Effective Communication for Engineers


Your communication skills affect your career prospects, the value you bring to your company, and the likelihood of your promotion. This session helps you communicate better in a variety of professional situations, including meetings, email messages, pitches, and presentations.


Hello everyone, and I'm so glad to be here with you all at TechLeague Conf 2023. Today we're going to talk about everything communications. I always wanted to learn about communication way earlier in my career. I wish it was something that taught to me when I was in college or even high school. When I entered workforce, I realized learning about communications has tremendous impact on how I show up every day to work. Even legendary businessman Warren Buffett always told group of his MBA students that communication was the one skill he wished he had learned when he was in college. Today we're going to talk about the four building blocks of communication that we all need to know when we're dealing with people every day at work or even in our life. We will talk about people, the message, the context, and effective listening. These four elements are present in everyday communication interaction we have, whether it's a presentation we are having or a small talk in the hallway, somewhere at work, or in the office. Well, research shows that strong communication is the cornerstone for thriving business, a healthy life, and even your career success. So don't leave all of that to chance. Before communicating, consider each of these four building blocks. As you walk to your next meeting, think about who will be there? What do I need to know about the people who are in this meeting? What kind of listener do I want to be? Before you hit send on your next email, ask yourself, how's the timing of this email? Is this email appropriate? Should I pop in for a quick chat instead? You are making communication choices all the time. So let's be mindful of those choices. Let's talk about the first building block, the people. Whether you are a sender or receiver of a message, it's important to think about others' perspective. People have their own perceptions. Think about the actual impact and also what perception the person you're talking to have about this message. We will talk about something called think, feel, and do model when dealing with people. So let's dig into it. Let's look at an example. I have a friend at work, or my colleague, and we have to do some project together. So we want to divide up the work. So I'll send her an email saying, hey, you edit the odd chapters and I will edit the even ones. Let's finish by end of next week. That's simple, right? Well, what could possibly go wrong? It's a great sentence. Well, if you don't manage your colleague's perception, the whole project and even your relationship could blow up. If your colleague takes this message as very strong and if she thinks or he thinks you're actually telling her or him what to do, that person may get offended. Or even they have not given any choice to pick the chapters that they want to edit and you are actually telling them what to do. Who am I to tell which chapters she or he has to edit? This message might sound very bossy or even overbearing depends on your relationship and your colleague's perception. Although my intent has been helpful, but what is the actual impact of this message going to be? When deciding on what and how to communicate with another person, we can consider the think, feel and do model. For the example that we had, let's think about the think, feel and do model. We will ask ourselves three main questions. With this message that we are sending to our colleague, what do we want our colleague to think? We want our colleague to think it's time to start the project. Let's start editing. We want them to think that they are considered to be a great team player and they're helping and they're creating impact and they're actually part of this project. What do we want them to feel? It is important because people not only think, but most importantly, they feel things. We want our colleagues to feel respected and also treated fairly. And what do we want our colleague to do? Well, we want our colleague to get started. If you are in a leadership role at your job or you are doing a tech leading at your job, there's a lot of times that you have to assign things to people. And this is a great model to ask yourself these three questions to make sure the message that you're sending is not overbearing. Now let's think about the example that we had and try to rephrase it a little bit with the think, feel and do model. So instead of, hey, you edit the odd chapters, I'll do the even ones, let's finish by end of the week, we will change it to something softer. Like to get the ball rolling, I suggest you edit the odd chapters and I'll do the even ones. But if you have something else in mind, please let me know right away. With this message, first of all, you are suggesting, you are not actually telling your colleague what to do, but you're suggesting a way of participation. And also you're opening the door for her or his suggestions on how she or he wants to approach the project. And you're actually saying to get the ball rolling. So let's just start the project. You're actually starting from the common ground. We are together on this project. We want to start this together. And to start this, I'll suggest this. This message is way softer. It actually encourages team building, team players, and actually makes your colleague feel way better because you're actually opening the door for more suggestions. Communications can get very tricky because all people have mental filters, certain levels of knowledge, personal concerns, preconceived notion that affect the way we interpret messages. Those mental filters decide and dictate how we decode and understand a message. The example that we had may feel very simple, but a lot of communication and misunderstanding I saw in our offices and at work were all around these simple messages. And it's all around the mental filters. So always consider the think, feel, and do model and know what the relationship is with your colleagues when you start to communicate and send messages to them. As an exercise for this part, which is the first building block, let's think about a conversation you have coming up soon. What assumptions your conversational partner have about your topic? What do you want the other person to think, to feel, and to do? Let your answers inform the words, the tone, and the body language you use during this conversation. So in a nutshell, if you want to be a great communicator, begin with the people building block. Do your best to understand the message from the other's perspective and leverage the think, feel, and do model. Now we reach to the second building block, the message. What gets transmitted between a sender and a receiver, and hopefully with a positive intent, is the message. The message in a conversation is more than just the words we speak or write. It's the nonverbal signals we deliver. It's the tone of our voice. It's the body language. If you give your best effort in a presentation and I approach you saying, good job, that's not going to be the tone that you want. That's going to be unenthusiastic delivery. As a sender, when you contemplate your message, keep in mind not only how you word or you write something, but also the channel you're using to send those message to. So let's talk about the channel. The channel may be a text on our email or phone call or a face to face conversations, a memo or in an inter-office chat or a voice message. But it's super important to use the right channel for the message that you are sending. And we see that a lot of times at work that we most of the time use the wrong channels for our messages. If you know I have to get my boss attention, I may send a quick text and ask if it's appropriate to call her for a conversation. Because the amount of email she receives daily, it's a lot. So if you want to make a swift decision, the channel, it would be more productive for us to use something face to face. Now let's speak of email. I was frightened but not surprised to see how many email threads we receive on a daily basis. And there is Ricard's group findings in 2015, which was a research firm published a report stating that the number of emails sent and received around the world, top 205 billion per day. I know I'm not alone who's sending and receiving a lot of emails every day at work. And this number is keep increasing 3% per year. So we should know when are we going to use email as an appropriate channel and when not. Whatever channel you're utilizing, you may also need to consider the message organizational pattern. So let's talk about that. So we do have two types of different channels. Ones are the ones that synchronous. Synchronous channels are the ones that information are sharing in real time. Think of some examples right now in your mind. And there are channels that are asynchronous. Asynchronous channels are the ones that information are sharing in different times. You don't have to be present. When we talk about synchronous channels, we use these channels when we want to build rapport, when you need to provide critical feedback, when you want to brainstorm on an idea, when you want to get everyone in the same room and actually get some results out of that communication. When a crisis happens, when there is a production issue and we need to come to the conclusion. On the other hand, asynchronous channels are the ones that you don't need actual in-time, in real time feedback out of that conversation. And they're very useful for when you are actually sharing some complex information. Let's say you have a technical document and you want people to have some time to review your document before they come with the feedback. Or you have to explain some complex concept to someone. Or you want to communicate a message and you don't need real time feedback or real time response. So synchronous and asynchronous. We also have channels that are lean or rich. And for lean channels are things like documents, emails, some forms of chat. Lean channels are really great when sharing complex information. When you have to share a very long technical design or you're actually changing something, you're changing a memo or a team building activity. Anything that people need to digest and take some time to read through it. And also you don't need any other cues out of this communication. You don't need to see people's body language or emotional cues on contacts. So they're really great for sharing that complex information. Rich channels are video conferencing, meetings, and voice when you are in real time talking to people. And those are really great trust building channels. So if you are in a communication that you want to build trust with people, that you're sharing something critical, and you want to see how people are going to react to what you're sharing, use rich channels. A lot of times when we talk about channels, I've been in meetings asking myself, oh my God, can this meeting be just a text or something on a Slack or even an email correspondence? Why are we meeting? Or I've been in an email chain where a group of people are just having this long thread of chat talking about something very complex. And I'm like, can we just schedule some time to talk about what we are going to decide? Because this is going nowhere. So we all have been in those mismatched situations between the message and the channel. So these are the examples where the purpose of our communication and the tool that we are using to communicate make people incredibly frustrating. Here's an example of an exercise that you can go through and organize these different examples of communication into synchronous rich, synchronous lean, and asynchronous rich and asynchronous lean. I will go through some of the examples here. When we talk about Slack, Slack is a synchronous lean media. When we have a quick question to answer of our colleagues, we just send a Slack message. If using a Slack, Microsoft Teams, or any sort of messaging platforms, that's actually a synchronous lean media. They work best when you want an answer to a simple question. There is not much complex things going on. So that would be a great way of sending your message through. We also have synchronous rich media, which is meetings or even voice calls. Those are great for interactions, team building activities. We talked about trust building. Rich media is really good for trust building. So anything you want to do with your team, you want to build trust, you want to increase team cohesions, these type of channels are great. Also, they are great for context sharing. They are great for increasing psychological safety within the team. And in case of crisis, if you need an instant feedback, an instant answer, it's really good to just get people together and come to a resolution. So use a synchronous rich media like meetings. When we come to asynchronous, usually asynchronous lean are Slack and email. Again, where you are not interacting directly with someone. Let's say you are just sharing a technical document, an RFC, and have people read it and then come back to you with it. So that could be asynchronous lean media. And asynchronous rich media are not very effective. There are not many examples out there. So that's a block you don't want to use. You actually want to lean on these three other blocks when you are communicating. So this slide is the answers to the exercise that we had. You can go through it yourself. And if you had any questions, feel free to ping me anywhere and reach out to me. As for the message, the second exercise that you can go through yourself is look into the ways and the tools that your team is using to communicate. Which ones are using the right tool and which ones are actually not using the right tool? Are all the tools you are using are purpose for the right message? And you can actually use the diagram to actually organize what channels your team are using. And if they are actually falling into the right intention for the message. So we talked about the channels. We talked about the message. Let's dig more into the message now because there are different type of messages that we actually send to people. And when we talk about work, we usually send two different types of messages. We send messages either to inform people or to persuade people. So when we are sending messages to inform people, we focus on the need of our receivers to understand what we are sending to. So we want to make sure our message is simple and concise and it's tailored for the receiver. Let's say if you are having a technical design, it's really important. How are you tailoring this message based on who are you talking to? Let's say if you're talking to a product manager on your team, your message needs to be very simple and very high level. If you're talking very technical, the product manager may not understand your message very well versus if you're talking to a tech lead of another team, your message needs to be way more technical to read. So the information that you're sending, if it's in an informed way, make sure it's simple and concise. Usually three points are the ones that we are following through. So what are the three main things you want to communicate and inform? What are the three main things you want your receiver to learn about what you're communicating? Be either informing or you're persuading. Let's say we have a technical design that we want to push through. We want to do a migration and refactoring and we want to persuade team of leadership to spend a time and effort on migrating this new technology to a new stack. In this type of messages, we want to persuade people. So we want to make sure that people are bouncing into our strategy. It's important for us to craft an argument with our main claim, evidence and reasoning behind the idea. It just needs to be simple and concise still, but it doesn't need to be tailored to the receiver anymore. It needs to be tailored to that argument that we are sending. There are some ways when we talk about persuasions and some frameworks that we can use that we organize our messages when we are talking to people. One of that is the problem and the solution. So you talk about the problem you're trying to solve and then you talk about the solution that you are actually giving. Super simple. Another one is reason, example, point, summarize. You talk about the reason of why are you doing this. You give an example and then you summarize your points again. For example, let's say if it's a technical migration, you say we want to migrate this library because if you don't migrate this library, it will cause a lot of additional tech debt. So we have to migrate this library to this version to prevent that. So you're summarizing your point. Another framework is what, so what, and now what. What are you going to achieve, so what, why are you doing that, and now what? What's the next step and action items? So for example, for migration is that we would like to migrate this library to the next version because if the migration doesn't happen, it would be a lot of costs down the line. So let's just get together now and schedule a meeting and talk about how we're going to achieve it. So then now what would be an action item and the next step that you're going to take? Let's talk about the third exercise that you want to actually test yourself in terms of persuasion. Let's say your team is hiring and you are on a hiring committee and your job is actually to persuade the candidate to come and join your team. You say this candidate is very, actually very competitive. They have a lot of offers from other companies. How are you going to persuade them to join your team and join your company? You can write a paragraph or two or you can record yourself talking and persuading someone to join your team. So build your pitch. Thank you. So we talked about so many things today. We talked about the four building blocks of communications. We talked about people, perceptions, message, channels. We talked about listening throughout the conversation. I hope this was useful for you. If you have any questions, I'll be available through the communication channels of the conference and also you can reach out to me via my social handles that are available and I will be on Twitter spaces later on that you can catch up with us there. So thank you for having me and it was my pleasure to be here and get to know you all. Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to actually get started by discussing the answer to the poll question. So as we can see, it's a little bit of a, I wouldn't say runaway victory, but soft skills are definitely in the lead at 70% with technical skills at 30%. What do you think of those results? Does that surprise you? Wow, that's interesting. That's super interesting to me. If this poll was 10 years ago, I'm pretty sure we get the opposite results. Technical skills gonna lead, but nowadays I think this is totally true, right? We can debate it. That soft skills, not that technical skills, not important. It's 100% sure it's important. But in order for you to get ahead with people who are, all of them are technically at a bar, you need to differentiate yourself with your soft skills. So I think that a lot of people know that already and the poll results show that. Yeah. And I think the key word there that you mentioned is growth, right? So it's not necessarily getting into tech or getting an initial position, but actually being able to advance in your career and make an impact where those soft skills really, really come into play, which is an important thing to note. So for those that have realized this and acknowledge that and want to become better communicators, so we have a question here. Where should I start if I want to become a better communicator? What advice would you give there? That's a great question. I would say start by understanding yourself. Know where your strengths are, know where are your areas of growth. Understand and observe how you communicate with your colleagues. We talked a lot about different channels, the message in the talk, really doing that exercises that are already in the talk. You can find in the slides are great starting points to analyze how are you communicating on a daily basis. So being more present in the four elements that we chatted about, right? The people, the message, and the channel. Being more present there and becoming a better listener. All of these could be the starting points that you can take. Yeah, that's awesome. It's really, I think it's something that people think you either have or you don't have, right? But just like how you learn technical skills, you can follow some frameworks, you can do exercises, you can put effort into it. But you being able to provide this roadmap and some of those real practical examples is super helpful for people who don't feel like they have it or know where to start. So we do have a question here from the audience. How would you approach an engineer who could improve their communication skills, especially when working remotely, but has difficulty taking feedback? So I think we may have encountered some people before who we just don't know how to approach this kind of more difficult situation. What are your thoughts there? That's an amazing question. We were asked it, kudos to you. And I think that's a scenario we get and we see a lot during our careers, dealing with people who has difficulties taking on feedback. And that's a whole different topic, the feedback itself. And coming back to communication and the element of people and their perception and preconceived notions that we talked about in the talk, when you're giving feedback to someone, you need to put yourself in their place and understand how are they thinking? Are they going to think in the way that I'm going to tell the feedback to them? So really putting yourself there and understand where they're coming from. What is it that prohibits them to really hearing you, to really listen to the feedback? You need to really get to that level of understanding with people and then know what is the best way that I can get this message through. Because it's just not about the words when it comes to feedback. It's about that words, it really sits with that person. And sometimes we just say something, but it doesn't sit. And that's not effective feedback. I do have a couple of blog posts around effective feedback and like so many tips that people can follow on how they approach feedback. But one of the ways are you turn the table to yourself, right? You start with analyzing yourself and provide feedback to yourself. I had this scenario before with a colleague who was very hard to give feedback with. And when I told my manager that I have feedback for this person, he was recommending me actually not going ahead and provide the feedback because of the history of this person. Everyone knows that it's super hard for him to actually accept feedback, especially when it comes to constructive feedback. So what I've done is that I flipped the table on myself. So we had a coffee chat. We just sat and I started chatting about everything I could do better, areas that I can improve. And I started to ask about his suggestions to feel him included in my growth. And then he actually asked me, what do you think about me? So he actually opened the door to receive feedback. So one way is just you create that psychological safe environment by being vulnerable first and taking the first step to be vulnerable in the conversation, make the other person feeling safe and get them into opening up and hearing your voice. Wow, that's an awesome story. I love too how you're leading by example in that case too. You're showing him what that looks like in order to how to be introspective, how to assess yourself in order to be more open to feedback and giving that person kind of the ability to do that on their own going forward. So wow, really, really great stuff. It's like we have kind of a lot of questions rolling in. So I'll get to the next one. I struggle with an issue that they, okay, so that's something that I also deal with. The question is, I struggle with an issue that I call over explaining things to death. And sometimes that muddies the point I'm trying to make. How do you recommend that I improve upon that kind of issue? Practice, practice a lot. So I think a lot of us struggle with this issue of like, we tend to chat over the point again and again and summarize the point again and again. There are a couple of templates, which I've shared some of those in the talk, like what, so what now what, right? You can learn to summarize just in that template and don't go over that. Another good rule of thumb is just three points. You want to explain something, don't go over that three points. And taking a lot of pauses, get used to pausing. And when I initially actually been starting to pause, it sounds weird because we are used to just talking, talking, talking. We don't want to stop and pause, but practice that, practice that in your conversations. The more you get to use the pausing, the more thought goes to what are you saying? The more processing time you're going to take to say something versus if you're just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. So give yourself that digest moments after every sentence, count to three. So if you say something, one, two, three, and then continue, then you will know in that count to three that, okay, that's enough. So I'm going to wrap. I think one of the main reasons of like oversharing, over explaining is that we don't think about what you're saying. So we constantly looping. We don't thinking about the structure of the, how are we going to structure our answer? And it is hard. It is hard to structure something in real time, but always those templates, if you practice it, you can always structure your words in a way that it's summarized and the audience will remember your points the best way. That's great advice. Yeah. Silence is golden for sure. Giving yourself time to think of that. Yeah. All right. So this next question is, I think is really interesting. This person has run into issues before with developers that they hire and they join the team, but then they end up not working out due to lack of soft skills. How can you interview someone in tech in order to see where they are soft skills wise? That's a really good question. Oh, well, you interviewed them for their soft skills too, right? A lot of times we have questions that only assess technical skills, right? We pass them through technical phone screen, we assessing their language, their ability to solve problems. That's all great. But do we actually put candidates in scenarios to assess their soft skills? Do we put them in a collaborative exercise to see how they work with others? Do we put them in a situation that disagree with them to see how are we, how they're going to take feedback? I do that a lot in the interviews. I would say like, okay, I like the path you're taking for your technical solution, but I disagree with this part. And the reason I do that a lot of times, I want to see how are they going to encounter disagreement and how are they going to handle it in interviews? A lot of people, they start thinking and they say, oh, okay, I understand. And they start asking me further questions to understand where I'm coming from and why I'm disagreeing with the way that they're moving forward. But some people, they start to get defensive. So you can differentiate how people can handle feedback in an interview. So make your question in a way that you can assess this different or important soft skills, like taking feedback, ability to learn quickly, like have phase questions that an interviewer like finish one phase, and then you teach them something on the interview. And with what you've taught them, they have to take it to the next level. So that will assess, are they able to communicate? Do they ask the right question? Do they try to understand first? Are they judgmental? And then there are a ton of software skill assessment questions, right? We can ask, like, tell me the last time you handled a critical feedback. Tell me the last time you gave feedback to your colleague. You can ask, like, tell me about a time that you wrote a really great design document and you communicated to the team. What made it successful? How did you align everyone on the team on the idea? So all of these questions can come up in interviews. And, you know, interviews is both-sided, so you can assess the skills that matters to you most. Wow, that's, I love that. I love the idea, too, of weaving the questions into a technical interview. So it's not like you're doing soft skills and technical skills separately, but you're seeing a holistic approach to how they work and thread those two together. So yeah, some really great examples there. And that's awesome. I think another question that we saw here is about, they used the phrase word sugar and maybe like polite terms or niceties, but maybe other ways to phrase this. But when you need to ask someone to do something, is it better to be direct? Just like, can you do this? Or how do you feel about using those words, sugar, polite, niceties? Like, oh, could you please do this? Or would you mind doing it to soften the question? That's a great question. And it has a lot to do with the culture that the person is coming from. And I saw that literally at my work so many times, where people coming from Asian cultures may get offended if you not use those words, versus like people maybe from Eastern Europe won't get offended, because that's natural to them. So this is a lot of factors going. Again, this is the people element. Is that the person I'm talking to, how do they prefer me talking to them? And you can observe how do they talk to others? People when we talk to others, we actually reflect our preference a lot of times. Do they use this word a lot? That means, okay, they prefer this words because they use it a lot. Or if they come to you and ask something, do they say please? Or do they just bluntly ask for something and they're okay with it? So it's elements of people and people with different cultures have different way of asking. And when it comes to bluntness, that plays a huge role. I'll give you an example of one example that happened in my career where I had an Indian colleague working with another person who was from Germany on the same team. And these two people had always conflict because one of them doesn't say no. So my Indian colleague looks like it is not culturally respectful to bluntly say no to somebody in their face in her culture. Whereas the German person preferred the blunt no over a lot of like, I'll do it tomorrow or maybe it would be like in two days, but it's never get done. So there was the culture mismatch in communication here where I was resolving conflict between these two people. It's like, okay, just know that this person is not going to say no bluntly because this person grows up to knowing this is not okay. This is not a respectful way of communication. So find other ways to kind of get estimates, right? Maybe put a document and put a deadline when it's going to get done and put a checklist and which one's going to get done, which one's not going to get done. But if you're looking for a blunt no, that's not going to happen. So to the question again, the element of people is super important. Know who we are talking to and are we actually going to use those respect elements in the words or like sugar words that we have to use. And also it's personal preference. If you like to use them, use them. And then that shows that you like to receive them somehow too. That shows your personal communication preference too. Yeah, that's super important, especially with remote teams and teams across all different global workspaces. So yeah, this has been a really, really interesting talk. I've learned a lot about how communication is about, it goes two ways, right? It's talking and listening. And so thank you so much for your talk and answering all of our questions. That is all the time that we have with you today, but thank you for being here. And yeah, thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you for joining me and listening to me.
36 min
09 Mar, 2023

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