on October 30th, 2007

Whilst trucking through Toronto this week (and getting sunburnt, despite it being October), I was intrigued by a recent problem between two of our offices due to the lack of proper communication. In this so-called connected world with email and mobile phones, communications between people are perhaps even worse than ever before.

A successful engineering firm is based on outstanding communications – both internally and externally; to clients and suppliers – something particularly neglected by engineers as we love technical stuff. Particularly difficult for engineers working in situations where the language spoken is not their own. I always feel sorry when I meet an eminently qualified and experienced engineer from overseas who can’t communicate in the local language (in my case English). His/her employment and promotional prospects are immediately jeopardised. Technical skills date fast and can be updated without too much angst. The ability to communicate, however, is extraordinarily difficult to learn as an adult and reading, writing and listening/talking will remain critical throughout your career.

Some suggestions for engineers bent on improving communication skills. (Which by the bye, I keep having to remind myself):

· Prepare in your mind exactly what you intend to say – it may need some mental practice. Ensure it is expressed clearly – remain focused on your intent. Anything complex will be lost.

· Ensure the person is at the same technical level as you are viz a viz the topic being discussed. If a ‘yes’ is given in response remember this may indicate a complete lack of understanding.

· Guard against this ‘Yes’ mentality. Encourage feedback focused on the issue you are communicating (this clarifies for you that the message has been understood). Converge on a common understanding by reinforcing points and getting confirmatory feedback that you are on the same wavelength.

· Understand the culture and background of the person you are dealing with to help you guard against misunderstandings.

· Use graphics to illustrate points – as engineers this is our stock-in-trade. More so than any other profession (apart from showbiz perhaps).

· Learn from other great communicators. I marvelled at one engineer who grabbed books, pieces of paper, pens, cell phones and other props to build a model on the table in front of us to describe a new process plant construction.

· Track non-verbal cues – looking up at the ceiling or staring blankly at you may mean a loss of comms.

· Listen effectively and actively. Keep an open mind and remain flexible to the ideas of others.

· Watch out for the misinterpretation of words – especially technical words in different languages

· Do not dominate the conversation. Be an active listener. And listen to yourself too – ensure you are not just saying, ‘blah blah….

Above all – be enthusiastic, positive and avoid being boring.

Finally, email – a great medium to communicate with, but sadly abused. It is not to be used for angry messages, humour or sarcasm (unless you know the person) or patronizing instructions. We like to send emails in these circumstances, but face to face meetings are the best. Due to financial difficulties, one of the local businesses down the road fired their 20 employees with an email – to avoid unpleasantness. The consequences for the owners of the business were worse, understandably.

As support, email is great to share complex engineering information. It is a useful means of providing pre-reading material before a meeting. As a follow-up it is a handy means of confirming specific technical data or contractual arrangements.

Think before you send the email – read it again carefully to ensure the message is accurate and without ambiguity either in terms of content or tone. I always visualize my emails being mailed to everyone by mistake and imagine the fall-out.

Face-to-face and the phone are still the best ways of communicating. Think of email as enhancing this. Not as a replacement. Pick up the phone or where possible stretch your legs and speak to the other person.

As engineers, make Anne Lindbergh’s suggestion, your target: “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.”

Yours in engineering learning


Thanks to John Kline (Leaders Communicating Effectively) of Troy State U.

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