One of the essential skills that you’ll need is how to communicate all the things related to your work. I am constantly baffled by the lack of education/preparation that college provides for one of the most critical assets you can have, regardless of your chosen career path. Be it Sales, Software Development, Customer Support, you name it, strong communication skills help amplify your strengths. In this article, I’ll be mostly approaching things based on a Software Development area perspective, since it’s what I’m familiar with, but the same lessons can be applied to any other area.
1. Start by listening
You cannot answer if you don’t know the question. Or rather, you can, but the odds of getting it right are minuscule at best. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, when programming something, you have to start by understanding the problem, not the solution. When it comes to communication, you have to do the same thing. Open your eyes and ears and listen. Know how people communicate, learn what the problem is, and understand what they are expecting. With that info, adapt your communication in a way that best suits the people and context involved.
2. Adapt the message to the listener
People talk to others as if they possess the same information, in terms of context and knowledge, as they do, I’ve seen it happen many times. This inevitably ends with either having to constantly repeat the same thing, or a half-hearted acknowledgment where the listener acquiesces to something they didn’t fully understand. In all likelihood, they will even need to pass the message along, resulting in a process strikingly similar to playing the broken telephone game in a foreign language.
You’ll need to get a sense of how the listener is involved, how much they know and what their perspective on the matter is. You then explain the context and the impact of the solution with simple and understandable terms. It’s possible that your message still won’t get through the first time, if so, try to arrange new ways/metaphors (possibly something more closely incorporating their knowledge and experience).
3. The right amount of words
It is difficult to understand what the right amount of words is. You always want to express your ideas perfectly, and that means you don’t want to talk too much nor too little. When you talk too much, you might throw people off if they’re not able to follow your line of reasoning, or they might plain get tired and nod off. When you talk too little, people might not grasp the full picture and fill the blanks with the wrong info. Yes, the Goldilocks principle is ever-present in communication.
It’s never easy, but you should strive to be concise and straightforward with your message. One thing that helps me a lot is to write it down, get some fresh air, and then try to see with fresh eyes, as if I were a client seeing it for the first time.
4. Feedback cycle
Picture the following: A problem comes up at 4 pm when the client notifies you. By 5 pm, everything is back up and operational. The way you communicate can dramatically change how a situation is perceived. Check out the following examples illustrating two distinct approaches to handle this same scenario. Notice that the time taken to deploy the fix is the same in both instances, and it takes exactly 1 hour to have everything working again. If you put yourself in the client’s shoes, how would you react to Example 1 vs. Example 2?
It’s all about how you manage expectations. The client has a big problem in their hands, and the best way to work through it is by helping them follow along with your process. In the second example, I assure you that the person on the other end will be much more at ease. By knowing where we’re at and having a better view of what’s going on, should they need to report it to someone else, the level of the aggravation felt will be greatly diminished.
Communication is hard because one size doesn’t fit all. Even if you know the listener, the context in which you’re delivering your message can influence the way you communicate. There’s no easy process, but there are simple principles to follow. And if you follow them and adapt, you will make your day to day a lot easier.