Building up your ability to communicate effectively is vital to career success
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Yeah, I guess I’m old. I’ve worked in the information technology (IT) industry since 1997, which means I’ve been at it for more than 20 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with idealistic visions of how IT worked in the real world.
Not everything I’ve learned in going on three decades is directly related to technology. I could talk for hours about the evolution of the public cloud or the future prospects of Windows Server. Knowledge is important. You also need so-called “soft skills,” however — especially good communication skills — to thrive in IT. Almost as much you need to understand technology itself. Yes, it’s that important.
Communication skills have been, for me, a double-edged sword. On one hand, my ability to communicate clearly has led to my career blossoming beyond my wildest expectations. This year I presented three sessions at the Microsoft Ignite conference. That was unthinkable to me during the first years of my career.
On the other hand, my willingness and ability to express how I feel in precise detail has also resulted in a couple of RGEs — “résumé-generating events” — none of which were very fun for my family or me at the time. A key subset of the ability to communicate effectively is knowing when not to communicate at all.
I have come to understand quite a lot about communicating effectively that could probably help novices and newcomers who are just diving into the sink-or-swim waters of a professional IT career. Bearing in mind that crystal clear communication can sometimes be a bombshell, I’d like to lead off with my most valuable tip.
Don’t call or send e-mail in the heat of the moment
I get it: Someone else has approached you in a manner that seems rude, inappropriate, insulting, or demeaning. Maybe it’s an e-mail or text. Maybe it’s a post in a forum. Maybe it’s a voice message that drips with contempt. Your first instinct, if you’re anything like I am, is to strike back and strike hard, giving full vent to your overheated emotions.
Conversely, I invite you to consider your emotional reaction as the biggest reminder for you to pause, cool off, and definitely do not unleash that lethally barbed first response. Some of my friends write an e-mail that documents their immediate reaction, but commit to letting it simmer in the Drafts folder for at least 24 hours.
I prefer to cool off and reconsider what response, if any, is necessary. An old mentor of mine called this technique “putting the I before the E.” That is to say, putting intellect before emotion. Regardless of the mode of communication employed, I have consistently found that my best play is never to respond in the heat of the moment.
Instead, I take some time out, do some deep breathing, and wait for that flush of indignation to subside. After I’ve done whatever is needed to calm down and think things through, my response is much more likely to be polite, appropriate, and ultimately meaningful.
If you don’t ask, you won’t receive
Just a few days ago, the thought occurred to me: “I really respect [name of person] in the industry. I wonder if we could collaborate on something?” I’m not going to reveal who I was thinking about, of course, so roll with me on this.
I spent some time pondering what I wanted to accomplish, and then wrote the individual in question a polite introductory e-mail via LinkedIn. Wouldn’t you know it — my respected peer responded positively, and we are now working on business together!
Frankly, most professional engagements I’ve been a part of never would have happened if I didn’t have the courage and initiative to speak up and ask. As my mom used to tell me when I was a boy, “Timmy, if you don’t ask, you won’t get it.”
I’ve always liked the old aphorism “Courage isn’t action without fear. Courage is action in spite of fear.” I never let the supposed “intimidation factor” prevent me from asking (politely and honestly) another person to fulfill my request. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Whoever it is you’re asking says no — that’s acceptable!
Don’t bury the lead
One of my biggest professional pet peeves is receiving communications from people who don’t get to the point. For example, I received a LinkedIn request from a fellow IT professional in which he complimented me on my work and asked me out to lunch to “talk shop.”
Subsequent communications revealed this person’s true motive: to sell me something. Oh, how this disingenuous approach irks me. Remember the aforementioned respected peer who is now my collaborator? When I wrote that person a blind introduction message, I didn’t try to hide my motivation for reaching out: I put it in my first paragraph.
Likewise, I try to ensure that all my outgoing e-mail messages (a) have descriptive, concise subject lines; and (b) reveal my main point/request in the first paragraph. To do otherwise is to hide my motivations, either wittingly or unwittingly, and to waste my recipient’s time. And I never want to waste anybody else’s time.
Read Dale Carnegie, but under advisement
Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People was helpful to me in my younger, more formative years. The tips Carnegie provides (talking in terms of the other person’s interest, using their name a lot, and so forth) have yielded good results in my professional and personal life.
My caveat to applying Carnegie’s advice is that I make an effort to be genuinely interested in the people I’m communicating with. It’s all too easy to interpret Carnegie’s book as a manipulation manual. I can envision an unprofessional salesperson, for example, using How to Win Friends and Influence People as a guidebook for getting what you want from other people by playing on their vanity. Not cool.
Thus, I recommend this book to you under advisement that you apply its principles honestly, and leave the sales-y manipulative stuff behind.
Avoid the ‘reflexive yes’
I’ve worked as an independent contractor for a long time, and perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was to avoid saying “yes” to my clients just because I think I need the work. It’s an understandable position to be in — as an independent person, you make your own business, so you never want to turn down work that ultimately feeds your family.
That said, by saying “yes” too many times, you ultimately shortchange both yourself and your client. If you’re overcommitted, then you will most likely deliver underwhelming product to your client, which results in a lowered likelihood they will engage you again and/or recommend you to other businesses.
Instead, I recommend you always ask your prospective customer for at least 24 hours before you give them a final answer on a project. This gives you an opportunity to assess your time, willingness to do the work, and the degree of impact the new job might have on your work/life balance.
Listen — and pay attention to body language
I find listening to others relatively easy most of the time because I’m genuinely interested in hearing their point of view. Restating what my communication partner says (“What I’m hearing from you is”) is useful because the other person feels, well, listened to, and can verify I correctly internalized their message.
I submit that listening is an active, not a passive, exercise. It takes practice and intention to do well. Because public speaking is related to good professional communications, I suggest you look into joining a Toastmasters International club near your place of residence. Not only will you gain valuable speaking practice, you’ll get lots of practice in active listening.
The best body language interpretation book I’ve read is former FBI agent Joe Navarro’s What Every Body Is Saying. I’ve used the tips contained in that book to get insight into how my conversational partner is receiving my message. Something as simple as matching my conversational partner’s body language with complementary language of my own sometimes makes a big difference.
Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
I’m not being glib here — I find the aphorism “You catch more flies with honey” to be apropos and true in the business world. I’m suggesting simply being gracious in all your professional communications: Saying “please” and “thank you” is common courtesy, but can do nothing but help you in furthering your communication objectives.
So what do you think? In my estimation, all the professional communication principles I practice are summarized in Don Miguel Ruiz’s and Janet Mills’ book The Four Agreements. Thus, I strongly suggest you pick up that book, give it a read, and see where its suggestions — and mine — can be helpful to you.