Barking With the Big Dogs - Part II: Trusted Advisor


If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you said yes to the question, “Am I willing to try something different?” as you read Part I: Process of Care. With that in mind, let’s continue the journey. In the last article we outlined three core steps in getting a solid seat at the executive table: prepare, discover and articulate. Now that you’re prepared to work with executives, I’m sorry to inform you that the tough stuff is about to begin. While preparation and understanding are crucial elements, and speaking executive language further deepens our conversations, the real meat on the dog bone is taking the next step and beginning, (it’s important to understand that this cannot be done in a single meeting), to develop your relationship and establishing yourself as a trusted advisor.

If you follow some simple and practical practices, you’ll set yourself up to have the opportunity to exercise your powers of persuasion and influence, which you’ll learn more about in Part III of this series. This will take time, patience and plenty of conscientious reflection and practice. Before you read on,

consider this simple analogy that will set up the rest of the article quite nicely. Everyone at one point in his/her life has come across a dog where you and the dog have been uncertain of each other. “Is that dog friendly?” you wonder. “Will it bite me? Should I run? Or, should I see if we can come to an understanding?” In those moments before you made your final decision to approach the pooch, you were evaluating the risks and rewards of your actions. This is a period of establishing trust, feeling each other out. Maybe you offered a treat or a ball to chase? We all know that asking a dog to give up its food or a ball can be as challenging as extracting requirements from a stakeholder. Regardless, a good healthy dialog, debate, and back and forth can cement the relationship either as man’s best friend or as a trusted advisor. Be careful however when a dog chooses not to share its bone or bring the ball back. You may be in danger of being manipulated.

So let’s examine the four core elements to establishing ourselves as a trusted advisor:

  1. Evaluate risks

  2. Develop trust

  3. Engage in productive dialog

  4. Avoid being manipulated

1. Evaluating Risks

"Our thinking and our behavior are always in anticipation of a response. It is therefore fear based."Deepak Chopra

You may be wondering about the risks associated with conversations with executives. As you are under pressure to prepare requirements documentation and solution recommendations, you are faced with time constraints and cost constraints, to name a few. Remember, constraints also sit with executives, who also have their own set of challenges. Your actions and interactions are therefore important, and there are risks associated with not building the relationship properly. As each party engages the other, both are conscientious of their own personal challenges and consequently protective of them. Here is a list of risks that I often come up against:

  • Lack of understanding of internal landscape – think enterprise analysis

  • Lack of confidentiality – nobody likes a blabber mouth!

  • Organizational risk - are we about to expose something that I may have had a hand in at one time or another?

  • Financial risks - if this BA doesn’t get it right, what costs am I to bear and the consequences associated with these costs?

  • Liabilities – are there legal implications of not getting this right?

  • Failed solutions are equal to failed strategy implementation, which could lead to unflattering publicity either internally or externally.

While your list may include more than I have cited above, what is important here is that you a) are aware of them, and b) you are prepared to address them – either as they come up or before they even become a risk. This will rely entirely on the relationship that you have established with the executive. Pay particular attention to b) “you are prepared to address them.” Establishing rapport means that you have taken the time to carefully consider a plan or an approach to identify or resolve challenges.

You may consider addressing these sooner rather than later as you’ll want to avoid a situation where an executive may jump to conclusions about a solution, and begin protecting their own risks as a defense mechanism. Be prepared to become the scapegoat for a risk averse executive. Risk aversion may also manifest itself as hard core negotiation, and or a long list of ever changing requirements.

Whatever the risks and consequences are, it is your responsibility to uncover, understand and address them as soon as possible. The next section of the article will provide some insight on how this revealing of risks can be made less painful.

2. Develop Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Ernest Hemingway

There are approximately 188,000 books at right now that address the topic of trust. I suspect the spectrum of insight is wide and varied. I know from countless interactions with executives, peers, colleagues, friends and family that we can all agree trust is the cornerstone for any great relationship. Trust fosters an openness and willingness to delve into the unknown, and builds respect, involvement and long term relationships. Over the last couple of years, I’ve really pushed to understand how trust is built; I have asked thousands of people “do you automatically trust somebody, or does the trust bank start with a zero balance and as interactions continue, the fund is built, while violations deplete the account…”

Overwhelmingly we are all very cautious with trust and as such, it is built, but on what and based on what? From all the hands-on research, interactions and many long and wonderful conversations with trusted friends and colleagues, I have concluded that trust is primarily built on empathy. Sure there are other elements involved and we’ll address these later, but empathy is where we begin to show signs of trust.

“Empathy is the ability to feel or understand the experience of another person, to put oneself in another's shoes.”

Understanding the executive’s plague of risks and being empathetic to them is not a bad place to start! Empathy is not something that can be faked. Being sincere in your interactions is a key element, and before we can practice the art of empathy we must understand some simple interaction guidelines:

  1. Within interactions between you and the executives, you are each senders and receivers. YOU MUST PLAY BOTH ROLES, but focus more on being the receiver than the sender. Fundamentally, what I’m saying is resist the urge to spout off about requirements, solution options, and all those great things that you buried in your BRD!

  2. Your interactions must have meaning attached to them; they must have a purpose, and you must achieve that purpose during your interactions. See Part I of this series to understand how you can develop purpose.

  3. You must acquire and apply knowledge of self and others in the development of effective interactions. See evaluating risks as a starting point to this activity.

  4. There will always be context, memories, styles, content and filters that must be considered during your interactions. Consider this: your executive may have had a bad experience in a similar situation and as a consequence relies on his memory as the context of your interactions. Therefore, his or her style and day-to-day activities influence how he/she sends and receives information.

  5. Listen very carefully to the language and intonation of the language your executive uses. This may provide insight into style or risks that loom. For example:

    1. I didn’t SAY I agreed with you.

    2. I didn’t say I AGREED with you!

    3. I didn’t say I agreed with YOU?

Remember this list. It will provide you with ample opportunity to demonstrate empathy and build trust, but it doesn’t stop there. Read on to find out more about putting this into practice through productive listening and dialog.

3. Engage In Productive Dialog

“A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That's why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.”
Truman Capote

It may surprise you to know that productive dialog involves more listening that it does talking! Essentially there are four levels of listening that we either consciously or unconsciously engage in during our interactions with executives:

Make no mistake about it. Download  is not the type of listening that will win the hearts of executives. When you’re downloading, you are clearly not in the moment. You might be listening but you are definitely not hearing what is said. If you find the conversation boring it’s likely because you have not taken the time to prepare or you simply are not being inquisitive. Even worse you may not even care. If this is the case, you, the organization and the relationship you are fostering are at risk.

Debating as part of your listening skills is a fundamental element NOT to create conflict but to resolve it and explore opportunities otherwise not considered. It may be a vehicle for you to listen with intent, by trying the following statements:

“I’m not sure I agree with you; help me to understand your perspective.”
“Based on some of my previous experiences, I have some concerns about the direction we are moving in, but I’m willing to try something different. How should we approach this?”

Debating is not meant to be argumentative for the sake of being difficult. It’s meant to allow both parties to consider alternative options. You might, however, be able to avoid heated debate by listening with empathy, and putting yourself in other people’s shoes:

“Wow, that must have been really difficult. I can’t imagine how you overcame that challenge.”
“I understand. What a great learning opportunity. You must have some great insight into how to approach this solution.”

The key to being an empathetic listener without looking like you’re faking it is sincerity. The definition of sincerity is as follows: not hypocritical or deceitful; open; genuine: a sincere person; sincere regret.[1]

Being genuine is critical, and whatever approach you take to being genuine during empathetic listening will come with high reward.

Suspension of ego is the level of listening we must strive for and constantly practice. Suspension of ego infers that you are genuinely invested in the other person’s experience; you have a propensity to ask more questions, and you rarely refer to yourself in conversation, except where you might claim, “I understand.” If you listen carefully in the next couple of days to conversations around you, note the number of times either you or the recipient of your conversation uses the word “I”, or the word “but.” If this is you, make a conscientious effort to remove this language from your day-to-day conversation and you will quickly notice your listening will move naturally to the level of suspension of ego.

Think about it, if you are using the word “I” more often than not, it’s likely you a) don’t understand the conversation and are trying to draw attention elsewhere (like yourself), b) you are not comfortable with the conversation, and are about to engage in debate, or c) you are simply listening and not demonstrating empathy. By using the word “but” too frequently you are most likely fostering an environment that encourages unnecessary conflict. The word “but” demonstrates contrast and objection. Use it sparingly and where possible replace with the word “and.” You might be surprised at how quickly the trust bank builds with this simple word.

It’s interesting to note that when active listening is combined with the four building blocks of dialog, the building blocks are heavily dependent on listening:

Step 1: Suspension of judgment – and decision making – when coupled with suspension of ego makes for some very rich dialogue.

Step 2: Identification of assumptions. Many debates occur when we address assumptions or exceptions to the rule. Put this on the table as quickly as possible, “Is this the assumption or is it the rule? Is it critical to address now?”

Step 3: Listen first then speak. Need I say more?

Step 4: Be inquisitive, then reflective. Far too often, we are not comfortable in taking a moment or two and really thinking about what was just said. There are no rules in any handbook that require you to speak and react instantaneously to every statement made by an executive. It’s really uncomfortable to do, but this will demonstrate to your executives that you are careful, thoughtful, and considerate of what was said. Take a moment, absorb, process and deliver a carefully articulated thought. This will no doubt be a major factor in demonstrating empathy and consequently building trust.

4. Avoid Being Manipulated

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
― C.G. Jung

There aren’t BAs out there who at some point haven’t felt that they have been manipulated in some way, shape or form. While it’s not a topic or even a word most of us like to address, it’s necessary to understand the impact and how to avoid being manipulated if we want to be a trusted advisor. I recall an incident that took place about six years ago, where I’m certain that my client was intentionally being manipulative to judge how well I would react in such a circumstance. It took me three conference calls, and some serious listening and reflection to realize what the situation was. When I called it out, a beautiful relationship was born and to this day we keep in touch despite great geographical distances.

Manipulate: to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner… [2]

Nothing positive can come from manipulation or being manipulated. Take heed and recognize these telltale signs that you may be, or are about to be manipulated;

Executives are playing good cop, bad cop with you. Of all of the manipulation angles, this one should be the most apparent. It creates unnecessary conflict to intentionally put in you in the middle. There are no winners in this unnecessary game. Threats, higher authority and escalating demands are all tell-tale signs that you are being taken for a ride and more importantly have missed the opportunity to engage in active listening and dialogue. I say this because in our interactions, both parties are responsible for how the interaction manifests itself. Don’t immediately blame an executive. Rather, think about what you are doing – or not doing - that may actually promote such behavior. Personal attacks and positional power are also tell-tale signs that manipulation is at hand. While most of you reading this may reflect on how difficult this might be to overcome, remember the four steps of listening and dialogue. Try to call out the executive in the most diplomatic way possible. It might go something like this:

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. Have I misunderstood <<file in the blanks>>, and should we consider a different approach to this?”

By approaching a situation this way, you immediately diffuse the opportunity for blatant conflict and imply that you are willing to work with the individual to resolve any misunderstandings. This in turn infers honesty and commitment, and quite frankly also gives you an escape clause. You may gain more credibility by suggesting that you may not be the right person for this opportunity and are not willing to compromise the integrity of the business or the executive. Use this only after you have deliberately exercised all active listening and the four foundations of dialogue, and there appears to be no other solution.

When addressing a situation where you suspect manipulation, stick to your values, suspend your ego, control your emotions and make this about the solution, not about you. Remember, this is not a tit-for-tat situation. It’s about what is best for the organization, and finally, in the great words of Kenny Rogers:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done.”

On to Part III: Influence and Manipulation...

Glen Brule - CBAPAuthor: Glenn R. Brûlé, CBAP, CSM, Executive Director of Global Client Solutions, ESI International, brings more than two decades of focused business analysis experience to every ESI client engagement. As one of ESI’s subject matter experts, Glenn works directly with clients to build and mature their business analysis capabilities by drawing from the broad range of learning resources ESI offers. A recognized expert in the creation and maturity of BA Centers of Excellence, Glenn has helped clients in the energy, financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, insurance and automotive industries, as well as government agencies across the world. For more information visit



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Jing posted on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 2:11 PM
Thanks for your article and your sharing about strategy for dealing with difficult situations.
I would like to add a little more to the great words you referred at the end, that is “when to come back and hold them again with more power”.
Sometimes in a difficult situation, you cannot break the obstacle by persuading and influencing the executives to accept your ideas, after all of your hard tries, you have to walk away or give up, because that may manifest you were in the wrong time zone, if you are lucky enough, you may found sometime later, they come back to you and grant you more power to do what you believed, that may caused by the facts that executives change their minds, or some organizational change underway, or they may encountered failure after pursuing their direction and strategy, and then they credit you and bring you on board again to conduct your ideas.
At that point, you should consciously realize the right time is coming and you need to take this opportunity and execute it carefully, therefore you may achieve more success than you would have, because you gain more trust and power and in a better position to do what you believe is right.

So mastering the art of giving up and know when to give up and do the right thing with right people at right time is also critical strategy to overcome difficult situations and dealing with difficult people.

Jing Cui
Dennis posted on Thursday, July 12, 2012 8:48 AM
... and remember always that you are a budding leader of consequence, the only steward/person responsible for your own life and your lifetime of achievement. If you cannot be a truted advisor to yourself, how can others accept you as a trusted advisor to them? As you would for any other project, ensure you have a current resourced plan including the business case, requirements, communication plan and other artifacts for your life. Remember that every encounter with every one, not just the executives, is both an expenditure of your limited resources and an investment in yourself. Be genuine and transparent in your self-reflection and your interactions with everyone else, adjust and follow your personal project plan, and you'll achieve success in the niche you identify for yourself. That strategic personal vision and its long-term plan, is critical to the development, steps and action necessary for each one-on-one encounter and the subsequent reflection you have. When you have wisely committed to your own best path, you can most wisely and best commit to and assist others. You will also have your best chance to flourish and enjoy the only project that is solely yours: the one life that you have, and through that life to bring joy to others as their trusted advisor. With confidence in your own plan, you will exude the confidence needed to assist others with their plans.
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