The Value of Effective Communication Skills for Electrical Engineers

2 months ago by Sam Holland

To a layman, the picture that often comes to mind when they think of an electrical engineer (EE) is one working all alone in a room with a soldering iron, digital multimeter, and a PCB. But in truth, of course, engineers, like all manner of professionals, often do a great deal of speaking, writing, and listening in their daily work.

After all, effective communication skills⁠—not just technical expertise⁠—are a great asset to career success in every industry, and EEs are no exception.

 

What Defines Effective Communication?

Effective communication between 2 or more people happens when a message passed across by a speaker is understood and interpreted as accurately as possible by the receiver(s). For this to happen, the speaker must express the message in terms that are mutually-understandable to themselves and the recipient(s) of the message. 

Interpersonal communication at all levels in the workplace can be classified into 3 main aspects: speaking, listening, and writing.

 

Speaking

Strong speaking skills are critical to the success of EEs throughout their careers. After graduating, young engineers will have to pitch their experience and qualifications to recruiters to secure jobs in a competitive workforce. Similarly, new hires, mid-level, and senior engineers alike will liaise with colleagues, supervisors, and line managers to carry out their duties efficiently.

Perhaps in your job, in fact, you may be expected to deliver a presentation at a meeting with other employees, management staff, or investors (perhaps you’ll be asked to present a feasibility study for launching a new product, to name just one example).

Speaking accurately and confidently at such times can potentially boost your reputation in the eyes of your employer and foster growth in your career. In several other situations that require teamwork (such as group exercises and toolbox meetings with colleagues), public speaking skills can be invaluable.

 

Writing 

Due to their technical background and expertise, EEs may be best suited to draft certain documents on behalf of a company. Some examples include white papers, product spec sheets, bill of materials (BOMs), and use case articles. When preparing these documents, engineers may need to adopt a technical or commercial writing tone, depending on the target readers. Fundamentally, the ability to present technical and non-technical information through clear and concise writing can be a huge asset for career growth.

 

Two men talking to one another.

An employee (right) listening intently to a colleague's professional input. Image credit: Pixabay.

 

Listening

Effective listening skills are essential for engineers to understand other employees in the workplace, e.g., during meetings with colleagues, management staff, and/or investors. To both achieve a high level of cooperation with others and avoid misunderstandings/conflicts of interest, engineers must hone great listening skills. According to Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a key principle for effective communication with our audience is to seek to understand them first before seeking to be understood ourselves.

Indeed, to better understand other employees, engineers need to practice active listening. Active listening means listening intently to clearly understand a speaker’s thoughts before offering an answer, rather than listening simply to acknowledge them with a reply. Naturally, it also involves using body language that shows genuine attention to the speaker, asking questions for further clarification on what the speaker has said, and providing timely feedback.

 

Effective Communication with Non-technical Professionals

Even in electrical engineering firms, non-technical employees also play vital roles, of course, and EEs will liaise with them from time to time. Any given day, electrical engineers could be working alongside professionals from different fields, such as accountants, HR professionals, and auditors. For effective communication between engineers and these non-technical staff, both parties must speak the ‘same language’, i.e. communicate in mutually-understandable terms. 

After all, consider engineering documents: these are often utilised by non-technical staff—for example, a supply chain professional may use a BOM to place orders for electronic components from an OEM. While such documents may well contain specialised engineering terms, at their crux, they should be understandable to all relevant parties.

In a scenario in which there is a ‘wall of communication’ between engineering teams and other departments, it could be due to non-technical professionals not being familiar with several aspects of the communication. Engineers must bear this pitfall in mind and word their documentation accordingly.

 

Person writing on piece of paper on a desk.

Two people sitting at a desk, collaborating over paperwork and laptops. Image credit: Pixabay.

 

Effective Communication with Engineers from Other Disciplines

EEs working in various industries often collaborate with engineers from other disciplines on shared projects. For instance, engineers working at car manufacturing plants work with mechanical, automotive, and metallurgical engineers at different stages of the assembly. The ability to offer solutions while maintaining the right chemistry with the rest of the team will help determine the overall success of the project.

The fourth habit mentioned in Covey’s book, Think Win/Win, underscores the need to adopt a win/win strategy with others in interpersonal communications. The strategy is based on the premise that people will often act in their own best interests when faced with a win/lose situation. After all, the different types of professionals working on various phases of a project all have a unique approach towards solving problems. Sometimes, a member of an engineering team may suggest modifications to an existing model based on their own experience or intuition.

In such scenarios, the engineer should present it simply as a suggestion to the other teams, highlighting the benefits to the overall success of the project. How effectively the communication is applied could determine the likelihood of the idea being adopted by others working on the project.

 

Considering Listening and Communication Skills Overall

Ultimately, with an already-challenging curriculum to remember, it’s not hard to see why engineering curriculums often prioritise technical aptitude over soft skills. Independent educational institutions like NMiTE (New Model in Technology and Engineering); are an example of the efforts in Europe to introduce essential soft skills to modern engineering curriculums.  

Although many young engineers take compulsory general studies while at university, it may not adequately equip them with the communication skills they need to succeed in their careers. Engineers will benefit a great deal from personal development, especially post-study, to improve on their communication—and overall interpersonal—skills.

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