Three Ways to Talk When You Are Listening
We know listening is important. Typically it's what our stakeholders have to share that we most need to hear when eliciting and validating scope or requirements. At the same time, as business analysts, we cannot be passive flies on the wall.
We must lead conversations. And that means we often end up talking a lot more than we'd like. One of the more important techniques I've picked up over the years is to talk so that I'm listening. Here are a few ways to combine the two.
Summarize What You Hear
Alex Papworth defines active listening as "How you practise various techniques to improve your comprehension such as playing back what you have heard as a way of confirming your understanding." He goes on to note that active listening "instills confidence and drives out further details that may have been missed."
Summarization is a core element of active listening. Often, after summarizing what you hear, you will be corrected by someone. Or, they may restate information you thought was tangential and reaffirm its relevance to the topic. In a meeting with multiple participants, summarizing the overall status of the conversation can help get everyone onto common ground or reveal areas where common ground has not yet been achieved.
Ask a Question
Summarization is the beginning, not the end. In describing how requirements elicitation is like attending an open-air concert, Adrian Reed wrote, "Merely recording what a stakeholder says means that a BA is an observer rather than a participant in a meeting. As BAs, it is essential that we proactively question, challenge and act as a critical friend to our business stakeholders."
As active listeners and participants in the requirements process, asking questions—especially challenging ones—demonstrates that we are listening to and thinking about what's been said. Sometimes we might feel that our questions make us appear uninformed and let that hold us back from asking an important question. If so, I'd encourage you to check out Jonathan Babcock’s article "Congratulations, You're Ignorant!" It’s a fun piece that will help you think differently about your questions.
Say Things That Engender Trust
Lisa Crispin, in "The Power of 'Pull' Conversations" writes, "If I want to engage a stakeholder in a productive conversation to understand what she desires from a software feature, I need to find the fit, create clarity, support that person to succeed, and make her feel valued and inspired. People also need to feel safe and to have a sense of belonging, in order to have a productive conversation."
This is an important reminder that what you say and how you frame the conversation count. Starting a conversation by sharing a bit about your weekend can help ease some tension. Explicitly thanking a stakeholder for his time and contribution can begin to create a positive value-focused environment.
Describing what you know, what you need to learn, and how the information will be used can create an initial "fit" for the conversation. With all of these strategies your talk creates an environment where you can step back and listen.
As business analysts, it's important that we talk. We are active participants in meetings and must influence the direction of the conversation. But it's much more important to listen. I hope I've helped you consider a few ways to proactively merge the two!