Communication among human beings is a dirty, messy business fraught with hazards. Between our own preconceptions and the preconceptions of the people we try to speak with, achieving any level of real understanding takes hard work. Even following the appropriate forms does not guarantee success. This point was driven home to me on my first real leadership assignment.

I was a young and eager project manager, fresh out of college. After putting in time as a wire monkey and support specialist, my company decided I could run a small team. I spent days reading the latest management literature. The Harvard Review became my bible. When our kick-off meeting finally came I felt ready to take on the world.

Following apparent best practice, I announced at the kick-off meeting that I wanted to speak with each team member privately. After scheduling the meetings, I spent at least an hour preparing for each one, studying the person’s work history. The script for the meetings came out of one of my project management books. It covered the person’s goals, desires, and dreams for the project as well as personal preferences about the work environment. During each meeting I dutifully made notes about their answers.

Running the interviews took up an entire day. Reviewing the results and agonizing over what to do about them took another two. By the end of the week, though, I had created what I thought would be the perfect work distribution for my team. All members had work that was in their skill set, as well as stretch goals they could meet by working with other team members.

A month into the project I knew something was wrong. People just didn’t seem interested in the work. By the time the project finally completed, the team was clearly just going though the motions. During our end-of-project review, I asked them what went wrong. After a great deal of evasion, the eldest team member finally came out and told me that my work assignments bored them to tears. As a group, they liked working with me, but I really needed to be more flexible and creative on how I approached handing out tasks.

Where did I go wrong?
I was crushed. During the initial planning and secondary work adjustment phases I spent hours trying to make sure I gave people interesting work. After recovering my ego from the floor, I asked the senior staffer to sit down with me so we could figure out where I went wrong.

During our discussion we ferreted out three basic issues:

  • ·        After comparing what he remembered from the initial interview with my notes, we noticed a fairly broad discrepancy. What I recorded bore little or no resemblance to what he remembered.
  • ·        During the secondary work reviews, I stayed the course with my initial flawed impressions. I should have been honestly assessing the work. This invalidated the intention of the secondary reviews. I followed the form but failed to live up to the spirit of the process.
  • ·        My team liked me too much to tell me that I had made a mistake. They knew that this was my first project. They also knew that I spent hours every day agonizing about leadership and management decisions. They actually held a private meeting where they agreed to hide their problems so that my management would give me a positive review.

On reflection, the first and second issues came from the same source. The difference between hearing what people say and really listening to them makes or breaks relationships. In a lot of cases, we form an impression of what the other people will say long before they actually say it. During the real conversation we remember and respond to what we think they want to say, rather than really focusing in on what they actually do say.

In my case, during my reviews of my team’s work histories I formed an impression of the kind of work they would find interesting. During our interviews I validated my own assumptions rather than listening to what they said. I then proceeded to make work assignments based on my “validated” assumptions. That the results proved less than satisfactory should not have come as a surprise.

Fixing the problem proved more difficult than recognizing it. I struggled with listening for years until finally stumbling onto the technique of reflective listening. Although reflective listening comes out of the psychology of marriage, it applies to any interpersonal communication. Reflective listening involves first listening and then repeating back what you hear so that the speaker can validate your understanding. Although the formal technique is rather cumbersome, the basic premise (listen, repeat, correct, repeat until validated) can be easily slipped into any conversation or meeting.

Implementing the solution
After learning about reflective listening, I put it to use during my next preproject meeting. At each of the prework interviews I utilized two separate forms. On the first one, I recorded my initial understanding of the team members’ responses to the question. I then repeated back the recorded response. Where my recording differed from the team member’s intention, I changed it and then recorded the result on the official form.

Over time, I learned how to reflectively listen without using two forms. But when working with a new team or with people whom I know I have trouble communicating with, I still go back to the two-form method. It gives me a formal structure that forces me to follow good listening practices even when I am personally inclined not to.

During my first assignment, I allowed my own enthusiasm to interfere with my listening skills. Later on, I learned how to apply reflective listening to basic project management situations, greatly enhancing my ability to effectively respond to my team members and customers.