The value of an open mind in conversations

We’ve all been there. You go into a conversation with a person you’ve talked to several times before. You are set up for the worst (or the best) or just the status quo. And BAM! Something happens and the conversation takes a turn you weren’t expecting. Now you feel unprepared, disheveled, and maybe downright agitated. Instead of accomplishing what you needed to, you leave the meeting with half-baked notes and an intention to schedule a follow-up and get it all straight.

So what happens in these situations? It could be any number of things, but one possibility is that you went in with a set of concrete expectations (read: assumptions) about the people and the people went a different direction. That’s the fun thing about dealing with people. Just like you and I are growing every day, they are too. People change, organizations change, and some expectations can set us up to be the odd man out.

My former boss and long-time mentor Woody Pastorius recently published his inaugural blog post on his new sales website.  You are probably thinking, what the heck does a sales website have to do with me? To Woody, sales is about more than closing a deal. It’s about building relationships and influence which is what we BAs do every day too. Moreover Woody is a consummate leader and I can’t thank him enough for the opportunities he has provided me for grow as a business analyst.

His first blog post on the follow-up call is about how to go into conversations with an open mind and open expectations. Oftentimes we build what Woody calls “records” on a person, essentially concrete expectations on how they will respond and how we need to act to obtain our expected outcome.  But these records can get us into trouble. Woody writes:

None of us can really predict behavior; there are simply too many variables in life. What my coach made me aware of was that I was in fact going into meetings and thinking that I already knew how it would play through and ultimately end.

I know I’ve done this, especially with stakeholders. As BAs we tend to like to prepare, so we envision what to expect out of a stakeholder or conversation. We plan what we will say, how we will say it, and how we will respond when that person says whatever we think they will say. Some of the time, this sort of preparation can help us elicit better software requirements. Preparation helps us keep the conversations on track even when the tides are running different directions.

But can over-preparation or an unwillingness to see outside of our expectations forms blinders which can lead to painful conversations and resentment. Maybe the conversation needs to go in a different direction and we just aren’t getting the point. Maybe fail to hear what the other person is really saying because we expect them to be voicing a different viewpoint. Maybe that stakeholder who always asks for more than they can justify has seen a new light and is asking for something reasonable and with real value. If we go in expecting to have a conversation where we talk them down into scope, it’s going to be a painful experience for both of us.

Treating each conversation with an open mind will help us avert these sort of situations and ultimately become better conversationalists, better leaders, and better influencers.

What do you think? Do you have a story to share about how expectations can create blinders?

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  1. This is the exact reason I tell everyone to take an Improv class or two! Laura, like you I am a huge fan of Improv and performed with a group in Atlanta back in the 90’s. It sounds funny to say “back in the 90’s.”

    One of the keys of improv is having an open mind and not thinking ahead or anticipating what the other actors are going to say. You need to be in the moment. I feel my improv training is what allows me to be a better listener and a better BA.

  2. DougGtheBA says

    Hey Laura:

    I think the preparation that a BA can do for communication with customers should be as focused as possible with regard to background information and facilitation (how to react to different scenarios to keep the meeting on track, like you said). However, the analyst, I believe, really shines in being able to adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances, perceptions, information and attitudes. To this point, I think a final piece of preparation for a good BA should be to clear one’s mind of perceptions, so that this person can react, but also not skew the outcome of the interaction toward what the analyst thinks is correct or wants to see happen.



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