Friday, March 2, 2018

5 Reasons and 10 Tips for Improving Your Communication Skills

I cannot teach you to write well in one short-ish article.  What I can do, I believe, is help you to understand why you should care about communication in written and spoken forms and why doing so will help you succeed.  I also can give you a few pointers that have helped me over the years as a document writer, business analyst, and speaker.  Here we go.

5 Reasons You Want to Communicate Well (Not an exhaustive list)

      No matter what you seek to do in this life, you will want to be heard.  Whether you are a team player or a lone-wolf, you will need to communicate with other people.  You will need to be able to tell them your intentions, your goals, your needs, and probably some complicated concepts.  If you cannot do so quickly and efficiently, you are likely to experience a great deal of frustration on your part and maybe even some negativity on the part of others, as they become frustrated.  Being able to express yourself well can give everyone a favorable opinion of you and help others know who you are and what you are trying to accomplish.

      Expert communicators are valuable at work and in other organizations.  Do you want to be more in demand at your workplace?  Do you want to be a go-to person in your organization?  Being able to speak and write well will take you a long way towards being the “it” person.  Why?  Because you can articulate your own thoughts and help clarify those of others.  Because you can get a point across.  Because you can help people understand where the organization is going and why.

      Being able to write and speak well can help you unleash your creativity.  As you are able to put your thoughts, dreams, and even wacky ideas out into the world, you will be able to unlock the part of your brain that can break through barriers and find new and exciting ideas and approaches to every day challenges.  Creativity is a highly sought skill and one that needs exercising.  Speaking and writing creatively will help.

     Writing and speaking well exercises your brain and helps with developing critical thinking skills.  As you practice your writing and speaking, you will be examining what you are doing, honing your skills, learning to be more efficient and effective.  You will begin to consider and dissect the information in front of you, how it’s organized, and use it to formulate effective communication about the topic at hand and your thoughts that follow.  This process will become second nature, over time, and begin to extend to other people’s communications with you so that you be able to more fully understand what is being communicated to you.

      Being able to speak and write effectively requires mental organization.  As you practice these skills, you will establish organizational patterns that will extend to your everyday life.  Deliberate and conscious efforts in the early days of your efforts will become well-traveled courses of thought in the future.  You will be better able to collect your thoughts, arrange them, and then communicate them effectively and efficiently.

5 Tips for Improving Your Writing Skills (Nope, not exhaustive)

The single most valuable thing you can do in order to learn to write well is to read.  If you become familiar with the sound and flow of well written communications, you will start to internalize them.  Once you know how well written information “sounds”, you can begin to examine your own writing and critique it against what you know to be good.  Your reading should include fiction, non-fiction, scholarly, journalistic, and narrative styles.  Read everything.  Not every writing type requires the same rigor for syntax, structure, and style.  Become familiar with all of these so that you may easily switch from one form to another as your audience and context change.  A social media post detailing your vacation should not be written in the style of a scholarly article nor should your business document necessarily mirror a style appropriate for fictional literature.  When you know the different tone and the styles of writing, you can start to fit your communications appropriately.

         Be succinct.  Long, rambling sentences and paragraphs are generally confusing and inefficient ways to get your point across.  Learn when it’s a good time to use a list instead of the standard paragraph. People can more easily consume small bites of information.  It is much more difficult to parse and understand a multi-line, multi-segmented sentence.  When writing, you may need to ramble to get your thoughts onto paper, but never fail to come back and edit for conciseness.

      Speaking of which, learn to edit yourself.  Learn to cut out the superfluous and focus upon what is critical in order to get the reader to understand your message.

      Decide why you’re choosing to write and keep laser focus on that purpose.  Are you communicating an experience?  Are you trying to persuade someone?  Are you giving directions?  Keeping singular focus upon what you are doing keeps your writing in line.

      Ask for criticism from good writers.  No matter how well we edit ourselves, we will miss things.  Our own writing lives in our minds and we know what we are trying to say.  Other people don’t have that luxury and can help you see things that your brain just glosses over.  Be sure to establish a safe and respectful relationship with your editor.  It is of no use to either of you if feelings are hurt.  Tell your editor what you are looking for and be ready to hear that you made some mistakes.

5 Tips to Improve Your Speaking Skills (Again, not exhaustive)

      Slow down.  Allow yourself time to organize your thoughts.  Ask yourself if it is necessary to say what you are about to say.  Take time to consider the right words to use.  Constructing your message well will help you get your meaning communicated.  Remember to focus on your point.  Slowing down will help you keep that focus in mind.  When you speed through your communication, you risk losing focus and obscuring the intent. You risk being a blatherer.

       Be self-aware and watch your facial expressions and body language.  If your mouth is saying one thing but your body and face are saying something else, you are diluting or confusing your message.  Keep in mind that a large part of communication is expression and posture.  Study body language to help you be aware of what you are portraying while speaking.  Remember that facial expression affects the sound of your voice.  Even if someone can’t see you, they can tell if you’re smiling.  The same principle applies to other expressions.

      Read and write.  For much the same reasons as listed above, reading will improve your speaking skills.  Reading about great orators and examining their speeches will help you to understand what makes great communication and how you can use the same tools and techniques to communicate well yourself.

      Listen to people.  By listening to others, you will begin to understand what makes effective communication and what doesn’t.  As you listen, ask yourself whether this is good communication or not.  Ask yourself why it is or is not.  Think about your own speech and compare and contrast with the subject to which you are listening.  If you tend not to be a listener, challenge yourself to become one so that you can be more aware of other people’s speech patterns and capabilities.  Doing so will also help you become more introspective with regard to your own speaking.  Additionally, don’t avoid listening to yourself.  Record yourself and listen with a critical ear.  No one likes to hear themselves, but put aside the angst over your nasal voice and accent.  Focus upon what you are saying, are you organizing your thoughts well?  Are you focusing on the point of your communication? 

      Speak.  If you don’t practice a skill, like speaking, you will not improve.  Challenge yourself to speak up, especially if you don’t usually do so.  Look for simple ways to improve casual conversation as well as opportunities to speak in front of other people.  You need not be in front of a crowd to speak well.  You can practice speaking well every time you verbally communicate with one or more people.

In Conclusion

There are many similarities between speaking and writing.  Improving one will positively affect the other.  It’s really nice when you can use synergy to make changes.  Speaking of synergy, as you improve your spoken and written communication skills, something else will happen.  You will gain confidence.  When you KNOW you can make yourself heard and understood, you can feel more confident when presenting yourself anywhere.  Whether a job interview, a lesson in your local church, mosque, or temple, or a presentation at work, when you know in your bones you can get your point across, you can easily nail your purpose.

There are of course more ways to improve your communication skills.  If you really want to improve, use Google and look for resources and information on how to practice and proceed.  The world is at your fingertips and you can access that information for free.

Who am I to tell you how to improve your communication skills?  I am a technology professional who has been writing and speaking as a part of that job for over 30 years.  I have been a technical support specialist helping people troubleshoot issues with large multi-media systems.  I have been a department manager with up to 14 people reporting to me.  I have been a business analyst working with teams both co-located and globally dispersed.   I am a seasoned documentation writer, working with teams producing several different products for external sales and many, many applications internal to my various employers.  I am a public speaker with engagements at BA World and local organizations under my belt.  I am a member of the Yelp Elite Squad with over 800 reviews.  Finally, I am a confident writer and speaker who wants to share with the world.

Thanks for your time.  I would love to hear what you think of this and my other articles.  Cheers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Trust for Teams and Practical Steps to Build It

Trust: (noun) Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; dependence on something future or contingent; something committed or entrusted to one to be used or cared for in the interest of another; (verb) Believe in the reliability, veracity, ability or strength of someone or something
These definitions resonate with me, all of them.  In my humble opinion, trust is the most important element of a successful business enterprise.  Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest elements to find and get right (Meinert, 2016) (Becker, 2018).  In this article, I will make the case for building and maintaining trust in the workplace and then offer practical steps to create trust, nurture it, and help it grow.

Why is trust important for the workplace?

Does it seem odd to you that I would even ask that question?  If so, then please stick with me.  I hope to convince you that it’s critical.  If you read that question and thought “There are hundreds of reasons.” Good for you!!!  You are with me on this and can help convince the skeptics and cynics among us.
Human beings are social creatures.  We developed to be social animals from the very start of our evolution.  We find evidence of society in the remains left behind by the earliest humans and even some of our non-Homo sapiens relatives.  The development of societal bonds has been one of the major success factors for our species.  It has allowed for shared labor, safety nets for those who fall ill or have difficulties, and enough food for a larger group than was possible in individual family units.
Society uses trust as one of its most basic and critical elements even though its importance is generally unrecognized until trust starts to break down (Karen S. Cook, Editor, 2001).  Social stability is threatened by a lack of trust, whether that social unit is a work group, a team, or a community.  If members of a group cannot trust one another, then the ability to work together effectively is compromised.  (Institute, n.d.)

So, that’s all very nice, now what?

Now we start building.  Building trust is something that you should think about every day.  Building trust is part and parcel with being an ethical and responsible person but if you are not deliberate about it at the outset of trust building exercises, it can be easy to forget and accidentally break trust.  Breaking trust is a huge hurdle to have to overcome, so it is best to not do it.  Being deliberate in trust building efforts helps ensure you never have to say you’re sorry.

Ways to build trust as an individual

First, take your group to an offsite location.  Then, set up some pillows in case someone gets dropped….  No, trust falls are not necessary or even advisable.  There are many ways you can demonstrate and build trust in a real world environment.  Here are a few and some explanation for each.
1.       Lead by example: When you show someone that you have confidence in them and know they can handle a situation, then they are predisposed to respond in like ways toward you and others.  Micromanagement of others is a sure-fire trust breaker.  By hovering over others and questioning their every action and decision, you are signaling that you have no trust in them or their capabilities.  This does not mean that you should never have follow-ups with your team members. What it means is that you should give people the space to do their thing and then follow up to see their progress, give encouragement and guidance and then trust them to move on. 
2.       Show respect:  When you are working with a group of people, give everyone respect at the outset.  Showing respect is about the little things that demonstrate you value a person or a group of people.  You can do this by doing the following:
a.       Be consistently on time for meetings
b.      Refrain from talking over people, no matter how excited you are
c.       Speak with people in a respectful tone of voice and with respectful language
d.      Look people in the eye when talking and look at them when listening
e.      Give all speakers your undivided attention
3.       Follow through: If you say you will do something, do it.  Making promises to another person is an assurance that they can put their trust in you.  Failure to follow through means you are untrustworthy, period.  If something comes up and you are unable to meet your commitment to someone, let them know as soon as you realize it.  Even if you disappoint them by breaking a promise, you at least let them know that you respect them by warning them of your inability to follow through. 
4.       Communicate openly: When you communicate openly you foster an environment of transparency.  Incomplete communication implies a lack of trust on your part and then makes people trust you less.  If there are things that cannot be communicated to a certain audience for a good reason, establish a protocol for communications security and widely publicize it.  Be sure to include the reasons for needing communication security and make sure everyone understands it. Then, when something isn’t communicated, make sure it is because of your rules and always stick to your rules.
5.       Put the interests of the team ahead of your self-interests:  Often the good of the team is in our own best interest too.  That makes this trust building method a piece of cake.  Sometimes, however a situation arises that makes it superficially more rewarding to take your own interests to heart.  Unfortunately, when you let yourself fall victim to that thinking, you are telling your team members that they don’t matter, the goal doesn’t matter, and you do not respect or value them.  You may or may not agree with what the team is working on and it may seem to be less agreeable for you, that’s OK to say.  You should state your reservations and then let the topic go.  Support the team and their work anyway.  If you do this, you are saying you value the team and the goal.  By voicing your disagreement but accepting the consensus, you are showing others that you value their knowledge and opinion.  If things don’t work out, be sure not to fall into the “I told you so.” trap.  The team knows what you said.  Lastly, be aware of your intent when you are interacting with a group of people.  This exercise in self-awareness helps you examine your motives and helps you maintain your own ethics along with building trust between yourself and others.
6.       Listen: Listening to the people around you is one of the most important ways to build trust.  When you listen to someone, you are showing them that you value them and what they have to say.  When you listen, listen attentively and actively.  Do your level best to eliminate distractions.  Put away your electronic devices.  Make eye contact.  Use active listening skills such as observing body language, smile while listening, and lean in toward the speaker.  Ask questions to probe the person’s thoughts and gain a deeper understanding of the message they are giving.  If you want more information on active listening, there are many different resources available.  Google is your friend and will give you more information than you can absorb.
7.       Be open to feedback:  We are not all perfect and everyone has room for improvement.  When you are given constructive feedback, be genuinely grateful.  When someone has taken the time and has the consideration for you to give feedback, they are telling you that they value you.  When you show gratitude for feedback, discuss it, and work on changing as a result of it, you are signaling your respect and value for the person who gave the feedback as well as showing self-awareness and respect because you want to become a better individual and team member.  When someone gives you feedback, even if you don’t agree with it acknowledge the spirit in which it is given.  Remember that a person’s perceptions may differ from yours and take the opportunity to be introspective.  The person giving feedback may have misread you, the situation, or the signals in the environment, however their feedback is still valid and allows you and the person giving feedback to grow and build trust.  Never be afraid to discuss feedback with an open mind.
8.       Recognize each team member as an individual:  When you demonstrate that you value each person as they are and their individual ability to contribute to the team, you are showing respect and accepting that your way isn’t the only “right” way of doing things.  We are generally not able to pick out who will be our team members, let alone select the team to which we are assigned. We have to build relationships with total strangers and work in a coordinated effort toward a common goal.  Recognizing that we are not going to like the same things, behave the save way, think the same way, or react the same way to a given situation is a huge step toward being an effective team member.  Demonstrating your acceptance of diversity and the fact that you appreciate other perspectives and ideas builds trust in ways that saying you support diversity cannot.  Remember, actions speak louder than words. 
9.       Help:  When someone needs some assistance, don’t hesitate to jump in and help.  If you see someone struggling, let them know you see it and offer help or just lend a hand without being asked.  It’s a simple human kindness that speaks volumes about how much you value someone.  In the end, you will be rewarded in kind many fold because of the seeds you planted when you helped someone out.

Ways to build trust in a group

Groups need strong leaders, so when we talk about building trust within a group, you must have at least one person within that group willing and able to be a leader.  Generally speaking, a team needs to have a person who can spearhead these efforts. 
1.       Deal with unhealthy conflict: In any relationship, you’re going to have conflict.  Failing to address unhealthy conflict within a group is a sure fire way to ruin trust.  As a team, you must be willing to look at the situation and deal with it openly.  Keeping things hidden and unsaid is a recipe for resentment.  A leader in the team must be able to compassionately bring conflict into the open and lead safe and sane discourse on the point of contention until consensus can be reached.  When a team has a leader that is unafraid to help resolve conflict, they know they can bring problems to them and get results.  That’s trust
2.       Link individual and team priorities to your organization’s strategies and goals: Context means a lot.  People like to feel as though they are a part of something bigger.  Aligning team and individual goals with those of the larger organization signals that the company wants to bring everyone in on success.
3.       Foster a supportive environment:  Teams that are supportive of each other at work and even outside work makes for an environment of trust.  When you know someone has your best interests at heart, it’s easier to trust.  When you take time and put energy into helping others within the team meet their needs and aspirations, you are showing each member on the team that they are important.
4.       Make sure everyone has their time in the spotlight:  Ensuring that each member of the team gets their moments of praise and recognition helps people understand what each team member brings to the team effort and rewards them for their work.  Be sure that the praise that is given, is sincere and genuinely heartfelt.  People can tell when someone is giving empty praise, so don’t do it.
5.       Leaders take the heat for the team:  Every team has its times of trouble.  When something unfortunate happens, leaders who protect their team from the ire and tribulation surrounding it make huge strides in building trust with that team.  If a leader is willing to be the center of negative attention in order to allow their team to regroup and move ahead, that leader is demonstrating that they put the welfare of the team ahead of their own.  That’s trust gold.
6.       Keep team members accountable for their actions and outcomes:  Every single team member must be equally accountable to the team to carry their weight on that team.  Holding each other accountable and answerable is the best way to keep people together and performing at their peak.  It also helps head off resentment or feelings of favoritism.
7.       Invest time in teaching teams how to discuss, debate, and decide: When an organization takes the extra cost and effort to give their teams the tools they need for success, it shows that the organization cares about the team and individuals.  When teams are trained together and asked to demonstrate their learning in real life, the team can build trust as they learn how to interact with each other.  Over time, this will build a high performing team that will be formidable in their ability to work together on tough topics.
8.       Build respect into your team charter: If you are working as a group without a charter, shame on you.  Charters give your team an agreed to standard of behavior which allows trust to blossom.  By including respectful communication and behavioral practices in that charter, you are telling the team that each team member is important, their contributions are important, and that the team is important.  Once you have a charter, enforce it evenly and with compassion.  Recognize violations and address them appropriately.  If a disruptive behavior starts out, address it directly with the violator in person and as soon as possible.  Some violations need to be addressed in public, some in private.  Those choices are sometimes hard to make.  Compassion for the violator feeds into your decision on when to talk.  Think about how you would feel if called out in public for something.  If you would be horribly embarrassed, you might want to have a private conversation.
9.       Play together: The old, trite team building games make people crazy.  Instead of doing trust falls and zip lines, do things that allow people to participate in their own terms.  Have a picnic or pot luck lunch.  Designate a time period on a regular basis to play board or card games.  Bring a putting green to the office and have a small contest.  Go to see a movie as a team. All of these things allow people to connect on a human level.  Getting to know a person as a human being, not just a role in the workplace helps to form bonds that allow trust to form.  It is easy to mistrust a person you don’t know so make sure your team members get to know one another.

Can I trust your motives for asking me to trust you?

When you ask others to give you their trust, you are asking a great deal.  Before you do it, be sure to really understand your motives.  Con artists ask people to trust them in order to take advantage of others.  Not that you would ever think of doing that, but because unscrupulous people do, members of our society have developed skepticism that is likely more robust than is healthy.
To diffuse skepticism, be transparent and honest as possible.  Explore your motives and share them with the people you are asking to trust you.  In a team situation, you will likely need to explain why a goal must be met or why an idea has great merit.  When you are honest with yourself before asking for that trust, you can be sure that your idea or goal benefits everyone and that you are asking people to do the right thing for themselves and your organization.  If you cannot honestly say that your idea or your goal is in the best interest of the organization, then you probably should not bring it up in public.  If you’re not sure, ask a close friend, co-worker, or team member that you trust to give you their opinion.  Introspection is a valuable skill and will serve you well at work and in the outside world.

Who am I?  Why should you trust me?

I’m Lisa Combest.  I have been working in software in some capacity since 1989.  I entered into continuous process improvement around 1992 and became interested in “requirements engineering” in 1996.  I’ve been a computer graphic artist, department manager, web developer, project manager, and business analyst.  All through my career, I have been interested in how teams work together and ways in which we can get high volumes of good work done while being happy to do it.  I’ve worked for small, established shops, startups, Fortune 50 companies, and in between.  Throughout my time, I have found that the people I work with and the relationships I make with them keep me showing up with a smile on my face day after day and help to drive my desire to do my best.
With that in mind, I’ve committed myself to helping others by sharing what I’ve learned in my career.  After almost 30 years in the software development business, it’s time that I gave back some of the wonderful knowledge others have passed along.  In that spirit, I offer you this article.  I hope it gives you some food for growth.


Becker, S. (2018, January). 8 Reasons Employees Don't Trust Their Boss or Company. Retrieved from Money and Career Cheat Sheet.
Institute, R. (n.d.). Building Trust; Building Community Resilience. Retrieved from Community and Regional Resilience Institute.
Karen S. Cook, Editor. (2001). Publications - Trust in Society. Retrieved from Russell Sage Foundation:
Meinert, D. (2016, June). Why Employees Don't Trust Their Leaders. Retrieved from Society for Human Resrouce Management.

5 Means to Get Into the Domain

5 Means to Get Into the Domain

As Business Analysts, we are often asked to facilitate meetings on topic with which we are not necessarily experts.  That is an intimidating place to be in.  How on Earth do you elicit specific and meaningful content about a topic that you don’t necessarily know much about?  Here are some ideas.

Embrace being the “new guy”

Acknowledge to yourself that it’s perfectly O.K. that you don’t know much about the topic at hand.  It’s easier to get other people to forgive your being a novice than it is to get yourself to give that grace.  Get it over with as soon as possible and get beyond it.  You can’t know everything about everything.  My motto is never be afraid to ask the “dumb” question.  There is no such thing,

Acknowledge your lack of knowledge

When you go into a session and don’t have a great command of the topic, say so.  Let everyone know that you’re learning as you go.  This can go a long way toward building empathy for you and others who are on the learning curve.  Now, ask a lot of questions and don’t act smooth when you don’t know something.  Don’t be afraid to ask about things it seems like everyone knows.  I’m willing to bet that you’re not the only person in the room who doesn’t understand that acronym or specialty term.  Build a solid glossary of terms for yourself and others on the team.  Take lots of notes or be dead certain your memory is a steel trap.  Once you say you don’t know something, have the courtesy to take notes or repeat the information so that the audience knows you are making a conscious effort to learn.  Having notes that you can publish out to verify your understanding also helps those people who aren’t willing to speak out.  You become a hero for them. 
One piece of caution here.  Don’t be the person who asks the same question over and over.  No one likes that guy.  Don’t be that guy.

Find a domain mentor

There are undoubtedly people in your organization you can talk to when you need clarification on a particular point or who can explain the finer details of a concept or process.  Find this person or persons and make sure that you build a good relationship with them.  Not only are you building a knowledge base for yourself, you’re building credibility with folks who can help you do the same within your team.  Trust is important and this relationship can help you build a solid foundation.  Lastly, building trust in your team never hurts.  Ever.

Read, Read, Read

Although your company or client may have very particular ways of doing things, most jobs or services are well documented and have a wealth of general information out on the internet.  Get out there and find it.  Many employers offer books either in a library on premises or electronically.  Do not hesitate to use these.  A sincere effort to learn the general points will boost everyone’s trust that you care about the subject and the team.   
All of the above suggestions build into one important point for any B.A.  Members of the business analyst profession need to be resourceful.  This means that you take the initiative and find the answers instead of waiting for the answers to come to you.  A good or great analyst will find ways to get information when others will only find brick walls.  You will know who to go to and when to ask the questions everyone needs answered.  Nothing can stop a resourceful business analyst.

Have your BA skills and competencies solid

If you are unsteady on your feet in terms of business analysis skills, such as facilitating meetings, eliciting requirements, or process modeling, it will show.  Practice your analytical skills as frequently as possible and be as confident as possible when you are going into a domain where you know very little.  If you are a brand new analyst, this is a much more tall order than if you have been at the job more than 5 years.  If that is the case, work on your self-confidence first.  Believing in yourself projects to others more than you would expect.  Once you believe in yourself, it is easier to focus upon your skills.  When practicing your skills, find a safe place to do it.  Rehearse with a mentor or ask for feedback from your team after holding an analysis session.