The Power of Listening Between the Lines
When a project team member tells you something, how well do you hear what they’re really saying?
Most of us don’t hear all that’s available. We listen to the specific words better than we fill in the blanks or paint a mental picture.
Let me offer an example, which might serve as a metaphor of sorts. My 12-year-old son and I were at our vacation/summer/getaway place Monday – me to unwind after travel, him because he had a few days off from school, both of us to spend some time together with nothing on the schedule. It’s on an island north of Seattle, and we have no TV.1 He wanted to watch the fourth (and last) game of the World Series. All we could get was an online audio feed from ESPN.
I grew up listening to baseball (and playing it), not watching it on TV. We didn’t have a TV until the 60s (I think we got it for the Kennedy/Nixon debate), and I certainly couldn’t use it for the quotidian purpose of watching baseball. The only way I could catch up with what was happening to my favorite team2 was to listen to games on the radio. I learned to fill in the blanks, understand what was happening from the truncated information relayed by the play-by-play announcer.3
So we’re listening to the game Monday night, while I’m laying a fire, cooking dinner, and then working the jigsaw puzzle spread out on a long table. To me, everything was perfectly clear. But my son kept asking, “What’s happening? Who’s on base? Which team?”
Jeremy plays on a Little League team (infield and pitcher, mostly; he certainly understands the game, backs up, throws to the right base, etc.). We attend Mariners games.4 We watch them occasionally on TV. He watched the second and third games of the Series. He’s seen and played almost as much baseball as I did at his age.5
Afterwards, I thought about why he couldn’t follow a game that was perfectly clear in my mind.
Listening Between the Lines
I don’t think he’s had to listen between the lines the way I did, to fill in the blanks. He’s used to having all laid out in front of him visually. In fact, he often ignores or talks over the TV announcers.
I’m not talking about the office-political art of listening to what’s not being said, a different (and equally valuable) skill. Rather, he struggled putting together a picture from partial (but sufficient) information.
I see this behavior occasionally when I work with clients. They listen to what project team members tell them, but they don’t put it in the larger context. They miss information that is right there, available to them but unspoken. Again, I’m not talking about “reading into” what people are saying, looking for hidden meanings. I’m certainly not talking about cross-examination of a team member. Rather, I hear people asking for information they actually received but didn’t realize, or drawing weak conclusions based only on what they heard literally without regard to a context they actually already knew but didn’t take into account.
This part is speculation, but I wonder if it’s an outgrowth of our TV/YouTube/24×7-”news” addiction.6 Many people are growing up with a “visual interface” to information. Imaginations aren’t stimulated in this environment, nor are people taught to interpolate missing data or tease out information.
I’m not suggesting this is wrong, or right. Rather, I’m suggesting that it might be the water in which we swim, the environment we’re not aware of.
If you’re managing projects and under a certain age,7 it might be worthwhile to recognize that there are gaps you need to fill in when a team member gives you information – and that it’s your job to gather than information, because it’s information you already know in a different context.
If you’re managing projects and above a certain age, you might want to be aware of a tendency for project team members to over-report in certain areas8 because they communicate differently.
I don’t know that this is truly a generational issue, but I do think there’s an overall difference in the average way radio-people and TV-people communicate. As a project manager, it’s your job to bridge that difference.
Communication is a critical skill for a project manager. Of course, this difference in styles is but one aspect. Still, it’s an aspect to consider in your own work.
Now, how ’bout them Giants!