Project Managers, Is This Soft Skill The Hardest To Master?



CEO | Performance Coach | Instructional Design Specialist

Have you ever experienced talking to someone who seems to be listening, yet after taking a closer look, you realised that his or her mind isn’t really there. How does it feel being ignored, do you like it? Pretty annoying, that’s for sure. Now, imagine the implication if your key customer felt ignored. Never, ever risk that.

That’s why listening is extremely important, especially to a wise project manager like you. Back in 1993 when I was a Malaysian Armed Forces education officer at KD PELANDOK, The Royal Malaysian Navy Training Centre, I had pleasant learning experience on art of listening. I’d like to share with you right now.

“When two people agree with each other all the time, one of them is not required.”

This was a bold statement written on the office wall of my commanding officer. Contrary to my assumption, the environment at KD PELANDOK wasn’t a command and control. As an education officer, I was encouraged to express my opinion. The environment was socially safe. Even though I was just a junior officer at that time, I was not expected to be a Yes man. I was very lucky to have military leaders who sincerely listen to opinions of the junior officers. Of course, we were expected to have solid justifications to back our opinion shared.

Reflecting on leadership qualities of my military leaders, it brings such a wonderful memory. Among the leadership qualities that are still very fresh in my mind is empathic listening. Some people categorise empathic listening and other human-related skills as a soft skill. Being a project manager, do you think soft skill is the hardest to practice?

Why empathic listening matters for project managers? Emphatic listening skill is one of the overlooked aspects of communication.  Emphatic listening is more than merely hearing. Emphatic listening is about sincerely trying to understand the person who is talking to us. Besides listening to the actual message, the emphatic listener will also need to listen to the emotional undertone and other unspoken messages too. Project managers are involved in constant communication with stakeholders like customers, contractors and sponsors.

Have you experience a situation where your own family members say ‘that is not what I meant, or you totally misunderstood me’. Imagine if miscommunication can even happen among our own family members who speak the same language, understand each other very well and genuinely care for each other, it could happen in the office too. In any project environment, the stakeholders may have conflicting priorities and multiple cultural backgrounds. Expecting no miscommunication is unreasonable. Am I right?

Empathic Listening helps to better understand the project requirement. Imagine a situation when you are submitting claims for the progressive payments of your project. While in your head, you believe all the documents are in order; your client refuses to verify the documents. The client is blaming you for not understanding their requirements. These are among the common source of frustration for project managers. Emphatic listening is valuable to understand what client really wants. While detailed requirement analysis and proper documentation of change control may reduce the probability of miscommunication, beyond doubt empathic listening will certainly help you in this scenario.

Requirement analysis is the process of discovering, analysing, defining and documenting the requirements of the project. Do you have structured processes for requirement analysis?  Are you practising these structured processes? No matter what process and procedures you have, emphatic listening is valuable to understand both written and unwritten requirements. How to demonstrate empathic listening during project requirement analysis?

Restating is a great way to demonstrate empathic listening by stating again what you heard in a new form. A statement like, ‘Are you saying that you want to ensure the training program for the vessel must be completed 2 weeks before the physical handover?’ Your ability to restate what you heard is a reflection that you understood the client’s expectation. From my experience, it is very important for the client to hear and feel that they are being understood. When we genuinely seek to understand the client’s expectation and requirement, we will be better understood. Dr Steven Covey emphasised this in Habit 5 of the famous ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

Clarifying is another important approach to practice empathic listening. Have you experienced situations where what is written in the project contract documents or technical specification is not what client really wants? At times, contract documents are outsourced and the requirements may not be well integrated. Imagine you are a project manager for a project related to a vessel. The contract says the vessel shall be equipped with an X-Ray machine. Since it is in the contract, the client insists that you must supply the X-Ray machine.  However, the vessel does not have trained personnel to operate the equipment. In another word, the equipment will surely be a ‘white elephant’ on-board. I have personal experience in managing situations like this. We were very lucky to have a very reasonable client. We conducted a trade-off analysis with the client and decided to remove the X-Ray machine from the vessel’s equipment requirement and offered alternative equipment and services that add value to the client. And that suggestion was well matched with their expectation.

Emphatic listening is a skill that is too important to ignore when it comes to navigating the complexity of project management. While some people called it a soft skill, personally I find it extremely hard to master. Like any other skills, with sincere intention and right action, we can master the art of empathic listening and enjoy the benefits it brings in managing our projects.

Hope you will start reflecting the emphatic listening skill onto your project journey. I am sure there will be room for improvement as you go along.

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Good luck.

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