5 Human Interaction Skills Needed for Effective Elicitation

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PM Articles by Project Times. 

In my previous article on Elicitation, I discussed many techniques for effective elicitation. Missing, however, were the human interaction skills[i] that are needed to be successful. Some, like Facilitation, are so large a topic that I’ll write about them in separate articles. In this article, I’ll describe five common human interaction pitfalls relating to elicitation and how to avoid them.

Pitfall #1 – Passive listening. In the previous article, I noted that elicitation is about asking questions and actively listening to the responses. A common misconception is that active listening means keeping our mouths shut and nodding our heads. However, that’s really a form of passive listening and it’s a common pitfall. We’re so afraid of interrupting that we rely entirely on those non-verbals to communicate that we’re listening.

Avoiding the pitfall. Active listening, however, involves making sure we understand what’s being said. That sounds easy, but it’s hard to be sure that we’ve understood correctly. Sure, we use those non-verbals noted above to indicate that we understand. They’re important, but not sufficient in themselves. Active listening requires asking clarifying questions, paraphrasing what we think we’ve heard, and asking related questions. These techniques help ensure that we understand and that we’re interested. They also provide an opportunity for the stakeholders to expand and change their thoughts and opinions.

Pitfall #2 – The prosecuting attorney. This pitfall happens when we ask the right questions in the wrong way, in a way that puts the person we’re talking to on the defensive. It’s difficult enough to elicit information when people trust us. If they don’t, it can be a very difficult process indeed. And there are many reasons why they might distrust us. When we sound like prosecuting attorneys, we risk having our stakeholders shut down or give us bad information or none at all.

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Avoiding the pitfall. Elicitation is where we learn, and one of the key ways we learn is by asking for the reasons behind statements. Most of us are taught to ask “why” to get at the true meaning, the cause of a problem, the steps in a process, or the usefulness of current information. However, asking why can be an easy way to bust trust, so we have to be careful how we ask it. So how do we ask “why” without asking “why?” I like the old “can you help me understand?” Or preceding the “why” by softening it with something like “I’m curious why…” Or “do you know why…?” Any words that put our stakeholders at ease can help build the trust we need to learn from them.

Pitfall #3 – Misconstruing non-verbals. As PMs and BAs, it’s important for us to pick up on both verbal and nonverbal cues. This can be tricky. Sometimes non-verbals can be misleading. And different cultures have different non-verbal cues. So relying entirely on non-verbals is a pitfall we need to avoid. Here’s a common example. If I bring up a tough topic and the person I’m talking to has their arms crossed, what does it mean? Maybe they disagree with what I’m saying. Maybe they agree but are struggling with the issue. Maybe my timing is off, and they don’t want to discuss the topic at that time. Or maybe they’re simply cold.

Avoiding the pitfall. It’s important not to make assumptions, but rather to ask for clarification. And don’t forget about the “pause/silence” technique. We ask a clarifying question and wait for a response. And wait some more if necessary. I’m the type of person who’s uncomfortable with silence. If the stakeholder doesn’t respond immediately, I have a tendency to jump in with another question. I find it more effective, as hard as it is for me, to count to ten before moving on.

Pitfall #4 – Boomerang conversations. How many people do we know who ask a question and use that as a springboard to talk about themselves? Chances are a lot. It’s important to show interest in what others are saying, and one way to do that is to share similar experiences. But when the discussion becomes a monolog instead of a conversation, it can build boredom and mistrust.

Avoiding the pitfall. Before we share our own experiences, we should ask questions about what our stakeholders are telling us. Even one or two questions can indicate that we value their thoughts. And again, it allows them to expand their ideas.

Pitfall #5 – Hidden agendas. It’s not uncommon for stakeholders to come to a meeting with something on their mind that they haven’t previously mentioned. There are many possible motivations, and we should not assume the worst. For example, perhaps an important new issue has just arisen and they haven’t had time to let us know. Perhaps it’s difficult to get stakeholders together and they don’t want to lose the opportunity to discuss a certain topic. Perhaps we’ve discouraged their ideas and they don’t trust us enough to notify us in advance. Perhaps they have gathered support from others prior to the meeting. Regardless, it is easy to feel that we have been blindsided. And let’s not forget that we may be the ones with the hidden agenda—for many of the same reasons. Even if our intentions are the best, our stakeholders might feel blindsided.

Avoiding the pitfall. I like one-on-one premeetings with an objective but without an agenda. I like to be open about wanting to meet to find out if the stakeholder is comfortable with the upcoming meeting and its agenda and to discuss issues individually. If need be, we can modify the agenda to accommodate additional needs.

In summary, elicitation is one of those critical skills that we all need in order to be successful. It involves not only core elicitation techniques, but also human interaction skills, without which all the great interviewing, business modeling, and other important techniques won’t suffice. This article presented five human interaction pitfalls and tips on how to avoid them. These tips will help us be more effective in doing our work as BAs and PMs.

[i] These are often referred to by other terms. They are sometimes called “soft” skills, but in my experience, they represent the hard stuff. While they can be practiced in a classroom setting, they can only be truly learned through experience, often in the form of a tough lesson learned. Also, I am not fond of the more current term “essential” skills, which implies that skills like interviewing and process modeling are not essential, but they are.