Throughout most of my life I’ve had difficulty communicating with others. As a child, I learned to overcome my problems with eye contact but as a young professional software engineer I still had a lot of difficulty communicating effectively. Engineers in general are not known for their interpersonal skills, and this was especially true with me. Over the past year I have made a concerted effort to improve my communication skill and thus, I have elevated my role from quiet developer to an outgoing representative of our company. Communication like anything else is a skill, and the only way to get better is with practice. Here are some key points that I’ve used to improve.
Speak the language of your audience
Those of us with technical jobs get very caught up in the details of our work. We speak in acronyms and code since this is what we experience every day. We can easily confuse people if we are not careful. You wouldn’t want to start talking about implementing an MVC architecture or using XAML to set up your GUI with the client’s sales representative. Unless of course your goal is to scare him or her away, which I wouldn’t recommend.
One of the most important things when talking to someone else is knowing who you are talking to. Who is your audience? Are they tech savvy professionals, engineers, sales people, potential customers? Depending on who it is, your language will need to speak to them. If you are talking to someone less tech savvy, you wouldn’t start spewing technical acronyms. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our work but special attention needs to be paid to our audience’s background. Speak the language of your audience to get your point across in a way that they can understand. Do your best to keep your tone of voice energetic and enthusiastic, but not forced.
Establishing eye contact with someone lets the speaker know that you are giving them your full undivided attention. This was something especially difficult for me growing up. When I was a child, I had a lot of issues maintaining eye contact while speaking. Eventually I just kept practicing looking into my teacher’s eyes as they spoke and it helped a lot. As an adult, I still found it intimidating maintaining eye contact with someone. One strategy that’s great to use is to visualize the person’s face as a triangle, with two points being next to each eye and one in the center of the forehead. The feeling you get when you look into someone’s eyes is intense, but is essential if you want to have a good conversation with someone. This lets them know you are listening to them intently and that they are your main priority now. You can also take a break from direct eye contact – it’s ok to look away for a second or to focus your attention on whatever your sharing or presenting during the conversation.
So much of what we communicate to others isn’t verbal. Keep good posture. When you are standing or walking, stand up straight. Slouching or bending over can portray that you don’t care or that you are not confident with what you are saying. If you are giving a talk, it helps to move your hands as you talk. Often an audience’s attention can drift so by using hand motions, you can direct their attention to points and keep their minds active. Another way to keep the audience’s attention when giving a talk is to walk around to different points of the room. Avoid crossing your arms, that’s essentially like putting a wall between you and others because it is a defensive posture.
When you’re having a conversation with someone, your priority should always be trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Our minds are very complicated and sometimes what we hear is not always what the speaker is trying to convey. If you want to clarify what the other person said or let them know you are listening, paraphrase back to them what you heard. This will let the speaker know how they are coming across to you and ensure you’re both on the same page. For example, someone says,”We might already work with a company like yours.”, you can use paraphrasing to get more information – e.g. you might then say, “So if I hear what you’re saying, you may have a similar service provider. Would you be able to confirm that and have another conversation with me about whether that resource provides the same services that we do?”
In meetings, it can be very easy to doze off or just let others speak while you sit silently. If you were to just sit there silently then what purpose would that serve? It’s important that you are in the meeting. That is, you are present, involved and not simply a part of the furniture. If you are in a meeting you should make it a point to respond to what people are talking about. You should always ask questions for clarification if you don’t fully grasp what they are saying.
Overcoming social anxieties
In my life, I have always had problems initiating conversations with people. When I did, it would often get one sided and I would feel constantly anxious just to get my own points in. What changed my mindset is trying to get people to talk more about themselves. People love to talk about themselves, this is only natural. However, we can use this to our advantage, even for those of us who are more introverted. Ask probing questions about the other person and what points they are trying to make. If you take a real interest in the other person you are talking to, allowing them to speak all their points, they will become fonder of you and then more interested in learning what you say. Because of these strategies, I now feel comfortable going up to any random person and talking to them.
Communication is one of the most important things for our careers and personal lives. As Engineers, it’s important for our success to not only live in our own heads but to take ourselves out and understand others. By collaborating with other wonderful minds out there, we can accomplish so much together.