You might be wondering what FBI negotiators, TED speakers, and software architects have in common. If all of them want to be really successful, save lives, spread great ideas, or guide their clients into adopting their solutions, their know-how must include solid communication skills. Period.
You might be a project manager or coordinator working with a technical team and supporting them during client presentations, demo sessions or presale talks. As countless examples show, sooner or later the technical and non-technical worlds will collide. Is it possible to prevent such miscommunication and the frustration it brings? It is! Take a look at the lessons I have learned by working as a communication expert and trainer with technical people, and use them in your working routine. It can make your and your team’s lives easier.
1. Use analogies
Do you ever find yourself cringing when technical presenters dive into long definitions and lines of code appearing on the screen? When Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees said that “Metaphors open minds”, they couldn’t be more spot-on. In any presentation, presale, or business case study, one of our aims is to get heads nodding as soon as possible. Why not then get on the same page with everyone on the call with one simple trick? Need to explain what VMs (virtual machines) are to a business stakeholder? What if you compare it to sharing a flat with a bunch of people who have access to the same resources like a kitchen or a bathroom? Someone on the call is new to cloud computing? Get them to see a fridge – when you put food there, it stays fresher for longer and is available at any time, but you need to remember about the capacity. Now relate that to Dropbox, AWS or Azure clouds. Start with analogies or comparisons, get these heads nodding, and only then add the technical layer.
2. Descriptive language vs. judgement
In my role as a communication expert and a trainer I have seen escalations, or even removing people from project teams based on the type of language they would often use. “He’s always late for meetings”, “There is a problem with your existing worklogs”, or “The application is slow”. Do these ring a bell? What is the matter here? All three examples are loaded with judgement and can be seen as threatening or even aggressive – think of them as conversation killers. My tip here often is to use descriptive language and focus on observations as well as the impact they have on us, other people or our work. Wanting to give someone negative feedback? Why not specify that we have seen this person joining three recent meetings 15 minutes late and as a result, we had to keep the others entertained. There is a problem with worklogs? Say instead that what your team discovered last week was a lack of order in worklogs, and as a result, the whole process takes twice more time. Finally, how to say that the application is slow? “We observed that the existing application contains X lines of heritage code. This is likely to cause the application to crash or slow down” might offer a much more neutral way of communicating which leaves very little room for argument.
3. Become solution-oriented in your language
One addition to the previous section is the orientation we choose in our messages. This might be a by-product of culture, but we, Polish people, tend to focus our energy and attention on possible issues, gaps and problems. Such approach can easily generate friction when working with Americans who value positivity and concentrate on solutions. Think twice before you say that “We can’t migrate the views because we’re blocked”, or “It’s impossible in the next two months”. Refocus on the solution, and say instead that once the block is removed, you’ll migrate the views, or ask – “How can we make it happen in the next two months? What needs to happen to make it possible?”.
4. Expand your range of questions
What is another tested method of discouraging a potential client? Grill them with questions and then offer a ready-made solution in line with the “I already know their problem” mindset. While it’s important to ask, don’t forget that questions come in many shapes and sizes. Bombarding people with a lot of closed questions (Do you… Can you… Is it…?) often gives our conversation partners the impression we are interested in simply ticking boxes on some invisible checklist. How to improve this skill and not fall into the trap of expert bias? As the MIT professor in business consulting Howard Schein said – use humble questions. Start with gentle, open questions to which you really don’t have an answer. “What is happening?”, “How do you define X?”, or simple “Can you give me an example?” might be better choices. Questions will also come in handy if you’re faced with a “NO” from the client side. “No, we can’t implement it all” can be tackled with “What if we start with something smaller first?”. A better way of asking if we can postpone testing by two weeks could use a calibrated NO question: “Would it be a really bad idea to postpone testing by two weeks?”. Challenge gently and phrase your recommendations as questions which ultimately open a dialogue.
5. Learn from the FBI
Once you get really comfortable with asking, see if you can move one step further and learn from the masters of ‘tactical empathy’ – FBI negotiators. Chris Voss, an ex-negotiator who’s currently a business communication guru and a Masterclass teacher, encourages people to use labels and echo questions when they negotiate.In a nutshell, the first technique focuses on the emotional or unspoken part of the message to uncover deeper motivations. Imagine your client says that they don’t know if they can adopt your solution. Label the possible feeling with “It looks like you’re skeptical about our proposal”. Someone mentions the words “exploit”, “breach” and “security” a lot. Hold your horses and delay the urge to ask, and simply label the potential feeling or emotion: “It sounds like a secure solution is important for you”, and let people tell you more or correct you if you’re wrong. Echo (or mirror) questions also help to get more out of people without asking them directly. If your business partner shares that the proposal is too difficult, simply repeat their final words with a rising intonation: “Too difficult?”. Use it as an invitation to open the conversation more.
6. Don’t ignore the cultural aspect
We’ve already mentioned culture as a factor which definitely impacts our communication. The main lesson you might want to learn from someone else’s experience in this regard is: how we send and receive messages is often based on our own culture. Erin Meyer, a coach, an author and a consultant on intercultural communication uses a scale where countries are grouped into “application-first” or “principle-first” clusters. To illustrate, let’s look at how we structure our messages. English speakers (“application-first” countries) will favor starting with WHAT they are talking about, to begin with the answer to the question, their main story or takeaway. This is reflected in the rules of writing in English. The topic sentence, often the one you start your paragraph with, should already give the reader a summary of your main points. Only then move to your arguments, and finish with details, observations or research findings.
Having to prepare a presentation for French or German people (“principle-first” cultures)? Reverse the order and don’t be afraid to give them some background and rationale for your bold claims at the start (the WHY). If you are interested in this concept, make sure you check out the Pyramid Principle used by McKinsey consultants for their presentations; you might realize that it actually represents how we deliver messages in English.
7. Use small talk as a strategic tool
Last but not least, a few words about small talk. If you have ever heard from your team that small talk is useless, that technical people are not great at talking, or that it’s all about banal topics and killing time, let them think twice. What if instead, they began looking at it as a strategic tool which can help to connect better with the other side? Here’s a handful of tips on how this can be achieved. One, in your small talk conversations encourage people to discover what they have in common with their counterparts. Two, use active listening skills, focus on keywords in your partner’s answers and ask or comment on these (labels again). Three, have a small pool of anecdotes, success or fail stories with lessons learnt you’re willing to share to show that you are human at the end of the day. Four, give people sincere complements and positive feedback focusing on something small and specific (back to descriptive language). And finally – follow up on something specific your partner shared with you before.
Communication skills are no longer seen as ‘soft’ to differentiate them from the real, hard ones. Presenting, pitching or asking the right questions are all examples of human skills, invaluable to address and solve human problems. The technical and non-technical worlds don’t necessarily have to collide once people realize the power of language.
With a background in visual storytelling, film making and journalism, Jakub is now helping IT industry leaders spread great ideas and become effective communicators. He has 10+ years of experience in various training roles, used to run his own company, and currently works as a Communication Expert with one of the Centers of Excellence at Softserve. As a college student, Jakub used to work behind the bar, and then spent 5 years working as a high school teacher in the south of England. He believes that learning how to talk with pub regulars and rebellious teenagers were the most valuable communication lessons in his career.