Skip to main content

Eliciting Requirements: It’s Not Just What We Ask That Matters!

A lot of times when we meet with a subject matter expert to elicit requirements, the focus is on the questions we ask, and the answers they provide.  We ask them what they do when this happens, or what they do when that happens. We ask them to tell us the actors involved and what the process is when something goes right, or what the process is when something goes wrong.

We guide them as we need to – nodding our head in agreement when they have hit an important point, or raise our hand to stop them and ask for more information.  Or sometimes, we may just sit and record notes – typing away on our laptops or quickly jotting down answers in our trusty notepad.

But one aspect of eliciting requirements that seems rarely touched upon is the non-verbal side of these interviews – in other words, how we ourselves present ourselves to our subject matter experts – and in return, how they perceive us.

In everyday life, how do you carry yourself?

Well, you might answer that there isn’t just one answer – and that how we carry ourselves often depends on the situation we’re in.


At home watching TV? You’re probably slouched in your favourite chair, arms behind your head,  a large yawn escaping your tired jaws  – probably relaxing after a hard day on the whiteboard mapping out an overly complicated business process.

Outside talking to your neighbour? Well if it’s one you get along with, you’re probably hunched slightly forward, wildly gesticulating as you talk about your exciting day getting sign-off on your most recent functional requirements document. Or maybe if you don’t quite get along with them, you’re standing stiffly with your arms instinctually crossed, sternly asking them to please keep their dog off your lawn.

Point being that we often forget that communication is a lot more than just verbal, but it is largely non-verbal as well. It’s how we hold our arms, hold our posture, sit in a chair, express our faces, hold our poise, or move our hands that can actually communicate the most.

 And that’s why when we’re meeting with our subject matter experts that we need information from in order to successfully do our jobs – we should not only be good at verbal communicating, but also non-verbal communication. Remember, that people are largely visual when assessing a situation – so how we present ourselves and conduct ourselves during an interview is just as important as the questions we ask in that interview.

So what types of non-verbal communication can be used when interviewing subject matter experts?

Eye Contact

Eye contact can be tricky – give too much and you can come across too aggressive or  like you are trying to have a staring contest, but give too little and you can come across disinterested. Finding a balance is key, because maintaining eye contact is key to keeping the person talking. Eye contact lets the other person know you’re interested in what they are saying and encourages them to stay engaged in the conversation.  If you want to maximize the time you have with the interviewee, be sure to lean forward into the conversation, establish eye contact from the beginning, and maintain it throughout the meeting at a comfortable level. Remember that it’s important to take notes, but it’s more important to maintain eye contact and display your interest – you would be surprised how much more information people are willing to share when you do so.

Express Yourself

Have you ever sat and spoke to someone who just sat there motionless staring at you? It’s not a good feeling, and worse – it does nothing to invite you into the conversation. Facial expressions let the other person know how you feel about what they are saying – a smile lets them know you agree, whereas a furrowed brow might let them know you don’t.  Be aware of the expressions you are making during the meeting and try to keep them positive – and don’t be afraid to use your hands either. Gesticulating is one of the strongest forms of non-verbal communication and can be used to bring a dull conversation back to life.

Watch Your Posture

When I was younger, my mother was constantly telling me to sit-up straight and pull my shoulders back – and now I see why. Posture is one of the most telling signs that a person is interested in something or not.  Start to slouch, and your interview may quickly follow.

Stay Poised

Staying poised can be hard to do if you’re not prepared – which is why it’s so important to do your research ahead of time, know the questions you’re going to ask, and have a plan in place for how you want the meeting to proceed. Being poised means being confident, and being confident means that the other person is going to feel more relaxed talking to you. Have you ever been in a meeting where the person leading is nervous, unorganized and seems unsure about what to say? It’s uncomfortable to watch. Keep your poise, keep your interviewees confident in you, and you’re more likely to get the answers you need.

Having said all of this, we need to recognize that non-verbal communication and the levels to which you display it, are different for everyone. Extroverts for instance might gesticulate a lot more naturally, but perhaps introverts come across more poised since they are more likely to research and prepare endlessly before the meeting.  The important thing is to be aware of non-verbal communication and the effect it has on the people you are meeting with. Sometimes we only get one or two meetings with our subject matter experts to get all the information we need – so it’s important to remember that not only do we need good verbal communication, but also good non-verbal communication. Doing so will help you keep your actions positive, keep your meeting attendees engaged, and help you to get the information you need. 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.