PM Articles > Geof Lory > Where Do You Listen From?

Where Do You Listen From?

by Geof Lory

As teams learn to work together, it is common for them to get stuck in the Storming stage. This Arrested Team Development (ATD) rarely goes away all on its own. Experienced project managers recognize the symptoms of this team disorder and take action to move past it. In my previous article, "A Few Closing Words," I emphasized the importance of paying close attention to the specific words that team members use in daily interactions. Assessing the quality of these conversations can help gauge team maturity. Listening for words that reflect responsibility, internal motivation, and choice will help assess how the team is doing.

While the words that are spoken yield great clues, listening is perhaps the more active and engaging side of the communication coin. Listening is an essential life skill, and time spent nurturing this discipline will pay dividends. In working with teams, listening is important as both a gauge and a strategy. You can both sense and improve the health of the team by listening deeply. The way you listen may even say more about you and your relationship with the team than your words, because in communication listening is giving; talking is taking.

I work a lot with agile teams where the quality of the communications is critical because the structure surrounding it is loosely defined. Conversations replace documentation, creating both the need and the opportunity to leverage listening as a discipline. You can tell that a team is moving from storming to norming when the percentage of collaborative and learning listening eclipses the competitive listening. In addition to listening for signs and indicators that there is less competitive listening and more collaborative and learning listening going on, project managers need to model appropriate listening skills themselves.

Listening as a Discipline

Learning to listen is simple stuff, but not necessarily easy. Most people see listening as something they do while waiting for their opportunity to talk. It is thought of as the passive part of communication. But great listeners understand that listening is extremely active and requires full engagement—physical, mental, and emotional.

There are plenty of articles and books that address the behavioral skills of listening. Using techniques like active listening, reading body language, and maintaining eye contact are all helpful behaviors to practice and improve your listening abilities. But I would suggest that, in addition to learning the "how", it is important to consider the "where" when developing the discipline of listening. The position or place you emotionally come from when listening will enable and support the behaviors of good listening.

Different team dynamics and situations will benefit the most from your position as a listener. Developing the discipline of listening so you can be in the most effective listening place for the circumstances will allow you to optimize your team communication. This can help transition the team from their competitive position (storming) to a more collaborative environment (norming). As communication moves from exclusive and independent to inclusive and interdependent, the team follows the same path. Developing listening as a discipline can both gauge and promote this progress.

The three places of listening

As teams form and storm and get to know one another, the natural friction of new team dynamics is most observable in the flavor and quality of their conversations. The quality of the listening that occurs is directly relative to the progression of the team. Listening conveys more value to the speaker than the speaker conveys to the listener. Trust is a prerequisite for effective listening but listening itself also conveys trust. A certain threshold of trust and maturity needs to be resident before the environment for optimal listening can be there. You can start this upward trust cycle by changing the "where" you listen from.

Competitive listening

When individuals, with their islands of knowledge and parochial background, are thrown together into a team, there is a natural tendency to want to stay within their comfort zone. It is also common to assert their preferences and beliefs as the norm and even try to promote them to the team norm. They apply their experiential filter to every conversation, judging the words and drawing conclusions, as they contrast it to their history, assessing its worth. This is going on subconsciously even while the speaker is still talking. They (or more specifically their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs) are in competition with those of the person speaking. When we are in this position of competition with the speaker, applying judgment to everything we hear, a high percent of the communication is lost. Judgment is the foundation of competitive listening. It is closed, stifled communication.

You can recognize signs of this competitive position in words like “yeah, but”, “the problem with that is” or even a habitual “No.” Regularly cutting off the speakers or talking over the other person is also a sign that when you are talking, you aren’t listening. In competitive listening, there really isn’t that much listening going on, as the competition is for who will get to speak.

Competitive listening is not bad, and can be beneficial and appropriate for some situations. However, if it is the dominant listening mode the team will struggle to gel enough to optimally complete work that requires any level of unstructured collaboration. Exclusively competitive listening is a sign that the team members have not developed the level of mutual respect and trust necessary for higher levels of listening. A focus on demonstrating respect (not cutting others off) and developing trust by eliminating assumptions will help improve listening.

Collaborative listening

Collaborative listening is more open and looks for ways to add to the other person’s idea or thought. This style of listening seeks to augment, and in doing so listens more openly. There is still some judgment or filtering, but it is typically more positive and toward a shared goal. You can hear this with collaborative words like “yes, and”, “we could also” or “how about if we”, or just supporting rewording.

Collaborative listening creates synergy and builds the team culture of respect and trust. It can be a great starting point, help move the team to a shared vision, or create positive energy in a brainstorming session. However, it still involves enough judgment that it can cloud the communication process. To move beyond collaborative listening, slow down and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Will my words add value, or am I just talking to hear myself? Ask yourself, “Do I need to be teaching or can I be learning?”

Learning listening

Learning listening takes collaborative listening to the next level. It is pure listening, completely without judgment of the speaker or the words spoken. You listen to the words of the speaker like a child listening to a storyteller, lost in the listening. Your attention conveys fundamental social value to the speaker. Listening from a position of learning means that you are a total sponge; completely present and totally without judgment; engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Learning listening honors the speaker by showing them respect. It seeks to convey how important the speaker is, not the listener. It makes them feel like they are the most important person in the room. You can recognize learning listening more by what is not said than what is said, because the listener is silently engaged—perhaps asking a clarifying question, but mostly just offering appreciation and respect for the speaker. "Thank you" is the best response.

Listening from a place of learning takes time and is not necessarily effective for all communication. There are times when information needs to be exchanged and you are the one who needs to respond or take action. However, using it at the right time can dramatically change the foundation of an interaction from one of suspicion and doubt to one of trust and respect. These moments of learning listening will promote greater collaboration through this foundation.

Practice Learning Listening

I started practicing better listening with my daughters when they were very young. I have an office in my house and spend a fair amount of time there working on projects, talking on the phone or just reading. When my daughters are looking for me, they know the first place to look is the office. They also know that if I am there, I may be doing something work related. But of course, when they were young, they were the center of their universe and my work didn’t really doesn’t matter much to them. They would barge in and start talking without regard for what I was doing. (Kind of like people who stop by your desk unannounced and uninvited and start talking without any regard for what you are in the middle of.)

I used to try to multi-task—to continue working, answering e-mails, or doing other work while they talked to me. What I found was that I was sending them the message that they weren't important enough that I needed to be present. So, now when they come in, I ask them to let me finish what I am doing (wrap up an e-mail or finish a paragraph in the book and mark the page) and then they will have my undivided attention. Then I practice my learning listening.

I found it showed respect, built trust, and ultimately improved communication with my daughters and my teams. Incidentally, it paid huge dividends in the teenage years, opening the door to better communication around difficult subjects like grades, curfews, and boys. Reducing that storming phase is an incentive for any parent or project manager.

Thanks for listening.

Related Links
While you're practicing your listeing skills, it can help to understand where the speaker is coming from. If you must speak up, make your case quickly and effectively.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thank you Geoff,
This is practical advice for the home or the office. I suspect most of us spend too much time in the competitive listening phase. I certainly do.
Thanks again

Thanks to Geof Lory for this useful 'Where Do You Listen From?" contribution.
I suggest that a missing method of listening from Geof's article is 'Creative Listening''s in there somewhere, but not specifically.
In my experience most issues in organisations are brought about by lack of listening. Significant risk can be ignored, even if it is scored and parked.
Yet the thing that matters most is the 'doing. How many inactive Action Plans or programme threads have you come across? Will you project succeed despite the risk? - will you listen to those who are concerned about risk? 'Creative Listening' methods can be applied to tease the issues / the language or coded comments out of people who know but who are fed up with being ignored. Then we can put our team creative problem solving minds to work armed with the best of project briefs.

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