"Applicant must have excellent communication skills."
You've seen this line, or something like it, in nearly every job ad ever published. I've seen it so many times that I skip right past it when looking at a job description. However, communication skills really are an important requirement in industry. Poor communicators rarely make it far up the corporate ladder.
Reading How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, by Richard Gallagher, got me thinking about what's at the core of good interpersonal communication skills. As I read myriad horror stories in this book about communications run afoul, I realized that much of the stress that graduate students and postdocs experience, especially with their advisers and principal investigators, has, at its roots, communication difficulties. Like so many other soft skills, communication techniques aren't taught at the university, and some scientists never learn them.
Many people believe that good communicators are born, not made, but that's a misconception. In reality, anyone can be a great interpersonal communicator. In this month's Tooling Up column, I'll describe four must-have ingredients for good communication skills. I'll include some advice from a conversation I had with Gallagher about how to incorporate those ingredients into your own personal style.
Must-have #1: A sense of self-worth
Many early-career scientists interviewing for their first jobs are timid and uncertain about how to convey their accomplishments. Perhaps they've just come out of a Ph.D. lab where experiments didn't always go smoothly and their superiors--which, for Ph.D. students, is almost everyone--made them feel very small.
This means that communication with senior co-workers, principal investigators, and others of a higher "rank" is out of kilter from the onset. This can affect your communication in many arenas and can be of particular concern in a job interview. When asked questions about experiences in the lab, the interesting, opinionated individual vanishes; the candidate reverts back to the safe, mechanical "we did this" and "we did that" approach to discussing qualifications. That's hardly inspiring to a potential employer.
Whether you're still a Ph.D. student dealing with advisers or you're looking for jobs, be confident in your own abilities and give credit to both your team and yourself. Don't be self-centered and don't downplay your own individual accomplishments. As Gallagher suggested in our conversation, listen to effective politicians, who are often good examples of that delicate balance of taking and sharing credit: "Our party worked as a team to make this law happen, and I was honored to draft it and introduce it."
When you start going on job interviews, take ownership of your past experience and accomplishments. After all, work is a form of self-expression, and what an employer often looks for is evidence of just what kind of self-expression your work life has taken on.
Must-have #2: The ability to plan ahead
Whenever I've had communication problems, it has always been because I've said whatever came to my mind--delivering emotion instead of a well-crafted message. Obviously, you can't plan ahead for each and every important conversation you are going to have in your life, but there are certain key discussions that you know are coming. If you are like me, with a tendency to shoot from the hip, sit down and think ahead about your communication goals.
Here's an example. If you have a pending review of your last year's progress in the lab, do your homework on the full range of your efforts and accomplishments. Then plan out the points you want to get across--perhaps those that show the relationship between the progress the lab has made and what you have brought to the table.
Planning ahead at work doesn't have to be all that difficult. As Gallagher told me, "The mechanics of good communication are best worked out ahead of time ... with a pencil and paper."
Must-have #3: Consideration for the other party's needs
In his book, Gallagher suggests that you remember, "It's all about them," before you even open your mouth. I called Gallagher to talk about this point, and he reminded me of something another famous trainer said about the subject.
"Zig Ziglar once said, 'You can get anything you want if you help enough people get what they want.' The corollary in communications skills is that if you get in the habit of acknowledging people--every time they open their mouth--you are paving the way for people to listen with rapt attention to whatever you have to say," Gallagher noted.
Being acknowledged is need number one for most of us. Acknowledgement can take the form of observation ("I can see you are upset about this"), validation ("Most people would be upset about this"), or identification ("I would be upset about this, too"). "Acknowledging another is making it clear that you understand how that person sees the world and that it is safe to talk about it," Gallagher told me. Obviously, sincerity is the key here, because there is a fine line between a genuine response and one that comes across as patronizing.
Gallagher believes this is one of the most powerful and underutilized techniques in communication. Most arguments happen because people are trying to persuade one another to see their view of the world. What How to Tell Anyone Anything taught me is that if you make it clear that you do understand another person's view of the world, there is usually very little to argue about, even in a disagreement.
This communication technique is a simple courtesy to acknowledge that you've heard and understand a person's feelings. It is not the same as agreeing with someone, nor is it phony and artificial when you are sincere. It is simply part of being an active listener.
Must-have #4: Seek the neutral zone
One of the secrets of being a powerful and convincing communicator is being able to step into what Gallagher calls "the neutral zone" when you communicate. Let's face it--there are some loaded questions that come up for an early-career scientist: Will you be ready to defend your thesis and finally get out of that graduate degree program? Who gets that first-author spot on a publication? Who will be the team leader on the next project?
When I talked with Gallagher, I asked him how to step into the neutral zone with something as hot as negotiating first-author status on a paper. He would opt for finding some starting ground that is totally neutral, which can often be overlooked when emotions are running high. Although it's true that you'll be in big trouble if you lay down your weapons while everyone else is still firing, the key is to draw everyone into the neutral zone, at which point you can have a dispassionate, rational discussion.
"Let's say that you have three scientists who would like to be first author on a paper. First, look at what are the safe and unsafe parts of the discussion. 'Here is why I should be first' is pretty unsafe, while, 'Let's all put our contributions on the table so we can decide this fairly' is a lot safer. My suggestion is to always seek a neutral opening that is on topic and that gets the other person talking," he says.
Remember that an important part of this process is validating what the other person has to say--and vocally accepting their feelings as valid. When your colleague says, "My work on this paper was really important," acknowledging its importance gives you more power, not less, as you present your own case.
When you can't plan ahead
Difficult communication scenarios can come at you at 80 miles an hour. In those situations, it's just not possible to have your communication goals planned and ready. However, you can still acknowledge the other party's viewpoint and work to find a neutral zone to avoid an argument.
Most importantly to scientists, remember that communication flows most effectively when you are at the same level as those you are communicating with. If you think of yourself as beneath that person, your communication flow is "uphill" and far less effective. Even when communicating with a senior-level person, maintain your sense of self-worth, choose your words carefully, and be an active listener. If a conversation didn't go as you would have liked, review it in your mind and think of what you'll do differently next time. Even those purported "born communicators" need practice now and again.