The Power of the Pause in Elicitation
Understanding stakeholders’ true needs and perspectives can be difficult. There are many elicitation techniques within the BA toolkit, many of which (unsurprisingly) involve talking to people. After all, a key way to get to know somebody’s perspective is to ask them!
When speaking to a stakeholder, whether in a formal interview situation or in a less formal conversation, the temptation can be to flood the air with questions. This is particularly the case when the stakeholder has limited time—if you don’t know when you’ll get to meet them again, it seems crucial to use the time as efficiently as possible.
While this is no doubt true, there can be serious pitfalls awaiting those who speak at a hundred miles per hour (a mistake I suspect most of us have made from time to time!). It is very easy to be so focused on finessing the next question, that some crucial statement by the interviewee is missed. Quite often, interviewees don’t know exactly what we are looking out for and they may mention something that seems very routine to them, but is absolutely crucial to us. They might mention this so quickly that a distracted interviewer would completely miss it. These tidbits of information can make the difference between an eventual solution working well or badly.
The Power of Dead Air
It seems that we fear “dead air”. It can be uncomfortable to leave a gap in our questioning. After all, what will the person think of us? “Ah, that BA isn’t prepared! They kept pausing between their questions, they were making it up as they were going along!”. Well, I suppose they might think that, but it seems somewhat unlikely. A five-second pause might seem like an eternity to us, but it is barely perceivable to those we are eliciting information from. In fact, it might even give them extra thinking time. It gives them a few extra seconds to consider the answer they have given, and figure out if they have anything they’d like to add.
This is one area where note-taking provides us with an additional advantage. It’s useful to take notes primarily so there’s a record of what was discussed. However, the few seconds that it takes you to jot down some notes gives a natural “air gap” in conversation that allows your stakeholders to reflect. Of course, this is just one way of injecting a pause, but it’s one that can work really well.
“It Felt Like I Interrupted You There”
Another technique that can work well is to ask the stakeholder themselves whether they have anything to add. A simple invitation such as “You look thoughtful, do you have something that you’d like to add?” or “I think I might have interrupted your flow earlier… Did you have something else to add about that topic?” or even the old classic “what else don’t I know?” can really help to broaden horizons. Although these are simple techniques, they are by no means simplistic. In my experience, they can really help enhance an elicitation strategy to gain additional insight.
Overall, it’s important to conduct well-paced interviews and workshops, with pauses to allow reflection. Stakeholders will feel less rushed, and it’s likely a greater amount of insight will emerge.