Active Listening and Cultural Cues – When No Means Yes

desert island

At our dinner table, we sometimes play the desert island game – if you could take one food, or one book, or one person on a desert island, what or who would it be? If I had to manage requirements with only one skill, it would be communication.

Without good communication skills, you won’t understand what the stakeholders want. And you won’t structure and describe the requirements in a way that the developers will implement what you intend.

For a given project, there are three sets of requirements – the requirements you are given, the requirements you document, and the requirements that are interpreted by the delivery team.

Each group of people is speaking a different language – stakeholders may talk about scenarios, and developers may talk about features or widgets. A recent post on from The Straight Dope reminded me that this can happen at the most basic level. Charles Darwin did a study to determine if head nodding (for yes) and shaking (for no) was a universal behavioral pattern among humans. He found this to be generally, but not universally true.

Ten years ago, I was presenting some statistical techniques in Oyama, Japan, for incorporating feedback into a manufacturing process, and the members of my audience would nod their heads and say “yes” during portions of my presentation. I just assumed it was a verbal attend (a pull-behavior validation of comprehension of a message). It was later explained to me that culturally, in that context, when the audience members were saying “yes”, it wasn’t “I understand you”, it was “I [physically] hear you.”

Three years ago, I spent a few weeks in Malaysia, training a group of about 30 new developers from different regions of India. They were learning some advanced AI, search, and configuration technologies. They were all very bright and they were learning concepts that involved approaching programming and representation in ways that were very different than they had done before. It was a critical time for me to know when someone was “getting it”, and when I needed to find a better presentation technique – if they didn’t grasp something, I wasn’t doing my job. One day, when introducing some complex topics, I noticed a few heads in the room shaking back and forth. My first reaction was that people weren’t grasping the concepts, but all the other cues indicated that people were in fact understanding the topics. After the presentation, I asked one of the developers about it, and he explained to me that this head shaking was in fact acknowledgement that the concepts were being absorbed.

So, “yes” didn’t mean anything, and “no” meant “yes.”

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