Deep Listening: Avoid Hearing What You Want To Hear
Elicitation is a key business analysis skill. Whether it’s one-on-one interviews, workshops, observation or one of the many other techniques, elicitation is a key source of information. As BAs, it’s easy to think that we are highly attuned listeners, carefully scouring the airwaves for tasty morsels of relevant information. Of course, this is probably true. However, have you ever reflected on how deeply you pay attention and listen? For example, have you ever:
- Quickly checked your email in a meeting (where something critical could be mentioned, but you weren’t expecting it)
- Been tired at the end of the day so tried to rush a conversation
- Skim-read an email and missed a key detail
- Missed a key piece of information in a document
- By the time you interview the sixth person, you think you already know the answer so ‘tune out’ for part of the interview
If you haven’t, then you probably deserve a medal. I’m sure most of us have indulged in some—or all—of these behaviors at some point in our careers. While there might be good reasons to do so in some cases, doing so will affect the ability to listen deeply. Notably, by ‘listening’ here, I’m also referring to ‘reading’ of information, as I suspect we all spend a lot of time ‘listening’ to our colleagues through their emails and comments on documents etc.
Miscommunication Is Rife
It’s easy to miss the point when listening or reading. As an example, I was wandering around a large supermarket here in the UK, and I picked up a bottle of own-brand hand wash. I was looking on the back of it, and noticed the following statement in bold:
[Supermarket name] is against animal testing and funds alternatives
It struck me that this is a deliberate piece of misdirection. If you were scanning it quickly to look for information about whether the product is tested on animals, you might see that statement and think “oh, they’re against animal testing, so it’s fine”. This is similar to a case where a listener hears what they expect to hear, or what they want to hear! However, the statement taken at face value doesn’t confirm (or refute) whether the product was (or wasn’t) tested on animals. It just says the supermarket is against animal testing and funds alternatives. Yet many readers’ might inadvertently apply their own meaning to it.
Granted, you’re unlikely to be reading a statement on the back of a hand wash bottle at work, and it’s unlikely that folks will be deliberately trying to deceive. But it’s very easy to miss tiny nuances in verbal or written communication. Take these statements:
- “I broadly agree with what is proposed” (what does broadly mean? Are there areas of disagreement? If so, what are they?)
- “I agree with points 1 and 3”. (OK. Do you disagree with point 2?)
- “This is a real pain point for us.” (What does ‘pain point’ mean? Does our definition of ‘pain point’ agree with theirs?)
These are just three specific examples, but I’m sure you get the point.
Curiosity Is A Prerequisite To Listening Deeply
Deep listening is hard, and a skill that one could probably work on for their entire life. I have heard it said multiple times that people tend to listen to respond; by the end of the speaker’s sentence the listener is tuned out thinking how to respond. As a BA, this might translate into thinking about the next question.
It is almost as if we are scared of silence. Like silence will be interpreted as some awful slight on our stakeholders. Yet in reality a (relatively short) amount of silence can be useful. In my experience, people will often pause, reflect, and add more insight when given a bit of breathing space. Of course, what is considered an appropriate length of silence varies, and certainly it shouldn’t be excessive!
A common thread throughout this is curiosity. If we are genuinely curious about the stakeholder, the subject-matter, their perspectives and so on then it’s easier to focus in and listen. If we lose curiosity or get distracted by the busy-work of organizational life it’s far too easy to tune out.
Here’s to remaining curious, and to listening deeply!