Becoming a Better People Person

As an engineer, you probably have pretty awesome hard skills, but what about your soft skills?
Hard skills are the math formulas you can recite in your sleep, the precision of getting a part perfectly in spec, your ability to analyze any software. Soft skills, on the other hand, are the personality traits and characteristics that make someone a good communicator, a “people person,” if you will.
Popular culture often portrays engineers as lacking in soft skills. While the stereotype is unfair, engineers do tend to emphasize hard over soft skills on the job, says Kyle Freedman, corporate training manager at Enercon Services, an architectural, engineering, and environmental services firm with projects in the manufacturing, industrial, and power delivery space.
The good news: it’s easy to brush up on and even learn how to best relate to other people, Freedman says. After all, not everyone can be “a people person.” Just how much depends on a person’s job.
“The analysis guy doesn’t need great soft skills,” he says “He’ll be at his computer all day.”
But engineers who interact with others will need a little finesse when it comes to communicating. They may need to state the reasons for needed design modifications, present plans and models, outline project scope, or negotiate deadlines. More employers are also looking for job candidates who can demonstrate those skills.
“Most of our projects that go wrong don’t go downhill because an engineer isn’t smart enough to figure out a calculation or a design aspect or hasn’t been diligent in paying attention to detail,” Freedman says. “The biggest thing that contributes to failure often comes down to communication.”
Businesses seek employees with both hard and soft skills, and the same is true at Enercon, Freedman adds. Employees who communicate well are usually team players, keep customers happy, close sales, and bolster the moods of their fellow workers.
When Freedman started work at the company seven years ago, he found “a glaring lack of soft skills.” The missing traits included patience, listening, and emotional intelligence, which Freedman defines as the ability to recognize emotions in the self and in others.
Enercon offers soft skill training for emerging leaders, middle managers—including supervisors and project managers—and senior managers.
Training includes classes on active listening, which encourages the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond to, and then remember what’s been said. Active listening can end the engineering proposal “expectation tire swing,” he adds.
Another soft skills trainer is Steven Cerri, who heads STCerri International of San Rafael, CA, and leads workshops that teach communication and interpersonal skills to technical professionals.
For one exercise, Cerri twice asks the class to program a videocassette recorder. The first time, he uses a condescending verbal tone and body language. He uses the exact same wording when making the second request, but this time asks in a calm, straightforward manner.
Students usually report they felt tense as they began their work after he condescended to them. After the second time he asks, they felt more at ease and were better able to work on the equipment, he says.
“I remind them I used the same words. I only changed my tone,” Cerri says. “Then they understand how important tone and body language is in communication.”
Randy Mysliviec, president and CEO at RTM Consulting, teaches soft skills to employees at technology companies. He tells students that before they communicate with someone, they should first determine the best medium over which to convey a message, whether via text message, email, phone call, or in person.
They should also wait a bit before sending e-mails or messages or before making a phone call in order to reread them or to prepare, he says.
Students can work on showing concern, empathy, or confidence at home, both verbally and through body language, and then call upon those lessons when meeting with others.
Think of interpersonal skills as a kind of muscle that gets stronger when exercised over time. Businesses don’t expect their employees to become smooth talkers. But they do want them to be able to read, listen to, and respond to client and team communications in the best ways possible.
“We don’t want to just teach someone how to do a calculation,” Freedman says. “We want them to be able to communicate to the client what that number means and why it’s needed.”
Jean Thilmany is a technology writer in St. Paul who specializes in engineering and science.
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