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Are you listening?

Requirements elicitation is fundamentally about communication. We gather requirements from people who know what is needed or can help us figure it out. There are other ways to find requirements but elicitation is the most effective way in most cases and is almost certainly a significant part of the requirements gathering effort in almost every case. I can not think of an example of a project I worked on that did not involve interaction and communication with people at some point to gather and validate the requirements. So it is probably a good idea to think about ways to improve our communication skills.

Listening may be the communication skill that is easiest to improve and for requirements analysts it may also be the most important communication skill. For some of us it is an area where we may actually be sabotaging our efforts to gather requirements. Improvements in our listening skills can result in big payoffs in the form of better requirements, fewer missed requirements, and overall a more efficient and effective requirements elicitation process.

For any number of reasons, such as you’re too busy, you’re distracted, or you’re not really interested, it is easy to fall into a pattern of hearing without really listening. Hearing is just the physical process that happens when sound waves reach your ears. Listening is much more and requires the active participation of the listener in the communication process.

Active listening happens when you are genuinely interested in what is being said and you give the speaker feedback that lets them know you are receiving and understanding their message. The feedback should include non-verbal clues, eye contact, and nodding, etc. as well as verbal confirmation, restating or paraphrasing what they have said and asking appropriate questions for follow-up.

Think about a recent conversation you had with a stakeholder on a project. Were you really listening? Unless we really focus our attention on listening, it is easy to tune out after the speaker has said a few words. Were you listening and confirming or were you thinking about what you would say next or something else entirely?

Here are some tips on how to be a better ‘active’ listener:
  • First, stop talking! Let the other person have the floor. Let them know you are paying attention to what they have to say.
  • Give non-verbal clues. Most importantly, make eye contact. Nod your head when you agree. (or maybe even if you don’t)
  • Listen without judging or criticizing. Even if you disagree, let them express their point of view.
  • Restate or paraphrase what the speaker says. This confirms your understanding and gives them a chance to clarify if necessary.
  • Don’t interrupt, but when appropriate, ask good questions.
  • Practice your note taking so you can record the conversation without distracting or interrupting the speaker.

Active listening is not easy. It takes focus and practice. But, the results are definitely worth the effort.

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