You hear the advice everywhere: IT pros need to learn how to communicate in order to become leaders in their fields. What so many of the sources of that advice fail to do is define the magnitude of what is meant by the word communicate and how one goes about learning how to do it.
I found a book that does a pretty good job in breaking down the different aspects of communication. The book, Leading IT Transformation: The Roadmap for Success, actually refers to communication as "human interaction skills," a term I'm not exactly fond of because it sounds like the person who is doing the learning isn't exactly human to start with. But the points the book makes therein are valid.
Here are the most important communication skills IT leaders and their staff need to have or develop:
The book stresses how important it is to know the history your IT department has with its end-users. They may be enthusiastic about new initiatives or they may be leery because they feel they've been burned in the past. The expectations of your clients color how you will enter into a situation.
The book makes a great statement on this topic: "Incorrect assumptions are the bane of any listener." I'd go further and say incorrect assumptions are the bane of the speaker too. Do you know how many opportunities there are in the average conversation for meaning to be misconstrued? Seemingly unimportant words can put a sentence's meaning in a totally different light. Let's take the word up. If you had a client who said he wanted a system up in two weeks, would he mean up and tested and ready for prime time? Or would he mean live but with the understanding there would be bugs to be worked out? You have to clarify or else you'll run the chance of having a dissatisfied client.
I think if everyone had the innate ability to automatically put themselves into someone else's shoes, the world would be a better place. You don't have to agree with everyone, but you have to be able to understand why they feel like they do. The book says this is the IT pro's Achilles Heel: "Too often, the IT pro's gut instinct is to defend himself or herself, cut off the other person or flat out make them wrong. But being effective isn't about the right answer. IT others can't hear what you have to say because of how you deliver the message, you've lost your ability to influence."
You can demonstrate empathy by simply paraphrasing what the speaker has said or acknowledging the idea before you add your two cents worth.
Let's face it, sometimes your clients are just out and out wrong. But if you come barging in with that attitude, you're not going to get anywhere. You have to learn how to disagree in a way that makes the person you're talking to not be defensive. And sometimes you have to help that person save face. Say something like, "I completely understand why we gave that impression but..." or "You make good points, but if you look at it this way..."
Avoiding emotional hooks
Now what do you do if the person you're dealing with isn't diplomatic and refuses to validate your side of the issue? Your first reaction is probably going to be to push back with the same obstinacy and that will get you absolutely nowhere fast. Try to step back and not take the other person's words personally.
Educating without arrogance
A common failing of IT pros is the perception that everyone is as technically knowledgeable as they are. This can develop into an arrogance toward those people who don't. You don't see the marketing staff rolling their eyes and sighing loudly because you don't know what an ansoff matrix is. The fact is, everyone has their own area of expertise. The IT leader is a valuable resource to have at the big table because you have knowledge that the others probably don't. But don't hold that against them.
It's not just about playing well with others. It's about developing communications styles that don't alienate the very people you'll need to have in your corner when you want new initiatives to pass. It may be your knee-jerk reaction of yours to lose patience when one of your colleagues just "doesn't get it." But know that it may eventually be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of that same colleague when asked to reject one of your proposals. This brings us to the last communication skill...
From the book: "The bottom line is that people are much more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt if they feel a mutual connection." Understand that the users of the technology you implement and maintain are people. If you go out of your way not to speak to these people or develop some kind of rapport, then you're losing out on a good opportunity. I'm not asking you to take everyone to lunch, but don't be afraid or averse to just shooting the breeze with someone.
Before I got into IT publishing, I worked at two separate companies where I was almost afraid of the IT pros. In both places the IT pros in charge of the service desk seemed to be surrounded by au aura of hostility. They would practically snap my head off if I couldn't adequately explain an issue I was having with my computer.
If you want to succeed as an IT leader you have to shed this tendency. The rapport you build with the other departments in your comp will go a long way toward the goal of success.
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.