When thinking about effective communication, five channels or forms are available. They are: listening, writing, speaking, visuals, and mathematics. Engineers and other technical professionals need knowledge and skills in all five areas to be complete communicators.
My Turning Point
My communication turning point, or defining moment, occurred during the fall semester of my freshmen year as an engineering student. The engineering dean abruptly entered our graphics class, apologized for intruding, and said something like this: “While you are here at the university, develop your communication abilities. Learn how to write and speak and how to use mathematics and graphics.”
I do not remember his exact words. However, like it was yesterday – it was about 50 years ago -- I vividly remember the message. I began work on my communication knowledge and skills in the dean’s four areas plus one I added, that being listening (Walesh 2012). That commitment has taken me to many places, that is, positions within organizations and travel to countries around the globe. Whatever success and significance I’ve achieved is based, in part, on continuously improving my communication knowledge and skills. And I am still working on it.
What About You?
If you agree that all five communication channels are important, consider the instruction you probably received in each of them. Begin with mathematics. Engineering and other technical education typically includes a strong emphasis on the use of mathematics and perhaps visuals or graphics, although neither may have been oriented toward communicating with non-technical audiences. Writing instruction and critiquing typically receive moderate to little attention in technical education programs. Even less emphasis is usually placed on developing speaking knowledge and skills and explicit instruction on building listening ability is rare. Accordingly, you may have some communication deficiencies and, listed in order of decreasing order of competence, they are likely to be in the areas of writing, speaking, and listening.
Your concepts, ideas, discoveries, creations, and opinions will contribute to making things happen only if you effectively communicate them to others. Effective communication, in the context of a particular situation, means using one or more of the five communication channels to understand colleagues and others and to accurately and convincingly convey your thoughts to them. The most exciting vision, the most thoughtful insight, the most elegant solution, or the most creative design are all for naught unless they are effectively communicated to others. Lacking such communication, the intellectual and other seeds that you plant within your organization and within your professional circles are not likely to sprout and bear fruit. You and your colleagues will be denied the bounty of your labors.
Stated differently, effective communication is necessary, although not sufficient, if you aspire to success and significance in engineering and other technical professions. There may be the rare exception, such as the non-communicative geniuses tolerated by others because of their extraordinary intellectual or creative gifts. Then there is the occasional recent technical program graduate who also happens to be the owner’s daughter or son and who lacks communication and other interpersonal skills, but is foisted on the other members of the organization. Unless you are a genius, are inextricably linked to the organization’s owner, or enjoy some other rare privilege, you need effective communication knowledge and skills to realize your potential.
You might be tempted to agree with the importance of communication, but argue that as an entry-level professional in a new environment or even an experienced engineer, your “plate is full” and, therefore, you will defer developing effective communication knowledge and skills for a few years. The fallacy of your position, if it persists, will gradually become evident as you find yourself thinking thoughts such as:
- I know I had the best solution to the design problem but we decided on an inferior course of action
- Mary and I started at about the same time, but she is increasingly having out-of-office contact with clients while “they” never let me out of this place
- Juan was selected to attend another valuable two-day seminar based on the “brown bag” summary of the last seminar he gave the other day, but my request was turned down
- I’m just not appreciated around here -- I think I’ll start looking around for other opportunities
Start to Take Action Now
Being good to excellent in anything, including forms of communication, requires understanding fundamentals and then repeatedly applying them. Famed football coach Vince Lombardi said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent Is Overrated (2008), argues that “deliberate practice,” not talent, defines the route to excellence in anything. He explains that “great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.”
Call it what you want, such as “perfect practice” or “deliberate practice,” but this basic reality applies to communicating. After learning the fundamentals, you and I need focused practice with each of the channels. Fortunately, we are surrounded by opportunities to practice the five means of communication.
We can take actions such as the following:
- For listening, be attentive – when someone talks listen for both facts and feelings, that is, practice empathetic listening
- For writing, volunteer to take the minutes, write a portion of a report, offer to summarize a contentious issue, compose a letter to an editor, propose writing an opinion piece, and/or seek to publish a professional paper
- For speaking, present a “brown bag” in your office and submit a proposal to speak about one of your projects at a state or national meeting
- For visuals, think of ways images can enhance a report and consider using props or videos to support your next presentation
- For mathematics, imagine the way equations or statistics might be used to explain a concept or describe a relationship
More generally, become a student of communication just as you are a student of your technical discipline. Read about communication fundamentals, attend communication classes and workshops, observe and analyze effective and ineffective communicators, and then, as suggested above, practice-practice-practice.
In closing, consider the words of engineering professor and writer Henry Petroski: “Some of the most accomplished engineers of all time have paid as much attention to their words as their numbers, to their sentences as to their equations, and to their reports as to their designs.”
Colvin, G. 2008. Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. Penguin Group, New York, NY.
Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering. Chapter 3, “Communicating to Make Things Happen,” John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.
To learn more about Engineering Your Future, and my other books, click here.
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