stressed engineer

Engineers: Here’s How to Avoid Those Common Communication Mistakes

Humans have a broad and rich communication skill set which no other species comes close to matching. This allows rapid and rich information transfer and conveyance of concrete and abstract ideas. Verbal cues like inflection, tone, and speed allow people to express intent as well as concept. Body language like stance, posture, and foot position complement the verbal cues and subconsciously reinforce them. Letters and pictograms record our thoughts for future generations to ponder.

A dog bark communicates danger, but a human warning communicates the same danger as well as how to deal with it. So with this wide and deep ability to communicate, why is it that so many of us aren’t good at communicating? Engineers in particular are notorious for being poor communicators. I’ve got my thoughts on why, but that’s another blog for another day.

In the A/E field, effective communication is vital to meeting due dates, conveying intent, understanding code issues, and explaining design decisions. On every project, we make decisions that will cost the owner money and we need to clearly explain why. When competent communication occurs among the design team, great things happen. So how do we communicate better as an A/E team?

1. Translate tech-talk

In general, engineers communicate best with other engineers, and even then, only when they are on parity with each other. Try having a structural engineer carry on a discussion with an electrical engineer. Hilarity ensues! “Explain like I’m five,” or ELI5 to all you Redditors, is good to remember when trying to explain complex engineering concepts. Break down a complex concept using common analogies everyone understands.

2. Be prompt and responsive

Issues occur and clients need answers ASAP. Almost without fail, major issues crop up when you have the least amount of time to deal with them. A simple email response letting the client know you received their email or voicemail and will respond when you get through with what you’re working on goes a long way towards keeping a situation from growing out of proportion.

3. Explain the ‘Why’

One word answers to architects is partly why engineers are stereotyped as they are. Whenever you solve a problem, you follow a process guided by logic and reason. People want to know this process, especially when money is involved. Question from architect: “Can I have multiple services to my building?”. Typical engineer answer: “No.” Proper engineer answer: “No, the code won’t allow this because we don’t meet any of the exceptions for capacity, building size, different voltages or multiple occupants.”

4. Speak

Emails are easy, fast, one-dimensional communications and they excel at providing objective information like directions and data. They should never be used to carry on a conversation. You can’t convey intent or feeling via email, so your words are open to interpretation by the recipient and their current state of mind. Pick up the phone and have a conversation. You will quickly gauge the severity of an issue with a conversation and be able to rapidly troubleshoot solutions. Follow up with an email to summarize the conversation and the decisions made.

5. Listen and ask

Listen to the person speaking and understand what they are saying. Don’t just hear them.Be attentive. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, ask. I don’t know all the terms a structural engineer uses and can’t visualize her solution in my head. I don’t want to misinterpret her intent because I might create unintended consequences, so I ask questions to make sure I know what’s going on. Ignorance is excusable, willful ignorance is not.

I hope these tips help. I know they’ve helped me greatly over the years.