Communicating to Non-engineers

Article by Jamie Cleaver CEng FIChemE

Jamie Cleaver discusses how effective communication beyond our specialism can help us be better at our jobs and offers his top tips for improvement

THERE’S a long-standing joke about engineers that goes like this: “What is the definition of an engineer? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.”

On the face of it, this seems harsh and unjust. However, humour has a habit of presenting us with the truth, often more directly than we might like. Notice the joke contains two communication breakdowns. First, there’s a breakdown about conveying the initial problem. The second breakdown arises in explaining the solution to the problem. This joke captures the frustration that some people might experience when interacting with engineers. In contrast, I have encountered many engineers who recognise the challenges faced with communicating technical information to people outside their specialism. In this article we will explore the challenges of communicating beyond our discipline boundaries and consider some ideas for helping us to do so.

Importance

If you’re like me, you signed up for chemical engineering because you wanted to get into the technical and practical aspects. Throughout my deep dive into the subject, it didn’t seem important to be able to convey technical concepts to less-technically specialised people. This all changed when I started teaching undergraduates – helping people understand the subject suddenly became a requisite. The light went on, and I started to see the broader benefit of communicating with others beyond my specialism. Effective communication beyond our specialism helps us to be better at our jobs, assisting us in activities such as understanding problems, reporting, presenting, collaborating, negotiating, leading, training, and mentoring.

Process safety relies heavily on effective communication to others who are not specialists in the area. In his excellent book, Still Going Wrong (2003), Trevor Kletz comments: “The whole of this book is about poor communication.” His rich collection of safety incidents contains several examples of poor communication by engineers. As a final thought on the importance of effective communication beyond our specialism, the Engineering Council’s UK-SPEC document requires all engineers to be able to “communicate effectively with others, at all levels” by, for example, “exchanging information and providing advice to technical and non-technical colleagues.”

The challenge

Having established the importance and benefit of communicating to non-engineers, let’s take a look at the challenges involved. What are the issues here? The first issue is the nature of the subject material. Our work often involves complex concepts and language, requiring specialist knowledge. It can be difficult to explain process optimisation, or the change in rate-limiting step on scale-up of a catalytic reactor, especially to someone without a technical background.

Let’s consider how our engineering training has equipped us to communicate. We tend to select an engineering pathway because at school we were interested in maths and science and had an interest in applied problem solving. We therefore moved away from arts and humanities subjects that involved comparing and contrasting facts and opinions. At university, our engineering training involved sufficient communication to understand the exam question, write up a lab report according to a template, and sufficient interpersonal skills to avoid fighting in design project meetings. Maybe this is a bit harsh, however, in contrast, our fellow arts and humanities students were educated through debate and discussion, constructing written and verbal arguments built on logic. Consequently, their communication skills tend to be in different leagues from ours. This might go some way to explaining the wry smile from non-engineers when recalling communications with engineers.

Our work often involves complex concepts and language, requiring specialist knowledge. It can be difficult to explain...especially to someone without a technical background

Communication principles

In order to explore scope for improving our communication to non-engineers, it makes sense to review some key principles of communication.

COMMUNICATION IS A TWO-WAY PROCESS

The act of speaking or writing constitutes transmission of information. Communication only occurs when someone receives the information. We tend to associate communication skills with transmission: making effective presentations or writing informative documents. There’s certainly much to be gained by developing our transmission skills, but this is only half the picture – we must be mindful that reception skills are equally important. These are easily overlooked, but there’s much to gain if we develop our ability to listen attentively or read information without bias.

COMMUNICATION REQUIRES EMPATHY

Empathy is usefully defined by Alvin Goldman as “the ability to put oneself in the mental shoes of another person, to understand their emotions and feelings [and expectations].” Why is this important? Well, communication involves emotions and feelings as well as facts. Let’s test this. You get asked to present data from your recent work. During the presentation, you get praised for its quality. It makes you feel good. Or, you get criticised during the presentation, which makes you feel bad. In both cases the data carry an emotional content.

Being able to tune in to the emotions, feelings, and expectations of others can really help us optimise our message, whether it’s by email, presentation, document, or conversation. If we’ve some idea of what’s going on for the person transmitting we can receive information more clearly.

It’s equally important to be able to tune in to our own emotions using self-empathy. Our emotional state will influence how we communicate, for better or worse.

ATTENTIVE LISTENING

Listening is one of the most powerful aspects of communication. Whether you consider yourself a good or poor listener, it’s worth asking yourself how you might improve. Engineers are experts in diagnostic listening. We are problem solvers, so we listen for the facts, develop an understanding of the situation, and then we respond with suggested actions. This serves us well when communicating with other engineers. However, diagnostic listening often falls short, especially when communicating with non-engineers. During diagnostic listening we develop our hypothesis. Our listening becomes selective as we subconsciously sort right from wrong, and relevant from irrelevant. We therefore don’t get the full information.

Rather than listen for the facts, it’s more constructive to listen for the person. When we do this, we are picking up on the emotional content as well as the facts, and something transformational happens: the speaker starts to feel valued and appreciated. It’s incredibly positive for both parties. This concept alone, when applied well, can transform the quality of communication between engineers and non-engineers. However, it requires the listener to be genuine, respectful, and to suspend diagnosis. 

BODY LANGUAGE

A large part of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal. It therefore makes sense for us to develop an awareness of body language – posture, gestures, and expressions. The static information we get from people is of limited use. Folded arms might mean the person is feeling defensive, or they might just be feeling cold. The dynamic information is much more useful. Notice how posture, gestures, or expressions may change as a result of some event, like someone else joining the meeting, or moving to a new topic of conversation.

PEOPLE ARE WIRED DIFFERENTLY

In a stressful situation at work, different people react in different ways. Some may tend to withdraw and focus on facts. Some may get quite bossy and focussed. Some may get more emotionally expressive. Others might try to bring harmony and stability to the situation. The people that you “click” with are usually the people whose communicative style is compatible with your own. The people that you don’t click with are usually operating with a style that’s incompatible with your own. I found this to be something of a revelation for me, and it’s helped me to get the best out of work relationships that I had previously written off. Being aware of different operating styles can also help you communicate effectively with non-engineers. For further reading on the useful theme of ‘social styles’, I would recommend visiting tracom.com for starters.

Suggested actions

Having reviewed some of the principles of communication, here’s a compilation of suggested actions to help us be more effective at communicating with non-engineers.

  • Plan: It’s worthwhile investing some time and effort into being clear about your message and aims. You can then optimise the content structure. Similarly, if you are on the receiving end of communication, it’s worthwhile planning. Ask yourself what specific information would be useful. For example, if you are attending a presentation on some new technology, there might be some key aspects that are important for you.
  • Empathise: Ask yourself, what might the other person be expecting or feeling? This gives you a chance to build a bridge to convey a complex concept.
  • Listen: Try to move from diagnostic listening (for the facts) towards attentive listening (for the person). This shift alone can have a hugely positive impact on communication with non-engineers.
  • Tune in to body language: Remember to watch for shifts in body language. They are real-time cues for underlying feelings and can therefore help you empathise.
  • Set the context: A common cause of communication breakdown arises when engineers launch into a technical topic without adequately establishing the context. This quickly causes people to disengage. It’s worthwhile covering the backstory, even if it seems like repetition. Yes, it may be stuff that they should already know, but it helps people to follow you.
  • Use a narrative: There’s a reason why wisdom is passed down through generations in the form of stories. They are memorable. It’s incredibly powerful to frame your technical work as a narrative, with flow and continuity. People can follow it better and can retain more.
  • Use analogies: We can help non-engineers to understand quite complex technical subjects by using relatable analogies. I frequently use kitchen analogies when explaining chemical engineering concepts. For instance, making coffee involves simultaneous heat, mass, and momentum transfer. I use this everyday kitchen experience to help non-engineers get their heads around transport mechanisms.
  • Ask open questions: Our diagnostic problem-solving minds often lead us to ask closed questions that illicit a yes/no/maybe answer. Sometimes this is useful, but it tends to close down the communication. It’s worth noting the benefit of asking open questions that start with who, what, when, where, or how. These give opportunity for people to explore their thoughts. You get a fuller picture and the speaker gets to feel appreciated and valued if you listen to them attentively.

Closing thoughts

There’s always headroom for communication skills development. We’ve covered the main aspects of communication that might help you get better at connecting with non-engineers. Taking these on board, you might like to think about some future challenges in this area. You might, for example, be faced with having to represent your company or your technology in discussions with opposition groups or the media. Alternatively, you might have to deal with conflicts at work or participate in business negotiation. The concepts presented here are all useful and relevant starting points for these more challenging situations. Remember, this is not a theoretical subject. We develop our communication skills through reflective experiential learning.

Article by Jamie Cleaver CEng FIChemE

Freelance trainer, facilitator, and contributor to university teaching and research

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