Communicating so others hear
Your goal in oral communications is for your audience to hear what you are saying and, potentially, do what you want them to do. It’s not just for you to talk. The goal of this article is to point out why communications skills are critical in your career and, specifically, why seeing things from another point of view helps your effectiveness.
It’s all about me
Human nature is such that a good portion of the time we act like the world revolves around us. It’s not because we’re all narcissistic; it’s just that most of the time we’re busy just keeping up. You may be familiar with the term WIIFM—What’s In It For Me? Frequently, in communications what’s going through the mind of the person you’re talking with is: “What’s in it for me to listen to this person? Should I just politely nod my head but think about what I want to think about?”
An effective communication tool is to look closely at where the person or audience with whom you’re communicating is coming from and approach them with that in mind. Think of your favorite products; it’s amazing what the designers thought of when they designed them, isn’t it? It’s like they had you in mind. As an engineer, you know a lot of good thinking and research went into why people would want such a product and how they’d use it before specs were written and product developed. You probably wouldn’t think of designing a product without a good set of specs first. Otherwise, what would you design?
People interactions are similar—we are not robots designed to hear and respond to factual, objective statements. Instead, how we feel affects what we hear and how we respond. So, to communicate so others hear, consider your audience ahead of time: What’s the best way to reach them? How will they react to what you’re saying? How do they feel about this topic? Those are critical components in successful communications.
One way to increase your oral communication skills is to participate in a personality profile exercise such as Myers-Briggs. It gives you insight as to why you are the way you are and in turn dramatically increases your awareness of how others think.
A book by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, Please Understand Me, offers a practical way to implement what you learned in Myers-Briggs. It asks a number of questions and uses your answers to quickly give you a sense for your personality profile. Then, it exposes you to other types of personalities, which can be deeply insightful. For an engineer like this author, that experience was an immensely helpful insight early in my career. Understanding the wide range of ways people think forced me to consider others’ perspectives while communicating, rather than just my own. Effective communication skills were clearly a factor in my being given the opportunity to step into executive management.
So what, who cares?
Another way to improve your communication effectiveness is to ask yourself, “So what, who cares?” about what you’re saying. Be brutal—your audience is! Answering that question will make your communications brief and to the point. An engineer who can effectively communicate is much more valuable and, in fact, invaluable.
Most engineering curricula don’t include much nontechnical learning, so unless you’ve been gifted with those talents or participated in a lot of extracurricular activities to develop them, it’s helpful to have some pointers about soft skills like communicating. That’s why this column focused on the benefits of taking the perspective of others to help your career.
Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on energy efficiency, product-to-solutions transitions, and strategy. He has facilitated meetings for the West Coast Zero Net Energy Coordinating Council, Daikin, Danfoss, and the National Conference on Building Commissioning, and has authored articles for industry publications. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.