Add Listening Techniques to Your Business Analyst Skills Set

Business Analyst Skills: Effective ListeningAs a business analyst, being able to listen is a primary component of your Business Analyst skills set. You need to listen to the project sponsor to figure out what the project is all about. You need to listen to your stakeholders to understand what their needs and wants are. You need to listen to the technology folks to make sure that they understand what the requirements really mean. And lord knows, you have to listen to your manager to make sure that what you are doing is in line with company policy. Sure, everyone has to listen to other people at times. However, as a business analyst, listening is one of your primary Business Analyst skills.  So how can you hone this skill? What business analysis techniques are there to help you improve your listening ability?

Actually, there are three distinct techniques that business analysts should practice: active listening, informational listening, and Highway 350. Each technique will help on its own. Taken together, they give you the uncanny ability to hear not just what the other person is saying, but more importantly, what they are not.

Active Listening

Active listening has been around for some time and many of you have probably already had training of some form in it. Nonetheless, I mention it here because of its importance. Active listening is a social act. It’s all about ensuring that the other person KNOWS that you are listening and are interested in what they say. You achieve active listening by maintaining eye contact, observing body language, and paraphrasing what they say. As a side note, paraphrasing is not repeating back the exact words they said, but trying to express the essence of what they said using other words that have the same meaning to confirm that you have indeed grasped their intent.

From an instructional perspective, active listening is fertile ground because someone has to teach you how to read body language which is a whole different universe for many people. (If you can read body language, does that make you bilingual?) Active listening, however, implies a two-way communication, meaning you not only have to read body language, you also have to “speak” it. That means that you are sending the right signals with your body language because you have to assume that the other person can read it whether they had the training or not. Of course, you have to be aware that after the third drink on a date, we all slur our body language just as readily as we slur our words, but that’s neither here nor there and I probably should have left it there. Nonetheless, knowledge = power.

Informational Listening

Informational listening is another important technique to add to your Business Analyst Skills set. I recently ran across the term “informational listening”. If you look it up on the web, you’ll find very little written about it. That obviously is an invitation for a writer to add to the knowledge base by doing some thorough research and extrapolating what you can’t find anywhere. According to my sources, informational listening is about listening for content (i.e., information). It is the skill of trying to extract the informational essence from a conversation while ignoring the context (i.e., social setting, source, etc.) That can’t be all that difficult, can it?

Ah, but it can. Actually, when we are having a conversation with another person, we are often distracted by side issues. Aside from the acoustical side issues like other people talking when you are trying to listen to me, there are distractors that your mind serves up as well. These internal distractors fall into three main categories: confirmation bias, the vividness effect, (those two are from my research), and emotional involvement (this one is from my personal observations).

Confirmation Bias

This has an interesting basis. When someone says something that confirms something you already “knew”, your brain goes on a brief vacation. It is obviously, celebrating the fact that there is someone else out there as intelligent as you are who recognizes this important factum. As a result, you “tune out” what the other person is saying next. Of course, your razor-sharp thinking organ immediately “fills in the gap” with what you “remember” the other person just said and you walk away with the impression that you heard every single word of the conversation.

Confirmation bias is a powerful source of miscommunication. To combat it, try to recognize when it happens and consider asking the other person to please repeat what they just said instead of allowing your brain to make it up.

The Vividness Effect

According to my research, the vividness effect is what happens in your brain when someone mentions something that had a profound impact on you. Events like Pearl Harbor for the older generation and 9-11 for all of us today are those memories you will never forget. In the course of an ordinary day, however, they are just that — memories. When someone mentions one of those topics, however, or even uses a term that activates that memory, your brain is busy reliving your personal involvement in the event. As a result, you again “tune out” and have to leave it up to your perfect brain to “fill in the gap” after the fact.

The best cure here is the same as for the aforementioned confirmation bias. Recognize when it happens and ask the other person to repeat what they said afterwards.

Emotional Involvement

This one is from my personal observations and I added it to my Business Analyst skills set a long time ago. Let’s say you are involved in a discussion to which there is a significant amount of emotion attached. For instance, a conversation with, say, your spouse (not that it ever happened to me, I’m just saying), or your boss (same disclaimer), or someone with an opposing political view. As soon as an abundance of emotions are involved, our brain gets real busy “feeling” things and that apparently takes precedence over “hearing”. We get so busy trying to convince the other party of the rightness of our viewpoint that we are incapable of extracting the informational content of their message.

Avoiding emotional involvement is much more challenging. That’s why books have been written about it. It’s why psychiatrists live in expensive mansions. Of course, recognizing it in the heat of the moment is difficult, but whenever you recognize it, I recommend a cooling off period as a first step. After that, you need to decide whether a follow-up is desirable (highly recommended if the situation involved your spouse or boss; for the political discussion, you’re on your own). If you decide it is needed, then I recommend trying to change the physical setting before you cautiously restart the conversation.

The Business Analysis Case for Informational Listening

Informational listening is the difference between an argument and a discussion, between confrontation and negotiation, possibly even between war and peace.  As business analysts, we are, of course, emotionally detached. After all, who could possibly get emotional about information technology? Nonetheless, if you want to make sure that you are gathering the requirements that your stakeholders are trying to communicate, you just might want to give informational listening a chance. It might not change your life, but it could just change your project — which could just change your life.

Highway 350

Anyone who has taken one of my classes has probably heard about this idea, but if they were not actively or informational-ly listening to my presentation, they may not remember it. Highway 350 is reportedly based on your ability to listen to someone talk at a rate of 500 words per minute and understand every single word that is said. The average speaker, on the other hand, speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute. The difference between the two is 350 (500 minus 150 — go ahead, you have a computer; check my math). That means that you have 350 words of listening capacity that the speaker is not utilizing.

This is called highway 350 because it is down that road that your thoughts go zooming off toward the horizon, even while you are listening to every single word that the speaker says. This is by itself neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just is. The question is how you are utilizing Highway 350. If you are using it to try to figure out how to get rid of the speaker, or who’s for dinner, or something like that, it becomes a major distractor and you might as well not be in the conversation at all.  If, however, you use Highway 350 to apply the active and informational listening techniques I presented above, it becomes a very powerful tool in your listening arsenal. Go ahead, give it a shot. You will be amazed at what you hear sometimes. It might even be important.