Soft Skills for Business Analysts: Empathy

“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, identifying an advantage and seizing it but the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy.”- Dean Koontz

The quality of being able to see and understand another person's world is central to understanding and possibly, alleviating their pain. Solving a problem can only be achieved successfully after a comprehensive definition of the problem – the result of a genuine understanding of stakeholders' needs, problems and opportunities. Empathy is an important trait for BAs but it requires walking a mile in the shoes of stakeholders.

What exactly does empathy mean in business analysis? 

Empathy is the business of:

  1. Understanding stakeholders within the context of the problems they face, opportunities they would like to exploit and the vision they would like to accomplish.

  2. Understanding what stakeholders do, how they do it and why they do what they do.

  3. Understanding what stakeholders genuinely need and what is important to them.

There are numerous and often conflicting views on whether empathy should be applied in business.

In Daniel Pink’s bestseller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, he emphasized that right-brain thinkers will be the lead agents in society and identified empathy as one of the six attributes potential leaders should develop. Daniel Goleman, who popularized the emotional intelligence concept, emphasizes that while the qualities typically associated with leadership - intelligence, determination and vision are required for success, they are insufficient. He argued that truly effective leaders are distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, one of which is empathy.

In a recent study conducted by Case Western Reserve University researchers, it was discovered that when the brain activates neurons that allow us to empathize with others, it simultaneously suppresses those used for analysis and vice-versa, implying that analysis and empathy are mutually exclusive. 

In my opinion, successful business analysis can only be built on a foundation of empathy, which is what eases the process of understanding what stakeholders need and identifying the best approach to fulfil those needs. Requirements elicitation tasks which focus on defining stakeholder needs, can only be done effectively if approached from a position of understanding and empathy towards stakeholders.

How can business analysts be empathetic in their dealings with stakeholders?

There are numerous techniques that can help BAs gain a better understanding of stakeholders. I'll touch on two of them:

1. Observation – In most situations, you will often find that there is a disconnect between what users do and what they say they do. Observing stakeholders will help you understand how they interact with existing systems, the workarounds they've devised as well as the improvements you can make – information that may not have been available to you, had you not observed them. The fact that stories are embodied in artefacts implies that you can use any of the objects within the environment to initiate discussions with stakeholders.

Observation provides insight into unique opportunities and stakeholders' implicit knowledge that can exploited for business improvement and innovation. Wherever possible, ask stakeholders to show you how they work, ask questions and be willing to understand their approach before judging their actions or analyzing everything they do upfront – save your analysis for later.

2. Interviews – Pursue any available opportunities for engaging with stakeholders in either formal or informal settings. Interviews offer a great opportunity to uncover a deeper meaning of their world.

In summary, here are the ways you can be empathetic when dealing with stakeholders:

  1. Listen to your stakeholders with the main objective of understanding them.

  2. Take note of non-verbal cues.

  3. Individualize benefits – ensure that you communicate the benefits of projects to them.

  4. Solve the right problem – empathy yields a unique understanding that allows you to solve the right problem. It is a necessary precondition for gaining stakeholders' trust. A trusted BA would certainly learn a lot about stakeholders' expectations.

  5. Treat stakeholders with respect.

  6. Take genuine interest in your stakeholders – be concerned about them.

Do you know of any other ways business analysts can show empathy?