Effective Communication and the IT Specialist �

By Laurent Duperval

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In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath mention the "curse of knowledge" and define it as follows: once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.

When IT professionals fail to take this into account, it can become frustrating for them and for the people who need to communicate with them.

I come from a programming background, where everyday parlance is rife with jargon, acronyms and terms that mean nothing to people outside the IT industry. As programmers, we become smug because of our technical knowledge and think badly of people who do not understand our language. We've even developed certain expressions for that: the problem is between the chair and the keyboard, this is an ID-ten-T problem (an ID10T problem), and so on.

This attitude, if left unchecked, can undermine a programmer's career progression and also can affect a company's bottom line. In some companies, this has become so bad that people are unwilling to speak to anyone in the IT department. This prevents any sort of cooperative dialog when problems arise. To people outside the industry, IT specialists are rarely considered effective communicators. Why do they have such a bad reputation when it comes to communication skills? There are a few reasons:

Lack of training. A search for "communication" in Google CS Curriculum shows that almost all communication courses are for hardware and software communication, while precious few courses are devoted to human communication. In corporations, communication and soft skills training is provided for managers and team leaders, but not as often to the technical front line.

Lack of awareness. While well-intentioned, a highly technical individual may not realize that what he says is not being understood by his audience or listener. When the listener expresses this concern, the explanations become more technical instead of becoming less technical. After a while, the listener may just give up and say "I understand" to stop the torture, not because he truly understands.

Laziness. When you explain the benefits of a development tool, you don't use the same language for programmers, accountants, or CEOs. It takes effort to take your expertise and explain it in layman's terms. It requires understanding the other person's perspective; it requires changing your language to adapt it to the listener; it requires time and patience. Not everyone has the time, nor the inclination, to do so.

Low self-esteem. This can be seen when we require our audiences or our clients to raise themselves to our level, to speak the same language we speak. If they are unable to do that, we act as though they aren't worthy. This can be a mask for an inability to speak in language that can be understood by non-technical people. It also can be a way to show power over a peer. However, when this behavior is prevalent it shines a bad light on IT experts in general.

So, how can the IT specialist overcome this barrier?

First is a change of perspective: realizing that being able to share and communicate ideas is as important, if not more, than purely technical skills. Jargon and techno-speak is useless if nobody understands your meaning. Along with this change of attitude, there needs to be a change of awareness in everyday communication. It requires monitoring what we say and how we say it, in order to gauge whether we are communicating effectively or not.

Some areas to watch for are:

Never assume: I once heard an entrepreneur talk about his business, which was a "Nordic spa." He spoke about the particular issues specific to this kind of industry, the financing headaches it created, and other similar situations. I had no idea what a Nordic spa is. At this writing, even Wikipedia has no idea either.

The entrepreneur's big mistake was that he assumed the audience knew. His bankers probably knew, his partners knew, he evolved in an environment where most people knew what a Nordic spa was. Then he assumed every person in that particular audience knew. If I am any indication, he probably lost part of the audience.

He could have easily avoided that mistake by simply saying, "For those who may not be aware, a Nordic spa is one where you alternate hot and cold baths in order to achieve spiritual and physical purification."

Dumbing down is stupid: the dictionary has two definitions for dumb. One is "unable to speak" the other is "stupid." Looking a little further, the definition of "stupid" is "lacking intelligence." So dumbing down one's words would literally mean speaking to one who lacks intelligence. It is an error to think that because the person we are addressing doesn't have all the knowledge and understanding of our industry, that he or she lacks intelligence.

Our job, as experts in our field, is not to "dumb down" what we say to others but rather to adapt it, to focus on what is most important for them. Don't patronize, don't act aloof, don't be annoyed. Just explain things in words that reflect the other person's reality. Of course, this requires more effort on the expert's part than on the layperson's part.

Listen attentively: listen for the words used by the other person but watch for other clues also. Listen to the tone of voice, watch the body language and posture. People (men especially) do not like to admit that they are wrong or that they don't understand.

If I don't understand something, I may not say it for fear that I will be perceived as incompetent or weak. When you ask me "Do you understand?" and I reply "Yes," I may be doing so even if I don't really understand. How can you pick up on it? Did I sound hesitant when I answered? Does my body language look like that of a confident person? Or did I drop my shoulders and lower my head?

These, and other similar clues, scream that I don't understand, but I am unwilling to admit it. If it is important for you that I understand, then you need to validate that I am saying the truth.

Ask questions. If your client or your listener doesn't understand, you need to ask questions. The questions should help you figure out where there is a gap in understanding so you can close it. Questions that use non-threatening language are more effective.

What is non-threatening language? It is a way of speaking that ensures your listener does not put herself in a defensive position. When someone is defending herself, it inhibits clear communication. How can you make use of such language and questions? If the person has admitted that she does not understand, ask her to be more specific about what she doesn't understand. Better yet, ask what she does understand and fill in the gap.

If you are unconvinced that the person has understood, put the onus on yourself: "Just to make sure I explained myself properly, can you tell me what you understood from our discussion?"

Use metaphors and other images to explain difficult concepts. It is harder to grasp abstract concepts like directories and inodes; it is easier to understand folders and documents. Metaphors, images, and comparisons are good ways to illustrate your words for the other person.

Human beings tend to process information as images not words. The more visual your explanations, the better. If you cannot explain it in a metaphor, use drawings, diagrams, or concrete examples. Compare your reality to the other person's reality if you can. For example, a colleague once told me how she explained to a group of schoolchildren that she was a mediator: "I help you get along if you're fighting in the school yard."

Information is what you say. Communication is what your audience understands. The best IT specialist is not the one who has the most ideas. He or she is not the one that programs the best. The best one is the person that is able to take her knowledge and skills and share them effectively with the people that surround her. By paying attention to these five points, you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your every day communications.

Laurent Duperval is the president of Duperval Consulting which helps individuals and companies improve people-focused communication processes. He may be reached at laurent@duperval.com or 514-902-0186.