- Emily McCowan
This post is part 2 in my Architect Soft Skills series. In part 1 I described the importance of clarifying your audience, goals, content, and method when planning for successful communication out to other people.
This post will cover the other half of communication - gaining understanding through listening, questioning & comprehension skills.
Communication: More Like a Multi-lane Highway
Sometimes people say that communication is a two-way street. I guess I would liken it more to a multi-lane highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps and people cutting in on you and your GPS is sometimes broken - there is a LOT of input demanding our attention and getting in the way of our ability to clearly communicate with others.
Understanding what people are saying, and the undercurrents of that - who's saying it, what they're not saying, how and when they're saying it - is so important for a successful architect. Without a clear understanding of what your stakeholders want and need, as well as the boundaries your solution must exist within, you're trusting the success of your solution architecture to Lady Luck - a fickle lady indeed.
So how do you hone your skills in listening, reading, interpreting, questioning - ultimately, all the things you need to be good at in order to truly understand what people are trying to tell you?
I'm sure you've heard of active listening before. Where you listen to what people say, and then play it back to them in your own words, right? Friends, I think this has become performative, and the true meaning of active listening is sometimes lost in the rush to show just how very well you think you comprehend someone. Here's what it's supposed to look like.
Active Listening (source: https://medium.com/@bertrandwong)
Where I think well-meaning people go wrong is thinking too much about how they're going to respond to show they're actively listening, which defeats the purpose. You shouldn't be thinking much about what you want to say next when someone else is speaking, although that is hard to do. If you're trying to keep a thought in your running memory while someone else is continuing to speak, at best half of your attention is on what the person is saying, while you desperately try to cling on to your question or point so you don't forget to make it.
I recommend noting down - on a scratch pad, on your favourite notes app, whatever - key points of what the person is saying so you can recap them, and get them out of your running memory so you can continue to pay full attention to the speaker. The idea of active listening is fine, it's just sometimes a problem when you try too hard.
I also want to emphasise how incredibly important it is that you use the tactic of interruption carefully. Do not let yourself get into the habit of interrupting people. It is, unfortunately, a very common trait in the business world, and I have experienced it all too often. I'm not sure if it's because I'm a woman, or because I'm friendly so people aren't afraid of me, or something else - but it is extremely aggravating when it happens.
You do not want to become known for interrupting people - I quit my job once because my manager interrupted me too often (among other disrespects he paid me). If you are interrupting a client, don't be surprised if they choose not to extend your contract.
Yet, sometimes you need to interrupt someone. They might be bloviating, they might be derailing an important meeting or workshop. Interrupt when you must, but apologise as you're doing so, and mean it - if you interrupt people regularly your apology will come across as insincere.
The ability to read between the lines and understand what information is going unsaid is a deeper level of processing that I think only comes with experience in the business world. Richard Branson gets it - he said,
Paying close attention to not just what someone says but the way in which they say it can help you to read between the lines — a place where the real story is often dramatically different to what the casual listener might understand is being said on the lines.
Some of the things to look out for are:
- Tone of voice
- Body language
- Who is saying the thing
- Who is staying quiet
- How are they wording things - is it careful wording? (I like the term "weasel words" for this, but even though that is a negative term it's certainly not a negative thing to word things carefully!)
- When are they saying it - are they saying one thing to you in private, and another when the executive team is in the room?
Another key skill to develop for your understanding toolkit is the art of questioning. Before I became an architect, I spent a couple of years as a Business Analyst, which I think was a really important step in my career - it helped me learn the art of questioning to elicit information.
You can use many types of questions or prompts to get your stakeholders to keep talking and sharing information that you might need, including:
- Closed questions, like "do you currently have a call centre?"
- Open questions, like "how do your customers need or want to get in touch with you?"
- Leading questions, like "can you tell me about the problems you have with your current customer service channels?"
You can craft your questions to guide people to tell you about experiences they have had in the past, or to imagine a future possibility and tell you what they think about it. The question and answer part of workshops can be a lot of fun!
There are also lots of ways someone can respond to your questions, and this is where your listening and interpreting skills will come into play:
- Direct & honest (obviously the ideal!)
- Lies (by ommission or exaggeration if they're trying to save face or impress someone; or just straight-out lies)
- Non sequitur (usually because they have not understood your question - try wording it in another way. However, this could be a political answer - you know how politicians will be asked one thing, and will answer with something only tangentially related but that allows them to make a talking point that they're keen to make?)
- Partial answer (maybe because someone has only processed part of your question - this can happen if your questions are too lengthy or you're stringing too many together without letting someone respond to you. Or, they might not want to answer part of your question and they're hoping you don't pick up on it!)
- Stalling (answering a question with another question, or an attempt to change the topic - maybe they need more time to prepare their answer, or they're avoiding your question)
- Refusal (they might just not want to answer your question at all - less common in workshops, but you could find your emails are going unanswered because of this)
Communication goes two-ways, and just as you need to hone your ability to communicate your solution to stakeholders, you must hone your skills of listening, interpreting & questioning to be able to gain the understanding you need to design great solutions. Practice active listening - but not so hard that you lose focus on what you're listening to. Think about the subtext of what is being said. And finally, consider how you ask questions to keep the information coming your way.
If you didn't understand anything on this post - see what I did there? :) - you can ask me a question or two on Twitter @heyemilyhay.