Halfway into the presentation, a particularly talented engineer began to sense he was losing the audience. Eyes were glazing and whispered conversations were starting in the back rows. Thinking that the lack of interest was because they simply didn’t understand the core point of the presentation, this engineer paused, then launched into a detailed explanation of the theory underlying his proposition. People began to walk out.
A person’s greatest strength is often also their greatest weakness and nowhere is this truer than in engineering. Engineers pride themselves on their analytical skill but when it comes to communication, being analytical can be the source of many communication problems.
Focusing on details is a great attribute for engineers but not when the audience is made up of people who just want a 30-second explanation. Critical thinking is another prized skill of engineers but it’s easy to be seen simply as “overly critical” by others. Just about every skill and characteristic an engineer has can be seen as a two-sided coin, being both a strength and a weakness, depending on the situation.
Like so many things, awareness is the key to remedying the situation. And strangely enough, being analytical can be a huge advantage when applied to the subject of your own communication.
The first step in analysing your own communication is to determine your own natural style. Ever since the work of pioneering psychologist Carl Gustave Jung, it has been known that individuals tend to develop behavioural traits that influence everything they do, including the way they communicate.
Among the many behavioural profiling tools available today, one of the most useful for communication is the extended DISC (eDISC) system that uses two dimensions relating to introversion/extroversion and thinking/feeling. The resulting four quadrants are Dominance, Influencer, Steadiness and Compliance, and each of these have a particular communication style.
For example, C-types communicate using a lot of detail, are focused in their conversation and are logical in their arguments. However, others can see them as being highly reserved, as not seeing the big picture and not clear in their own view of the facts. Sound familiar? Many engineers have all or some of these characteristics but it would be a mistake to stereotype engineers into one quadrant.
There are many engineering roles that require the other four behavioural styles. For example, S-types are great at planning and explaining processes, I-types are good at selling engineering solutions and D-types are great at project communication and achieving goals.
Everyone has a combination of all of the four characteristics. By knowing which of the traits you are dominant in, and which traits you exhibit in what contexts, it’s possible to better understand how your natural communication style will impact others. This allows you to modify your communication style to build on your natural communication strengths and minimise your weakness.
A second step in the analytical process it to identify the natural communication style of others. This allows you to adapt your communication style to that which will be best received by the individuals you are trying to influence. For example, if you are a C-type trying to influence an I-type, you will really want to ramp up your enthusiasm for a short period and be prepared for lots of “small talk” before getting to the main point.
Because there are only four major natural styles in eDISC, it is relatively easy to become skilled in using this approach to analyse and improve your communication. Starting with yourself, you can draw on your own experience to understand your unique style. You can then use the eDISC framework to analyse communication problems moving forward and continually improve.
With others, you can analyse those that you are in regular contact with simply by observing their communication characteristics and building up a picture over time. Of course, in a team environment you can simply get everyone to do the eDISC survey.
The overall analytical process of understanding your own communication style, recognising the style of others and then adapting your style as appropriate is the basis of a full day workshop, Analysing and Improving Communication, being run by Engineering Education Australia.
Tim Kannegieter is the facilitator of EEA’s Analysing and Improving Communication workshop. He is an electrical engineer who has become a communication coach. He is the former editor of Engineers Australia magazine and has a PhD in communication across organisational boundaries.
- Dr Tim Kannegieter