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Active listening for project success and stakeholder engagement

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We’ve all had projects flounder because of stakeholder behaviour. When we’re trying to manage a project, we can’t know what stakeholders will think or do. The project management profession is awash with tools and templates to assist with managing the project. Few tools, if any, help with the early engagement of stakeholders. 

Town Halls focus on broadcasting messages and their effectiveness relieson the skills of the broadcaster. Often, only the most strongly felt views are expressed and these are often in opposition to the project. Most stakeholders’ views are not heard.

Focus groups are highly structured, designed to gain specific feedback on carefully chosen topics, and rely on skilled facilitation. Project professionals who receive negative feedback may be inclined to pull back from eliciting further feedback. The conversation is carefully channelled, or even shut down.

Newsletters are about ‘telling and selling’ rather than engaging and listening. Project professionals may divest this responsibility to marketing resources (if they’re available) to obtain the delivery expertise.

Active Listening Panels (ALPs) where you ask a limited number of questions and carefully record the stakeholders’ answers, can be a very helpful way to engage stakeholders. The facilitator has a script and a tried and trusted framework. ALPs don’t rely on expert delivery skills but focus on listening skills. Stakeholders have greater control and feel listened to and valued. The key message to the stakeholder is ‘you tell me what you think’. As ALPs are less scary than the broadcast tools highlighted above, they are more likely to be used early in the project life cycle. You don’t have to wait until you have something to ‘tell’ because you’re not ‘telling’ you’re ‘asking’.

What is an Active Listening Panel?

They are an engagement tool underpinned by practical and applied engagement methodologies. They unlock the power of listening for project teams using a simple framework and tools that can be replicated.

Why would I use ALP?

Listening is a powerful way of building rapport with stakeholders but only if you do it in a way that ensures the speaker feels heard and valued. The Centre for Creative Leadership explains that  “active listening requires you to listen attentively to a speaker, understand what they're saying, respond and reflect on what's being said, and retain the information for later.” This approach demonstrates that the thoughts, ideas and concerns of stakeholders are being considered and understood by the project team.

Active Listening Panels provide a framework within which the project team can include stakeholder views at the heart of strategic planning and decision-making whilst also building strong relationships with those key influential stakeholders. They also provide a tried and tested framework so we can identify, approach and engage with stakeholders through a tool that facilitates active listening.

When would I use an ALP?

The  tools available are varied and each is more or less appropriate depending on the desired outcomes. An Active Listening Panel primarily provides a method for building rapport or relationship capital. Jennifer Wines writes for Forbes Business Development Council that “..relationship capital is an intangible asset that is built up over time, between two people when understanding and trust are present and growing.”

Active Listening Panels should be considered within your stakeholder engagement approach and deployed depending on the desired outcome from your engagement activities. A newly launched project, particularly one with risks associated with stakeholders, may want to consider using ALPs early within the project as part of risk mitigation and management plans.

An Active Listening Panel also provides the opportunity to grow relationship capital with more than one stakeholder at a time. Whilst still being delivered in small groups (four to seven participants) ALPs are intimate enough that the facilitators can ensure all voices are heard and  rapport can be built with multiple stakeholders simultaneously.

Who should run an Active Listening Panel

Active Listening Panels are most effective if delivered by members of the project team. Where possible the project manager or sponsor should be involved, or those who have a role within the project for engagement with influential stakeholders. As the primary purpose is to build relationship capital it’s important that those people with that role are involved in facilitating. There are two roles within the panels, one is Facilitator and one is Note-Taker. Both roles have the potential for building rapport and growing relationship capital with participants.

How to use an ALP effectively

The primary purpose of ALPs are to build relationship capital, the secondary purpose is to provide immediate dynamic stakeholder feedback and intelligence into the project team. These simple steps can help facilitators deliver these outcomes:

  1. Use a Topic Overview Template to consider the details behind your Active Listening Panel (why you’d like to run a panel or panels and what you’re trying to achieve through them). Use this template in conjunction with any other Stakeholder Management tools that the Project Team are using such as a Stakeholder Matrix
  2. Work up a Timeline for development and delivery and integrate it with your Project Timeline or Gantt
  3. Use a Pipeline document to manage invitations and ensure that you’re giving consistent messages about what’s expected from participants – also use template invitation messages that provide participants with confidentiality, privacy and data policy information
  4. Update a Facilitation guide with your own questions and relevant organisational policy information
  5. Run your Active Listening Panel(s)
  6. After the panel(s) have taken place remember to send “thank you” messages to those who attended in a timely fashion, and follow up with those who didn’t attend
  7. Complete an Internal Intelligence Briefing template - share and discuss with your Project Team to consider what you could take on board from the intelligence gained
  8. Use the panels as a starting point to future engagement and rapport building with the participants by demonstrating that the project has taken on board and managing expectations about items that weren’t possible for inclusion. Above all ensure that participants feel heard and valued for their views in future engagement with them

ALPs are a useful engagement tool that should be conducted in line with project and organisational values. They allow us to demonstrate active listening with our stakeholders’ views and further deepen relationships with them.

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This blog was co-written by Christine Castle and Trish Thurley

Trish ThurleyTrish Thurley is an international business consultant, speaker, and educator specialising in Project and Stakeholder Management. She has over 30 years experience across industry sectors and in 39 countries. Trish is also a visiting lecturer at one of Europe’s top Business Schools.


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