“Engineers don’t have good communication skills.” I hear this all the time, and it’s a myth. It’s true for some engineers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve and develop these skills. This myth goes with the expectation that most engineers are introverts, which leads to bad communication.
The truth is, both introverts and extroverts can be fantastic communicators, as these skills can be learned and developed over time. The natural behavioral types of introvert vs. extrovert have nothing to do with actual ability to communicate, but rather identify how people gain energy from interpersonal interaction (and where they exist on the spectrum). Humans are naturally social beings and we feel purpose as we develop connections with others. Thus, developing an array of communication skills is necessary for everyone to be happy and healthy.
So let’s go over a few ideas and activities to help you level-up your communication skills:
Developing communication skills is a broad idea that covers a lot of ground. To start, engineers can develop their own communication abilities by focusing on the skill of listening. I love this quote by Stephen R. Covey:
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”
It’s important to practice the intent of truly seeking to understand what others are trying to communicate to us. We can’t be listening only to come up with a response if we want to be effective listeners. Do you see the difference? Underneath the action we take, we must care about the other person and what they have to say. You can often tell if someone doesn’t care about what you have to say, and the same is true as others are talking to you.
Listening Activity: Start up a conversation with a colleague and ask them an open-ended question. The question can be as simple as “How was your weekend?” or “How do you think we can solve this problem?” Then listen to them for three minutes straight without making any verbal response other than simple acknowledgements. Don’t interrupt to ask more questions. Just listen. See what you learn.
One common hiccup in engineering communication is explaining detailed, complex ideas in detailed, complex ways. Engineers understand the whole picture and are excited to share what they know. Consequently, instead of clarity and collaboration, explaining every detail can often lead to confusion. Reflect on this quote from Albert Einstein:
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”
Especially when communicating with non-technical people and working across teams, eliminate the use of jargon and share ideas using concepts the other person can simply understand. Often it helps to use simple analogies or comparisons that they can relate to.
Technical Communication Activity: Take the six-year-old test. Find a complex idea or concept that you know very well and try and explain it to a child or someone else who would be completely unfamiliar with it. See if they understand and can explain it back to you. Try teaching the same idea to at least three different people and see how you improve the simplicity of the communication.
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