Interaction Skills for the Business Analyst

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What are interaction skills, and how are they relevant to my work?

Interaction skills are a soft skill set that includes tactful communication, mediation, and diplomacy. BABOK[1] divides interaction skills into three broad areas: facilitation and negotiation, leadership and influencing, and teamwork. All of these skills encompass the ability to navigate politics, even in tricky territory, in order to bring people together in consensus on a project, to mitigate conflicts, and to help people feel heard. The point of interaction skills is not to advocate for any one stakeholder’s or group’s agenda, but to help all stakeholders articulate their needs, and as much as possible, understand and embrace the goals of the project.

BABOK[2] notes that interaction skills enable one to “facilitate interactions between stakeholders in order to help them resolve disagreements.” It’s not just about negotiating disagreements, but also helping people discover and state what they need in a positive way. BABOK goes on to state interaction skills enable one to ensure “that participants in a discussion correctly understand one another’s positions.”

Why do I need interaction skills?

The reason an analyst needs interaction skills is so that she can navigate office politics for the health of her project. As one writer puts it, “Politics is all about interacting with people and influencing them to get things done.”[3] In short, interaction skills are people skills.

Interaction Skills for the Business AnalystThe notion of addressing office politics may seem distasteful to some analysts, who are, after all, usually more focused on research and analysis than politics. But nearly every office has differing agendas among its members, and unless one can navigate them, stakeholders may never get on board with your analysis and requirements. And while your organization or department may have normally amenable people working there, it’s the nature of a group of people working together on a project that conflict may arise. One writer cites scarce resources, for example, as a possible source of conflict: “No organization can do everything that those in it would like to do. When resources like money, people, space, time, and attention are divvied up, there will always be winners and losers. Obviously, every group wants to win.”[4] Another writer notes that conflict or politics “can often occur when there is a difference of opinion on the project deliverables, requirements, scope change requests, risk perceptions, etc.”[5] Political conflict and differing agendas can occur not only between colleagues and stakeholders, but between different members of middle and upper management. And when upper management conflicts arise related to your project, your interaction skills had better be in play.

How do I incorporate interaction skills into my work?

Here are some concrete ideas that may help you negotiate differing agendas and strong personalities in gathering and presenting requirements and project needs.

  1. Keep meetings and impromptu discussions on the proper focus. Agendas are always helpful in meetings. Additionally, you may have to re-route the conversation when it veers off. “I’d love to address that also, Jane; it’s a valid concern. But because we have such limited time today, can we just focus on what’s in this build?”

  2. When stakeholders have differing agendas for a project, ask them if they can prioritize their needs. If they have a long list of wants that are not scheduled to be included in a software build or rollout, ask them if they could please narrow it to their top three that you can then research. This will help them think through what’s truly relevant to their work as opposed to goldplating, and will also limit your workload.

  3. Help stakeholders articulate their real concerns about a project and think of solutions. This is where your skill of unearthing a project’s actual requirements, as opposed to what people assume them to be, comes in handy. You can help a stakeholder discern if what he’s advocating is really what he needs. BABOK puts it this way: “The business analyst must be able to identify the underlying interests of the parties, distinguish those interests from their stated positions, and help the parties to identify solutions that satisfy those underlying interests.” Propose alternatives in a way that doesn’t speak for the stakeholder: “If a touch screen is too expensive to implement, Mary, do you think that any automated or real-time system that enables the user to bypass the customer service rep will work? Is that your real concern?”

  4. Play up points of agreement to help build consensus. Focus on what you see that stakeholders mutually want. Even if they seem to want completely different things, they probably have some of the same underlying priorities. “I know you both want to be sure that the client has what he needs from this build. Thanks for working with me as I gather research from both of you to be sure he gets that.” When points of agreement are hard to find, this is where negotiation comes in. For more on negotiation skills, see "Every Business Analyst Must Negotiate Like a Pro."

  5. Stay positive even when people complain. For example, if someone complains that software builds never speed the system response time because other departments’ agendas are always prioritized first, you might say, “I hear you, Carl. You really do need a quicker system response time. Margaret and Dan both mentioned that, too. As soon as this build rolls out, I’ll bring that straight to the attention of management. I want to thank you all for keeping that on our radar.” Then follow through with the memo to management. Even if it gets shot down, your stakeholders will trust you to do your best for them.

  6. Stay completely unflappable when people are upset. It can be tough to remain calm when someone’s voice is raised or when they are accusatory. Of course you should bring any abusive behavior to the attention of human resources, but if someone is just a difficult personality or upset about something, your composure and low voice may help defuse the situation. Another thing you can do is try to focus their attention on articulating what they want. One writer notes, “In a . . . conflict, the first words out of your mouth should be a question. ‘What do you mean by that?” ‘What are you concerned about?’ Try to gather data. Then, find win-win scenarios. ‘I understand your concern, and I think we can address that . . .’”[6] Keeping a calm demeanor and a solution-oriented focus can help redirect stakeholders’ emotions.

  7. Do not take sides in a project. Do not, unless you want to see your career tank, advocate for one manager’s agenda against another. Keep it positive. As one writer notes, “If there are two managers who are bickering over some issue, get everybody to focus on a job objective. Quietly do your work and play it like a U.N. ambassador: ‘ . . . . I hope they can resolve the problem soon, they’re both good managers.’”[7]

  8. Keep your opinions of people to yourself—the moment you share them, you start to lose your influence as a neutral negotiator. And for heaven’s sake, do not put anything in writing, such an email: “Can you believe what a roadblock Stan is putting up?” It’s not your job to pontificate, but to understand each stakeholder’s needs as they relate to your project and to help them understand how the project will benefit them.

At times, you may be faced with an unusually abrasive personality or completely untenable situation that no amount of interaction skills can resolve, and then you will have to ask for help from management. Do not state outright that you need help managing a difficult personality who is driving you nuts. Explain that your project has reached a stalemate because of differing opinions as to how to move forward, and while you would love to see everyone’s priorities being met, you’re very concerned about the timing and delivery of the project. Then step back.

Author: Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com


[1] A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.
[2] A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.
[3]
http://www.techrepublic.com/article/manage-office-politics-using-issues-management-techniques/5803090
[4]
http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/07/14/why-avoiding-office-conflict-is-not-an-option/
[5]
http://www.techrepublic.com/article/manage-office-politics-using-issues-management-techniques/5803090
[6]
http://o5.com/7-smart-ways-to-manage-office-politics/
[7]
http://o5.com/7-smart-ways-to-manage-office-politics/

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