Approaching The Unapproachable
Whether we’re eliciting requirements, growing our product knowledge or attempting to understand a process, our minds are inevitably filled with a variety of questions.
As Business Analysts, we rely heavily on other people’s expertise to help answer those questions. Have you ever found yourself faced with a stakeholder, customer or colleague that’s defensive, irritable or unapproachable? If so, read on!
I had been with my company for over 10 years when we identified an organizational need for a new position, a ‘hybrid’ BA. I was excited to fill the role and was quickly brought in to help on a variety of projects. It quickly became evident that I had a lot to learn about our internal processes and procedures, not to mention what it would take to be an effective BA.
I found myself feeling overwhelmed and ineffective, which effectively drove me into research and discovery mode. As I gained knowledge and understanding, the questions formulating in my mind grew exponentially. I found myself asking, “But why?” with the frequency of a toddler. I knew who could help answer my questions, but I was continually met with resistance in the form of defensive responses, irritable tones and body language that was screaming, “DON’T YOU DARE THINK ABOUT ASKING ME ONE MORE QUESTION!”
I was desperate for answers, but faced with “the unapproachable.” After a few tense interactions that left me feeling disconcerted, I suddenly realized that I was going about these conversations in the wrong way. I knew that if I didn’t take the initiative to address the underlying issues, we would both suffer.
With that in mind, I found my courage and pulled her aside for a conversation. I shared with her the purpose of my position, why I had so many questions, what I was working on and how my questions directly impacted her. In addition, I apologized for neglecting to provide her with context up front.
Her body language changed almost immediately and that prompted an engaging dialogue that instantly changed our relationship. The conversation unveiled areas where we could both do things differently and brought a level of awareness that I hadn’t anticipated. As I left the conference room, I found myself feeling empowered with a renewed sense of confidence and self-awareness.
The best part? We have such a healthy relationship now that I asked for her input on this article.
In the midst of our conflict, I identified a few key areas that I could improve on. If you’re struggling to communicate effectively with a stakeholder, customer or colleague, consider these suggestions:
We identified that a lack of context was the root cause of our conflict. I repeatedly made assumptions that she knew why I was asking questions and how they fit into a bigger picture. I wasn’t providing context and instead, peppered her with questions and assumed she could connect the dots. Needless to say, my elicitation technique needed some refining.
I neglected to use Stephen Covey’s insightful words, “Begin with the end in mind.” If we can’t articulate why we need the information, how we intend to use it or where it fits in the bigger picture, then maybe we aren’t ready to ask the question. She wanted me to explain where we were going or what the goal was, but I was so focused on my need for output that I didn’t realize I was missing a crucial step.
I like to think of context as an opportunity to collaborate. We have a chance to share our viewpoints and listen to theirs. Many times, their perspective can help us form connections and associations that we would otherwise overlook.
Context and collaboration combine beautifully; use this as an opportunity to learn from one another!
I found myself starting conversations by saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve got a question for you.” By starting with an apology, I was discrediting myself and the validity of my questions.
In her book, “The Power of an Apology,” Beverly Engel says that over-apologizing can actually send the message that you lack confidence. Resist the temptation to feed into the other person’s behavior and instead, convey confidence (even if you don’t feel it). This sets the tone for the rest of the conversation; it says that you have a purpose and that you believe in the value you bring.
If you don’t believe in yourself or your mission, why should they?
In the midst of our conflict, I found myself mirroring her defensive behavior. Even though it’s a common self-preservation technique, it wasn’t constructive. I felt the need to be on-point so that I could have a response ready, but that meant I wasn’t really listening.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Listen with the intent to understand, not respond.” This is really what practicing empathy is all about. If we listen intently, we move toward a place of understanding, where we have the opportunity to experience the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Take the time to validate their emotions. Validation doesn’t necessarily mean agreement; it’s acknowledging that they’re entitled to their feelings.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, consider starting by asking clear, open-ended questions and then listen with purpose as they share their perspective. If you’re unable to fully grasp or feel what they’re experiencing, request clarification. If you feel like you’re starting to understand, summarize what they said in your own words to ensure you’re on the right track. As a hands-on learner, I also find that asking the other person to show me, coach me through the process or help me draw out the scenario can be incredibly helpful. Many times, the act of doing helps drive our understanding.
Empathy is all about relating on a deeper level – beyond job descriptions, positions and output – it’s about embracing our humanity!
By the time our intense conversations were wrapping up, I was usually so discombobulated and frustrated that I wouldn’t put emphasis on showing her the respect and gratitude she deserved. Instead, I would throw an aloof ‘thanks’ out before scurrying back to my desk like Gollum with his “precious.”
When someone is willing to share their knowledge, experiences, and perspectives with us, it’s a gift and we need to treat it like one.
While expressing gratitude may sound like a breeze, I’ve found that it also takes practice. Thank the other person for their time and tell them what your biggest takeaway was from the conversation. I’m notorious for getting outwardly giddy when I finally connect dots that seemingly had no connection. Share that contagious excitement with the other person because ultimately, it’s likely their information that helped you get there.
From there, consider taking gratitude one step further by following up with them, not because you need something, but so you can share how their information helped advance the project.
Build a rapport beyond “what can you do for me?” Build a meaningful relationship.
As someone who thrives on interacting with others and building relationships, I was taken aback by how quickly I became focused on what I needed to accomplish instead of cherishing the opportunity to engage with others. I love to learn but I also love to teach, challenge and witness growth in others; however, I lost sight of the relationship and instead put emphasis on the transaction.
Learn from my mistakes and consider reframing how you view your relationships. We have no control over how other people behave or respond to us. Focus less on what other people are or aren’t doing and more on what you can do to positively change your interactions. Be the change! You might be surprised how quickly people notice the shift you’ve made and respond in kind.
And maybe, like me, your unapproachable person will turn into one of the most reliable, considerate and authentic people you have the privilege to work with. What have you got to lose?