Wednesday, 31 March 2021 09:00

We all Communicate, So What Makes It So Difficult?

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Communicating is something we  do throughout our lives. Much communication is verbal, some is not.

We use different language to communicate different needs. Babies have their language, teenagers theirs. We talk both formally and with slang, sometimes using proper grammar, sometimes shortcuts and acronyms. Sometimes we talk without communicating and sometimes we communicate without talking. Given its pervasiveness, it seems that by now we all would have learned how to do it effectively. But as we are all aware, there is an abundance of miscommunication everywhere we look.

Still, communication is a key skill for all business analysts (BAs) and project managers (PMs). It’s not possible for us to be successful without effectively communicating. Here are three tips for effective communications and how to avoid common communications pitfalls.

Pitfall #1 – Same words, different meaning

As BAs and PMs we often encounter what is known as having different mental models. This happens when a stakeholder uses a term or phrase, and we interpret it differently. Or vice a versa. We use the same words, but it means different things to each of us. One important reason is context. Although we each using the same term, our context is different.


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Recently my husband and I went through a home renovation project with an outside remodeling company. We did this all virtually. We looked at selections on Zoom and had Zoom meetings as needed to resolve issues. At one point we got a text from the PM stating that they had encountered an issue relating to a post in the center of the master bath. This issue had been uncovered during the “demo.” I wrote back to ask when the demo took place and why we, as the sponsors, were not at this demo. A series of texts and emails got us nowhere, so we set up a Zoom meeting. We soon realized that to him the demo meant demolition. I told him that to me a demo was a demonstration. Thus, the confusion. That cleared up, we proceeded to discuss the problem. My context was a Scrum demo, a review of the product with the product owner and other business stakeholders. His context was in the building industry, where demolition commonly precedes construction. The same word had entirely different meanings.

Pitfall #2 - Too much emotion or not enough emotion

Another common pitfall is to put either too much or not enough emotion into our communications. We all communicate our emotions to a greater or lesser degree. We do this either verbally or non-verbally. Non-verbal communication accounts for most of the communication taking place. So even if we never say a word, we usually communicate how we’re feeling. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when our anger or frustration or other negative feelings are triggered and we react too quickly, we risk throwing up communication barriers that will be hard to break down once we calm down. That’s why we know that we should wait a while before sending an angry email or text or making that phone call to blow off steam.

On the other hand, when the situation calls for empathy and kindness and we show none, we also risk putting up communications barriers. When we come across as Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s famous analytical detective who was often perceived as cold and dispassionate or Mr. Spock, Star Trek’s half human, half alien epitome of cool detachedness. we also throw up barriers. Like everything relating to effective communications, it’s best when we temper our emotional reactions to the situation.

Pitfall #3 Asking the right questions the wrong way (or asking the wrong questions)

“We thought we had the answers-It was the questions we had wrong” from U2, Eleven O’Clock Tick Tock

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I see may similarities between effective PMs/BAs and detectives. Both use logic and intuition to synthesize disparate pieces of information and connect the dots. This ability is important --in the case of the detective to catch the bad guy, in the case of the BA to understand and solve business problems. In addition, both are curious. They ask pertinent questions, listen to the responses, and keep digging until satisfied. Sometimes their questioning takes unusual and unexpected turns. This is because neither accepts the answers given them as being the final answer. They probe. Sometimes they go down rabbit holes. But the good ones know when to pursue a line of questioning and when to let it go, when to ask follow-up questions and when to think further about what’s been said.

Asking pertinent questions is one of the most useful skills project professionals have. Good questions not only uncover needs and requirements, but also open communications. Likewise, poorly-worded questions can end conversations quickly. For example, “what do you like bet and least about this solution?” can open communications. “ Isn’t this the best option?” can shut it down.

Perhaps even more important is the way we ask questions. “Why…” is a great question. It uncovers almost every aspect of our work, including the current and future state processes, the business need for any given initiative, and questions relating to stakeholder commitment, to name just a few. However, we do not want to sound like cranky toddlers, asking “why, why, why?”.

Our tone is also important and can put people at ease or on the defensive. We don’t want to sound like prosecuting attorneys, which can easily shut down communications. We are not, however, always aware of how we come across. Our intention might very well be to put people at ease, but our effect might be very different. And sometimes when communicating across cultures, tone, facial expressions, and other non-verbals can be misinterpreted.

Finally, many BAs and PMs ask the wrong questions, often in the form of leading questions. Leading questions sound like questions, but they’re really solutions. Questions like “have you ever thought about…” or “Isn’t this solution the best choice …” sound like we’re engaging our stakeholders, but in reality, we’ve just cut off communications. We’ve presented what we think rather than asking what our stakeholders think. After we’ve asked all our questions, we do want to present our recommendations. But not until we’ve asked our questions and done our analysis.

These three pitfalls represent just a few of the many that get in the way of effective communications. However, understanding the context, displaying the right emotions for the situation, and asking the right questions is a great start.

Elizabeth Larson

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Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CSM, PMI-PBA is a consultant and advisor for Watermark Learning/PMA, and has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes keynotes and presentations for national and international conferences on five continents. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide , as well as the several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.

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