René Raaijmakers
14 May

For technicians, communication can be likened to a black box. They know it’s important: once in a while, they have to deal with that dominant colleague or that coercive boss. But to get things done at their work, the logic of their story is of major importance. Jaco Friedrich, the trainer of soft skills and leadership at High Tech Institute, talks about the basics of communicating in the high tech working space.

Those who have been in the high tech world for several years will no doubt have experienced a major crisis at some point in time. One in which everything grinds to a standstill: the integration of the first prototype does not go without a hitch, colleagues sit with their heads in their hands and start to point fingers.

In a major crisis – one in which the company’s survival is at stake – management often resorts to extreme measures. It deletes the entire project or uses rigorous means to get things moving smoothly. A proven recipe for solution is to put together a team of the best experts and system architects. They receive a clear assignment and objective: save the project, at all costs!

Once a dream team has been formed, people often sigh with relief. Everyone knows: these people will sort it out. And often they do, very quickly: they have things running smoothly in no time. Why? Well, the experienced professionals are top experts, they know each other through and through, respond to each other with knowledge and ease and have a clear goal. The lines are short, they communicate well, and management gives them ample room to maneuver. The set goals take priority over anything else and within a few months, things are back on track. All’s well that ends well: marketing and sales are happy, and everyone goes home richer and more experienced.

Wonderboys

Why does everything suddenly run smoothly again after such a dip? Why is it that, at first, nothing works in the slightest, then in a matter of a few months, a small group of wonderboys turn it all around and get things going again? Technicians know it has to do with leadership and communication, but it’s often difficult for them to get the hang of it. “For technicians, communication can be likened to a black box. Everyone knows it is important, but nobody knows exactly why things are going well or not,” says Jaco Friedrich, the trainer of soft skills and leadership at High Tech Institute. “The good news is that everyone, even technicians, can learn communication skills quickly and efficiently.”

EPR

It starts with understanding each other well. That’s the underlying basis for good collaboration. This means not only being a good listener but also knowing how to make your point. Which is something that comes in handy every day, also at home. “It’s important to be sure that you understand the other person properly,” explains Friedrich. “And when you do that you must prevent yourself from drawing the conclusion that you do understand. Because then you notice later: shoot! I didn’t understand it at all. Then you usually have to pull out all the stops to straighten everything out again.”

A good listener

Being a good listener is one of the skills needed in order to understand each other well. You can train and learn how to do that. In the world of soft skills, it’s known as LSA, which stands for listening, summarizing and asking further. The principle is simple, Friedrich explains: “It’s about knowing for sure that you understand the other person and, in return, also knowing that the other person has understood you. This scientific fact puts one’s mind at rest: we understand each other, it’s fine. This means that if you notice that your partner in conversation doesn’t understand, then you don’t immediately insist on repeating what you are saying, you learn to switch. Instead of going over the same information you start asking questions and you try to find out why your partner in conversation looks at things differently. It’s a balancing act, steering and moving forward. It’s not that easy.”

Many technicians have little trouble getting into this. It becomes exciting when the message is critical. For example, if you have to point out to someone that they’re not fulfilling their agreements, or if you have to put into words that you’re disappointed with the contribution made by a colleague. “Then there’s a good chance that the relationship is at stake,” says Friedrich. There are, according to him, two errors lurking. The first is not to comment on it or only to comment on half of it, the second is that you become extremely blunt, so that your message is clear, but your relationship is damaged. Friedrich: “You don’t want either situation, so you need the skill to get the message across and maintain the relationship.”

These types of principles are discussed in the basic communication skills training course. “Here, we focus primarily on behavior. The course is also about why people do what they do. Sometimes you see that someone can’t say no, even when he’s at a complete loss at work. In fact, such a person should say no for reasons of personal preservation, but he doesn’t. That’s not because he has a speech impediment. It’s not because he can’t say the word no. It’s due to personality, commitment and the feeling of being responsible. With training, it’s really possible to change that. People who learn to deal with this will grow enormously in self-confidence.”

The stakeholders’ shoes

Most of the time, colleagues work best amongst themselves. Certainly, colleagues working on the same topic are quickly on the same wavelength. Technicians seek each other out, speak the same language. Usually, the problems only start when the size of development teams increases and technicians have to work together on large complex projects. In these situations, they not only have to deal with other technical disciplines but with stakeholders of all sorts: the production manager at the supplier, their own management team, the customer and even the end user. Coordinating with colleagues from other technical disciplines is often quite a challenge, let alone with managers who don’t hide their irritation when they hear the first technical jargon.

Within large projects, it’s often a case of motivating. How do you convince your boss that this rare specialist has to work for you one day a week? How do you explain that you need that one training course? How do you express the fact that with an additional investment of two million euros in that one module, the margins on the total product will be tens of millions higher? “There’s a great deal to say about that,” says Friedrich. “It’s not only about what you say, but about how you bring the message across, your use of body language and intonation.”

The trick is to put yourself in the other person’s place. “You have to step into the stakeholders’ shoes and know exactly where their concerns lie. Perhaps they’re responsible for content, safety or the financial budget. Technicians must respond and express their concerns in such a way that their conversation partner thinks: Hey, this is interesting for me! I have to listen to this.”

Friedrich gives an example: “Suppose there’s a problem with a bolt that shakes loose quickly. A manager will say: ‘Why should I care? Make sure you tighten it.’ But you do have his attention if you make it clear that the bolt in question is very difficult to fix, that it’s an expensive assembly and that there’s a high risk that the complex module will pop out at the customer’s in the factory, with the risk of escalation and potential damage claims. If there’s a hole in the boat, the other person can say that you have to bail the water out because the hole is on your side. You then need to make it clear that he’s in the same boat. That the boat belongs to you both. So, if you want someone to listen to a technical problem, then you have to translate the problem into something that affects that other person.”

Motivation to collaborate

Jaco Friedrich’s soft skill and leadership training courses at High Tech Institute are specifically focused on people who have to work together in a technical setting. In this, content plays an important role. In high tech, good communication is not there to keep it fun and make life rosy. Friedrich explains that this is what makes his training courses essentially different from the bulk of communication training.

Certainly, technicians also have to deal with keeping the relationship right and dealing with a dominant colleague or coercive boss. “But the logic of the story is of major importance,” says Friedrich. “In high tech, you won’t get there with just talk and manipulation techniques. In high tech, people have the attitude ‘I’m an engineer, I don’t buy into stories.’ So, your story must be right when you talk to colleagues. If you invite that one product development manager or talk to customer support, you must know what you’re going to tell and how. If your objective threatens to go wrong, then your story must be substantive in order to convince the other person that it’s in their interest to help you. This is the only way to get buy-in: the motivation to collaborate.”

Friedrich: “It’s all about numbers, crucial details, risk assessment. Sometimes these discussions can be quite tough. It must be exactly right. Meetings, reviews and conversations always rely on making the right choices. Of course, you have to keep relationships good and understand each other well and listen well, but communication is only a means to an end. So convincing, understanding stakeholders, it’s all about doing the right things together as a team. Otherwise, it will not work.”