, she let the team leader know the following:

  • her inputs didn’t appear to be of any interest
  • her opinions and insights did not matter
  • project management was the source of most of the problems
  • the team was not going to succeed if they chose to use their assumptions about financial processes instead of the facts she had to offer.

She then folded her arms and sat back to await our response.

I agreed with almost everything she said (except the part about Project Management, of course)! The kaizen team leader had been guilty of a series of failures in critical listening. First, he clearly wasn’t listening to this young but valuable member of his team. The few points she had managed to make early on were later picked up by and attributed to other members. And after several frustrated attempts to be heard, she simply “bailed” on the team in speech and spirit. As a result, her ideas went unexpressed and unexplored. The opportunity for a fuller range of data to sift and analyze was lost and the group’s dependence on its own perceptions increased.

Second, the absence of critical thinking and listening enabled the real possibility of false conclusions. The Finance Office member’s dressing-down of the team left us wondering if we were guilty of gross “group think.” Had we substituted perceptions and opinions where facts should have been gathered and applied? Did this cast doubt on the accuracy of the conclusions drawn so far? Had we ignored the basic principles of critical thinking in addition to being poor listeners? The team, which included me, concluded the answer was “Yes” on all accounts. Once that house of cards fell, the group’s faith in its own ability to deliver a valid end product was damaged.

Critical listening combines the core principles behind critical thinking and the art of listening. Make sure that you are truly listening when in a conversation. That means no multi-tasking, no checking cell phone messages, reading email, etc. Be fully engaged in the conversation. Ask questions to make sure you haven’t misunderstood or translated the intended thought into something you expected to hear.
While listening, be open to new information, something you don’t expect, something that differs from your understanding or experience. Try to be neutral and accept verifiable information that differs from your beliefs. But be ready to challenge what you hear if it doesn’t add up. Can you or the other person provide evidence to substantiate or refute the information you’re receiving? Are the assumptions being made reasonable? Can they be validated by facts?

Finally, be open to changing your mind or position if the information you receive and process does pass muster. Project management is as much about information management—“listening” as well as “talking”—as it is about planning, controlling, leading and any of the other skills you must have and cultivate to be a successful PM. It can be hard to change a position you’ve become comfortable with, so ask yourself questions if you must. Challenge your commitment to a “fact” and try to base your perspective on valid rationale rather than an emotional attachment.

So, how did things turn out for the kaizen? After some repair work on team functions and the information generated, the kaizen managed to recover—albeit a little less sure of itself than it had once been. Five days after starting, it had identified over 50 verifiable process issues, most with suggested corrective actions that were later implemented. And with the team’s new-found respect for “critical listening,” Project Management was cleared of most of its alleged offenses.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on