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ReEngineering the Engineer: Written vs. Oral Communication: You Make the Call

Douglas Fitzpatrick on June 4, 2018 - in Articles, Column

I admit I haven’t really embraced the whole texting thing, and I don’t believe it’s an age gap. Although I communicate with our kids that way about half the time—out of necessity—I rarely do so with our clients (unless, of course, I’m running late for a meeting).

It has nothing to do with the medium. Texting (and let’s broaden it a little to written communication) certainly has its place. A quick note from your kids letting you know they got to their destination safely or that they survived their exam that morning is great … and welcome.

But explaining to a client why a project went sideways or how you didn’t make the schedule via something written (text or email) isn’t going to cut it. Our President has demonstrated just how, shall we say, “fraught with unintended consequences” and childish our written communications can sound, especially when you’re limited to 140 characters (or even 280 characters).

Ye Olden Days

Fortunately for me, I came up through the engineering ranks long before there was a public internet and social media. Almost every time we communicated with someone, it was in person or via the phone.

Looking back, there were some very distinct advantages to actually talking with someone and, more importantly, literally sitting face to face with someone, especially when the conversation was difficult (about a problem, for example). On the phone, you could hear the tone of their voice. In person, you had the added benefits of facial expression and body language. You received some immediate feedback for how things were going and whether you were losing your audience.

Modern Losses

Today, we resort to shortcuts in our written words, and I’m not talking about just leaving out some words. There are times I have to Google some of the three- and four-letter shortcuts my kids send in their texts so I can understand what they’re sending me. Maybe I need to get out more, but there’s a larger, underlying problem.

What’s really missing from this electronic communication are the nuances you get from looking a person in the eye or listening to their voice. You can’t capture compassion, frustration, excitement, disappointment in written text, but you can easily see it on their face and hear it in their voice.

In the past, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time composing some emails. I would labor over words and phrases, trying to figure out how the reader will interpret the text. I tried to figure out all the “rabbit holes” the reader might go down while reading my email and head them off at the pass—that’s part of the engineer in me. In the end, particularly for “difficult” email, I was rarely successful in getting it absolutely right. Someone inevitably gets their feelings hurt or misinterprets what you’re saying. In my mind, the reader is saying, “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, I see … ” as they read my note; but, in reality, it’s more like “where does this guy get off saying this?!”

The Point

You really can’t win by sending a text or email for the messy things. You can spend all the time you want composing the email, but you miss the opportunity to get the person back on track the second they fall off if you’re not there in person or listening on the phone. The best thing to do is call or visit the person. Is that more difficult? Absolutely. There’s something easy about writing an email in the privacy of your comfortable office regardless of how long it takes to “get it right.” Having a live conversation, in person, especially when you don’t know how they will react, always is more difficult. It can be traumatic and stressful.

As a business owner, however, drama comes with the territory; the best course of action (for your own health and wellbeing) is to minimize the drama. Dealing with issues directly via the phone or in person is best. I tried the text/email thing early on and quickly figured out that better outcomes came from “talking it out.”

Do I sometimes still fall back to the email answer? Yup. Life is a work in progress.

My best advice is to be a good Boy Scout and “Be Prepared.” You still have to put the same effort into your discussion preparations as you would the email. You definitely don’t want to go in unprepared, and you definitely shouldn’t pick up the phone when you’re mad (because someone sent you an email that wasn’t well written …).

Get your thoughts together. Think about things from their perspective as well as yours. Think about what someone really means despite how they might have said or written it. Much of how we’re judged is based on our delivery (my wife will tell you that), and written text can’t convey that well. Most people will appreciate a thoughtful, respectful approach to solving a difficult problem, and … some won’t; but that’s life.

Douglas Fitzpatrick

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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