Speak Up or Forever Be Damned

The modern workplace requires both technical and social skills. A worker can find it challenging to advance in their career or even to fulfill the most basic of requirements of their job if they only possess one without the other.

Technical skills can be defined as the ability to fathom and interact with systems, whether they be natural or man-made.

Thus, farming, engineering, computer programming, finance and medicine can be categorised as technical skills, because they are used to interact with complex systems like biology, physics, machines, markets and physiology.

With many of these skills, there is a clear science behind them and many of their outcomes are predictable to a fault.

However, when it comes to social skills, what works for one human being with a particular set of values, who grew up in a particular culture, undergoing particular situations might not work for another. This is because these systems vary from person to person and live inside their heads, away from scientific rigor.

Thus, many people believe that social skills, the ability to communicate with another human being, to build a relationship, to convey exact information, to persuade for trust or to provide instruction, is difficult.

Recently, a licensed electrician who had just graduated and was in his first month on the job asked me for advice. The factory he worked at had a lax attitude towards safety. His immediate superior insisted on cost-cutting to the extent of not using proper protective equipment during repairs.

He worried that he or someone else would die of electrocution one day. He received a job offer at another factory. They had slightly better safety considerations. Should he stay here or should he go?

I asked him if he had voiced his concerns to his superior. He said that he worried that his superior wouldn't listen. Yet, when pressed for evidence that his superior would actually react that way, he finally admitted that it was his own assumption.

He also worried that his elder colleagues would think that he was showing off, or trying to step over their heads. I pressed him for evidence. Again, assumption. These assumptions, including worrying that he would sound rude to his superior had nothing to do with his technical skill. He just didn't know how to say it. And it was impeding the quality of his work.

I asked him to imagine, what would happen if he moved to the new factory, and his present supervisor moved too and supervised him there. Would he move again?

He looked stunned.

If he did not improve his ability to communicate, he would be doomed to land in the same situations again and again and again. He would wonder why everywhere we went, things were the same. The answer, of course, is that while his workplace changed, he remained the same.

I proceeded to take every situation he had an excuse for, and gave him sample phrases and interactions that would promote favourable responses from his supervisor and colleagues. He was surprised by the simplicity of it. I countered that it was actually quite complex, but nothing that a can-do attitude, willingness to learn and opportunities to practice can't help with.

They call communication a soft skill. That's ridiculous. It's a hard skill. When you master communication, you can interact with and master the most complex system in the universe: the human being.

Learn. Now.