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Focus on Communication – Early On and Often

As someone who has had to learn the importance of communication later in life, I can honestly say this is the one thing I wish I could go back and change. My focus in the past was always on technical work. I excelled at being given tasks and then allowed to accomplish them on my own. In retrospect, my lack of focus on communicating better with others held me back from certain opportunities that I didn’t even realize at the time I would be interested in.

For example, had I focused on not only improving my technical abilities over the years but augmented that with learning how to communicate better – I might have been given the opportunity to lead others a lot sooner than I did. Instead, I was always one of the technical leaders of a team, which is much different than leading a team altogether.

I obviously don’t have anything to back the previous theory up with, because I can’t go back in time and take another path, then report back a current day comparison, but I will attempt to speculate: Had I decided to focus 75% of my time on being a better communicator and 25% of my time honing technical abilities, I certainly would have had different, potentially better opportunities presented to me sooner. You might say, how do you know this? Well, I love to observe people and I can tell you I have seen it in others. Take two otherwise equally capable people in a technical field. One person has less technical ability than the other but is a much better communicator. All other things being equal, a person who can express themselves clearly and effectively will have opportunities the other person may not ever see, or at the very least come much later down the road (once they figure out what to improve on, like me ๐Ÿ˜€ )

Tips for communicating

So, you might be reading this and saying – this all sounds good, but how do I start this focus on communication? Start with simple things in daily conversations. In most I.T. positions we all will interact with others, whether it be peers, our manager, or people we are helping. The best piece of advice I’m going to give in this article is coming in the next sentence, so pay attention: Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes that you are interacting with and ask yourself: If I was that person, what communication would I benefit from the most, coming from me? Then tailor your responses as if you are answering yourself in the question you just asked. Once you start doing that and make it a habit, you can actually do this pretty quickly before responding.

Over time your averages will continue to improve on how effective you were on any type of communication. Don’t worry about the misses – if you find your communication in a particular scenario wasn’t helpful or not what was expected, figure out how to follow up with what the person needed. I find the best way to do this is simply to ask. As I started focusing on communicating better in certain areas, such as with people in more senior positions than I was in, I would reach out to them and ask how I could improve from their perspective. You would be surprised how often someone is willing to give feedback if you just ask for it.

Also, try to find opportunities to stretch yourself, get uncomfortable, this is comparable to the last few reps you can muster in the gym. Those are where you will find your gains and begin to get stronger, in communicating. Volunteer to speak in group settings, in a technical position, a good example of this could take the form of something called lunch and learn. Often someone on a team that is working on a task or project that required learning a new skill will share with other teammates over a lunch period. Commonly, the workplace will bring lunch in for the team, and while everyone is enjoying some good food that person will do some type of presentation in an attempt to share this new knowledge. It doesn’t even have to be from something you did at work, but instead, be on a subject that you are learning on your own that helps do a job.

Communication doesn’t have to always come in verbal form. Start documenting your daily work and make into some type of status report and send it to your manager. The frequency of this is up to you, but it will be much easier to do if you don’t wait so long you are trying to remember all the things you did. Doing something like this can often help in multiple areas. For example, your manager does not know what you do every day, they will have a general idea, but it will be high level most of the time. By keeping a general communication flow in this form will not only give you a chance to refine your communication abilities but will also provide a means of documenting your accomplishments. Don’t stop with just your accomplishments though, also communicate your challenges. You will find that effectively communicating your daily challenges, makes your manager’s job much easier in identifying areas to be needing improvement.

Opportunities to practice communicating outside of work

If you are just totally against trying to sharpen your communication skills on the job, other opportunities are available with like-minded groups. Try looking up to see if a Toastmasters group meets in your area. I won’t go into detail on what the group does here, but it is safe to say that one of the main topics of focus is communication. Paid courses also exist, which will help with making large gains in the shortest amount of time. One of the things I have benefited the most from in the past was a Dale Carnegie class. It was typically one night a week for a few months and I loved and hated it at the same time. You had no choice but to become uncomfortable at some point in every one of those classes. However, the great thing about it was you typically don’t know anyone in the room and everyone is in exactly the same position you are in, wanting to get stronger in communicating.

Funny story, one night I came to class and I didn’t prepare as well as I wanted to for a speech to be given. I started to get a little worried about how it would turn out and I remember telling myself before class started that it was just a small group of people and I didn’t need to sweat messing it up. Well, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t matter if 10 or 100 people are focused on you giving a talk, you can sike yourself out to the point of panic. I got started in the talk which is typically pretty short in duration. About one minute in, I broke out into a sweat, got a lump in my throat, and decided I couldn’t continue. I ran out of the room in the middle of my speech with no thought of ever stepping foot back in there.

The teacher/leader in the class came out to see how I was doing, which at that moment wasn’t all that good. I told him I didn’t think I could do the class any longer. He reminded me we all have those moments of anxiety and by going back in and trying again, regardless of how it turned out was a win. After a few minutes of coaxing, I did reenter the room where everyone was quietly waiting for me to return to the front to finish what I started. I got back up there and did the talk, everyone gave me a quick round of applause, and I sat down for the next person to get up and take a turn. The world didn’t come to an end, Was it a little embarrassing? Of course. Was it uncomfortable? Definitely. Was I stronger for getting up there a second time and powering through it? You bet.

Many of us technical people are introverts by nature, which makes us less willing to put ourselves in situations where we have the opportunity to communicate with people we don’t know all that well. In my experience, most of the larger cities have technical groups that cover all kinds of topics. This type of event can put you in situations with many types of people, not only with peers but people at all levels of their careers. Just having the opportunity to have conversations will make this type of work in the future much easier.

Similarly, vendor-sponsored events to learn about technology are usually pretty common as well. Like the previously mentioned user group meetings, there are similar types of people attending these events that would give you the opportunity to practice your communication skills.

Hopefully, this article has helped bring the importance of being a good communicator into the foreground. Honing communication skills is something you can add to everyday interactions, which will benefit a person greatly in the long run. Just being conscious of the fact that you want to improve on communicating with others will allow you to discover ways to help you improve in this area.

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