You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. My advice to most people–regardless of profession–is to listen more than you speak. For a business analyst however, the art of listening is a critical talent. But not just any listening–active listening is the particular style of listening practiced by the best business analysts.
Active listening is a style of engagement (intimate and bi-directional), wherein the business analyst not only records and processes the end user's information, but also feeds back the information to ensure accurate understanding. Here are three secrets to active listening with your end users.
Let Met Get This Straight
Paraphrase. It's important to put their words into your words instead of just repeating the same words your end user just said. There's some popular advice floating around to wait until a natural break in the conversation with your end user, and then replay the last sentence or phrase they said. Although this makes your end user feel like they've been heard, it really does nothing to confirm your own understanding of what they said. Feeding back your own interpretation of what they said makes them feel heard, confirms your understanding, and solidifies their requirements in your own mind.
Summarize. It's important to cultivate a talent for nutshelling what your end users say. Oftentimes, when talking with them about their requirements, they haven't yet had an opportunity to coalesce their thoughts. Practice listening to your end users, and then restating their requirements in a brief, concise summary. Listen for lists as your end users talk about their needs. For instance, if you pickup on three different sub-bullets to a particular requirement, begin the replay with, "So, I heard three aspects to this requirement…"
Memorize. This may seem counterintuitive, but it's best to go into a requirements-gathering meeting without a pen, notepad, or even a laptop. A word of caution–don't attempt this unless you have complete confidence in your memory. It's much better to take notes during a meeting, than to forget a critical requirement because you're overconfident about your ability to retain. However, if you have a great memory (which you can develop), your end user will have your full attention, and you'll have the greatest opportunity to hear and understand everything they've said.
There are a lot of different memory tricks I use, but my favorite is walking around the house. Think about the sequence of rooms you'll pass as you walk around your house, starting with your bedroom. You'll then have ten or so locations that you can anchor images of your end user's requirements as they explain them. To recall, simply take a mental tour of your house and the anchored requirement images will appear.
To be an effective business analyst, you must learn how to listen–actively. For the next meeting with your end user, hone your skills at paraphrasing, summarizing, and memorizing. Notice that interrupting, rambling, and pontificating are not on this list. You can't listen and talk at the same time, so use your time with your end user wisely.