Communication: the Rate-limiting Step

Article by Jamie Cleaver

If people are distracted by their mobile devices during meetings, then the meeting is likely to become inefficient and frustrating

WELCOME to the first of a regular series of pieces focussing on professional skills for chemical engineers. To kick things off we will take a look at communication.

According to Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “communication is the most important skill in life.” Let’s test this statement. Is communication important? Without it we wouldn’t be able to interact with other people, so I guess that’s a yes. Is it a skill? Well, it’s something we can get better at, which aligns with what we understand as a skill. If Stephen Covey is right about communication being so important, we should be consciously and actively developing our communication skillset.

In engineering, communication is how we get things done. To use a chemical reaction analogy, communication is often the rate-limiting step in the process. We convey complex technical concepts to others. This can be challenging, even when communicating with other chemical engineers. However, you may have noticed that scientists, and engineers from other disciplines speak a different technical language, making communication more challenging. Other professionals, such as legal or financial people may have a limited technical vocabulary and knowledge, increasing the challenge still further. The effectiveness of our communication becomes critical when dealing with process safety, hazards and loss prevention.

Given these challenges, it a bit of a paradox that our engineering education hasn’t helped. Arts and social science students have had communication hard-wired into their education in the form of discussions, debates and seminars. Engineering students, on the other hand, have tended to work individually, focussing on convergence to the 'right' answer. Group work at university often leaves engineering students frustrated and puzzled because they are not well equipped to communicate their technical ideas.

When I first started out as a fresh graduate chemical engineer, I focussed on the technical challenges. They were of most interest to me, and were the reason why I became a chemical engineer in the first place. I was unaware of my shortcomings as a communicator, and even worse, I mistakenly thought I was quite good at communicating. When conversations went wrong, it was never my fault; the other person was clearly a poor communicator! Of course, communicating technical things to non-technical people was just not possible because they wouldn’t get it. I can remember a nice young woman asking what I did, and keen to impress her, I spoke in that language known as techno-babble. She must have thought, “What a jerk!” Needless to say, I didn’t get a second chance to make a good impression. A few (several) years have passed since then, and experience has taught me that one of the largest gains to our professional effectiveness comes from improved communication skills, and the associated skills of team-working, leadership, creative problem solving and mentoring.

I frequently ask groups of engineers to list the kind of situations in which communication challenges arise. The list typically goes like this…

  • Meetings
  • Emails
  • Giving presentations
  • Conveying technical information to non-specialists
  • Report writing
  • Face-to-face negotiation
  • Face-to-face disagreements
  • Working across disciplines or cultures
  • Webinar or video conferencing
  • Giving instructions
  • Giving feedback

Each of the above themes breaks down into more specific challenges. Let’s take meetings for example. Meetings can falter for many reasons; the wrong people in the room, control that is too strict or too loose, lack of focus, etc. If people are distracted by their mobile devices during meetings, then the meeting is likely to become inefficient and frustrating. Challenging situations like these can be overcome by a bit of insight, and an opportunity to apply and review various techniques and approaches.

Hopefully I have got you thinking about your own communication skills. Can you identify specific, communication-related, rate-limiting steps to getting things done? What sort of catalyst might you need in order to help the process along?

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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