Learning to Listen

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway

Those of you who are of a certain age may recall the UK’s banking landscape being vastly different to the one that we see today. For a start, relationships between banks and clients were far more personal, and the bank manager was referred to in hushed, almost reverential terms. Telling someone that you wanted to be a bank manager when you grew up was seen as lofty aspiration, right up there with being a doctor or a lawyer, and you were setting out your stall for a middle class life with all its trappings – owning a suburban semi-detached two-up two-down, one (maybe even two) cars, Mediterranean holidays in the summer and sitting in the smoking section of your local French restaurant (yes, paying to garnish finely prepared food with fag ash and second-hand smoke in restaurants was a thing for some reason).

Banks were often viewed as austere, stern and overly serious institutions, but there were some attempts to make them seem more friendly and appealing – notably the 80s ad campaign from what was formerly Midland Bank (now part of HSBC). With a catchy jingle and an anthropomorphised griffin called Griffin (full marks for creativity there) as a mascot, as a young child, I wanted nothing more than a Griffin Savers account to invest my pocket money in.

I mean, just look at this advert and tell me you don’t want to open an account with them right now.

Just how cool is Griffin?

It will come as no surprise to hear that I was vastly disappointed to find out that my folks opened up a Little Xtra saving account with the Halifax instead. Now before you criticise me for having a misplaced sense of entitlement over my first world problems, let me point out two things:

1. I was 8 years old at the time (and I really wanted that folder and duffel bag)

2. My folks clearly understood some of my requirements, but not all.

To them, the core requirement was a vehicle for me to save my pocket money, and that was it. The additional requirements I had around securing a sweet folder and bag (and also hanging out with that cool talking Griffin) were disregarded/ignored and my insistence that I had to have them were countered by their defendant position of “You will get what you’re given, and like it.” (Parenting in the 80s is a very different model from today).

In business analysis terms, we might say that at best, they were taking a solution-agnostic approach. More likely, this was an enforced descoping of requirements that the client/customer (me) had no say in. As a child, I can distinctly remember how small I would feel when my opinions were overlooked by peers, parents and other authority figures – I would be frustrated at the thought of not being listened to, and would then act out or sulk because I believed that I just didn’t matter. There’s few things in life that can make you feel more disenfranchised and disempowered than not being listened to, or having your views overlooked.

And here’s where we get to the heart of the matter, and the point of this article.

BAs – we really need to learn how to listen.

When was the last time you asked for something to be done or a service to be provided to you, only to find that your request was carried out partially, inaccurately or not at all? I guarantee that the outcome of that experience left you feeling frustrated, annoyed and inconvenienced (and possibly out of pocket) because you were not listened to. Yet on a daily basis, business analysts will misunderstand, misinterpret or completely miss the mark on client requirements through a failure to listen to what is being asked.

At times, our own cognitive biases will influence how we capture requirements, produce designs and identify solutions when our default position should be to facilitate those activities without any undue influence in as much as is it’s within our gift to do so.

Failing to listen compromises our ability to function effectively and provide appropriate influence and guidance to clients. It may also lead to increased time and effort being expended at project Discovery phases, as challenges to requirements come in from unhappy stakeholders. Moreover, failing to listen can adversely impact a business analyst’s reputation – even the most technically skilled BA will find career advancement difficult if they are repeatedly causing frustration for their client.

Listening doesn’t always come naturally for people (myself included), but it is a skill that can be learned at any age or stage in one’s career. Here are some starters for ten that I think can help:

Be present – Have you ever sat in a particularly intense meeting or workshop and found that you drifted off into thinking about whether you left the iron on at home, or whether you should go to spin class after work or… *snap* you’re suddenly brought back into the conversation with a shock when someone asks you for your view on what was being discussed for the last 10 minutes, and then you feel a cold sweat breaking out because you know that you weren’t listening and have no idea what to say, so you do your best to fudge an answer? Just me? Stop lying – I know I’m not alone here. Avoid these super awkward situations by doing your best to pay attention, be present in the room and engage with the people around you. At the very least, you’ll seem polite and interested in others, and you might actually learn something new or contribute valuable information to the discussion.

Don’t judge – Sometimes, your remit is to simply and dispassionately gather information and opinions in order to help others make informed decisions. Withholding your bias might actually be of significant benefit to a given situation to your client – especially in situations where you need to help independently evaluate several options. If it isn’t your place to judge, don’t.

Write stuff down – Well duh. Taking a less flippant approach, I would advise that writing down notes helps to a) ensure that you and others in the discussion have accurately captured points raised, b) provide an aide memoire for future reference (also useful for covering one’s own backside should things go sideways further on down the line), and c) help you to focus your concentration on what’s being talked about. Write notes, and lots of them.

Reflect – if you paid attention to the previous point, this becomes a lot easier to do. Reflecting on what’s been discussed after the session helps you to maintain your objectivity, and process information outside of the ‘heat’ of the situation. I often schedule a 30 minute “wash-up” after workshops of meetings where I feel I need time to process and understand what’s been talked about.

Playback your understanding – This is arguably the most important part of listening. Summarise your notes and if it’s appropriate, issue a follow up communication asking the parties involved to confirm what you think you’ve heard, and correct any errors or omissions. Once you’ve gathered any feedback and made necessary amendments, you have a baseline position to work with, and the confidence that your stakeholders are comfortable with your level of understanding.

These are a few pointers that have helped me over the years, although I’m sure there are plenty of people far more qualified to provide insight and advice into the subject of listening. It’s a key soft skill, and one that is overlooked because we presume to do it as a matter of course. Learning to listen will make your career and your life considerably better – as Grandma Nelson would often say to me growing up, “If you don’t want to hear, then you must feel.”

If you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to leave them – I promise I’ll be listening.

– André

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