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Empathy: Why Engineers Are So Frustrating (and how to communicate with them)

No engineering knowledge on your part required.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, when I talk to engineers, I find it to be… tough. Annoying. TRAUMATIC.

Okay, maybe ‘traumatic’ is a bit exaggerated. But still, sometimes I just want to pull my hair out in frustration and say, “USE NORMAL-PEOPLE WORDS!”

I’m amazed at how an engineer can be mind-numbingly complicated when explaining something technical.

I mean… is it really that hard to just be more concise?

It feels like engineers have another language: something that SOUNDS like English, but doesn’t quite FEEL like English. And what’s worse: they can still think they make perfect sense to the rest of the population.

The Reason Why It’s So Difficult

Well… get ready for a secret.

Engineers actually have an affliction. It’s a terrible, terrible affliction that has taken ahold of many unfortunate souls. We’re talking global, epidemic-level here.

And be warned: while a cure does exist, this cure is very, very hard to obtain.

What’s this affliction, you ask?

It’s called: the Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge

So, what is this mystical ‘Curse of Knowledge’? How do you get infected? Is it contagious? What are the symptoms??

Well, first of all, it doesn’t mean that engineers are smarter (or dumber).

To demonstrate this curse, let’s play a little game.

The ‘Tappers and Listeners’ Game

VERY quickly, put your finger on a table and tap out the rhythm to the US national anthem: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Just the first sentence or two is fine. “Oh-oh say can you see…”

Tap on every syllable- or note-change, and just ignore the tune:

*Tap-tap-tap*
*Tap*
*Tap*
*Long tap*

Fyi, if you can read music (don’t worry if you can’t), the first sentence would look like this:

The first couple measures in the sheet music
Sheet music for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

You’re essentially tapping on every note.

Now let’s say John walked over, and you asked him, “Hey John, what song is this?”

*Tap-tap-tap*
*Tap*
*Tap*
*Long tap*

Do you think John will get it right?

A Game Worthy of a Ph.D.

Actually, that was someone’s entire dissertation in psychology. Elizabeth Newton, Stanford University, 1990.

Long-story short, she gave ‘tappers’ a list of very well-known songs, and ‘listeners’ the job of trying to guess the songs. Guess how many songs the listeners got right?

Out of 120 songs, the listeners got right… 3 songs.

That’s it?! Yep, that’s it. 3 songs. 1 out of every 40.

That’s 2.5%.

Alright, fine, whatever. People aren’t that good at guessing songs, so what? And weren’t we talking about engineers?

Well, hold on. This next part is what made the study worthy of a Ph.D.

The tappers were first asked to PREDICT what the odds were that the listeners guessed the songs correctly. And the tappers predicted… a whopping 50%.

Wait, what? 50%?!

These tappers thought that the listeners were correctly guessing EVERY OTHER SONG. And the tappers were BEWILDERED at how much the listeners just couldn’t get right. FLABBERGASTED. “Isn’t the song obvious?!” the tappers thought.

A Different Interpretation

When you tapped out the beat to ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, did you successfully not think about the tune?

SURPRISE! It’s quite impossible to NOT think about the tune. When you tap out ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, you can’t help but play the melody in your head too.

Go ahead, try it again.

A listener, on the other hand, only hears the beats.

And guess what? There’s another popular song out there with the exact same beats: ‘Happy Birthday To You’.

The first couple measures in the sheet music
Sheet music for ‘Happy Birthday To You’

*Tap-tap-tap*
*Tap*
*Tap*
*Long tap*

YEAH.

So in fact, if John had actually guessed a song, he’d more likely guess ‘Happy Birthday To You’ than ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.

My mind was pretty BLOWN when I found this out.

To a tapper (the person communicating an idea), the song ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ seems like it would be obvious.

And yet, in the experiment, the tappers could NEVER have guessed that a listener would interpret ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as ‘Happy Birthday To You’. Because the tappers were cursed with knowing what they were tapping out beforehand. Their knowledge became dangerous, because they then couldn’t imagine what it was like to lack that knowledge.

How Engineers Are Cursed

So how has the Curse of Knowledge affected engineers?

Well, engineers use tons of words that now play like a song in their head. And they overestimate how much other people can guess that song.

Sure, engineers know that some phrases are complicated and need some background to understand. For electrical engineers, those might be phrases like “Fourier series” or “harmonic functions”, for example. These tunes sound more like a Queen song. Very complicated to tap out.

But other phrases might sound really commonplace to some engineers. Maybe those are phrases that they picked up in school, or often use with their fellow engineering co-workers. Whatever those phrases are, they play like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in engineers’ heads.

For software engineers, those ‘basic’ phrases could be “use case” or “base case” (which mean two different things, by the way). “Surely people know what I mean by THAT,” they conclude.

An engineer’s experience has packed certain words with so much punch that he doesn’t even remember that he himself had to learn them all, some time long ago. Without even realizing it, he starts floating into the clouds of abstraction. Because it’s so easy to fall into that trap! After all, his boss understands him, and the people he regularly works with understand him. So when someone from sales walks over and asks the engineer a question, the engineer uses his oh-so familiar words out of instinct at that point.

And thus, the engineer has been cursed.

He means no harm, I promise. He’s not trying to condescend. It’s just that… well, he didn’t realize you were hearing the song ‘Happy Birthday’ instead, when he was trying to tap out ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.

How To Cure The Curse

Luckily, there’s a cure!

You see, the problem is that, if a topic is too abstract, two people can interpret that topic differently — especially two people with wildly different backgrounds. Something with seemingly plain-English words like, “We need to make this system faster!” can be interpreted in so many different ways.

The cure, then, is to NOT be abstract.

The cure is to be… CONCRETE!

What do I mean by that? I mean: paint vivid pictures. Use real-life examples. Make the idea come alive.

If an engineer starts to float upwards into abstraction, bring him back down to earth by asking for more concrete examples. Get him to use metaphors, or even stories, when explaining things. Direct the conversation and ask, “What do you mean: can you be more specific, or give me an analogy?”

  • Instead of “use case”, get the engineer to say: “When someone presses this button, …”
  • Instead of “base case”, get the engineer to say: “When the funds reach $0, …”

You can even use props. Designing a new kind of computer tablet? Hold a thin folder in your hand and pretend it’s your future tablet. Where would the charging port go? Point to it on the actual folder!

We’re not “dumbing things down” here. These discussions can still get very complicated. It’s just that now, everyone is talking about something specific, and they can all bounce their ideas off of a more core, concrete idea.

This cure is, hands-down, the EASIEST way to for an engineer to improve the way he communicates with others. Although, it can be very difficult for an engineer to fully ingest this cure and make it a habit. Because if his old habit is to always talk at a really abstract level (and he doesn’t even realize it), then he needs to develop very strong self-awareness to catch himself every time he becomes too abstract.

And that’s where everyone else can come in and regularly — and supportively — remind him to be more concrete when explaining things, by asking for analogies.

An engineer working on a race car by himself
Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

How Would I Know?

What credibility do I have? Why would you listen to me?

Because I’m an engineer too.

Yep, that’s right. I’m a full-fledged engineering graduate, with engineering job titles under my belt.

And I was mind-numbingly technical when I would explain things to others too. I’ve made every painful mistake in the book when it came to communication. (And I STILL make mistakes.)

It took me a long time to discover that I was actually blaming everyone else for not understanding me, rather than admitting that I wasn’t communicating my ideas properly. It took me longer-still to change my old habits.

And it took a lot of feedback from other people to really internalize those lessons.

How Everyone Is Cursed

The grander truth is, it’s not just engineers who are cursed. Everyone is cursed.

Executives are cursed when the tell their employees that the company goal is to “increase shareholder value”. Because that can mean different things at different corporate levels! It’s too abstract.

Our parents are cursed when we were nervous about fitting in at school, and they told us, “Just be yourself.” Because the 10-year-old us is thinking, “What does that even mean???” The advice is too abstract.

Everyone is cursed by their own experience. We all have moments where we feel like our ideas aren’t getting through, because the other person just “doesn’t get it”.

So, I hope you’ll have some empathy for us engineers. We’re human too, and we’re doing the best we can. And I also hope that you’ll help us become better communicators, by reminding us to be more concrete.

Made to Stick

Front cover of the book
Made To Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath

At this point, I must give credit where credit is due. The ideas here are from one of my favorite self-improvement books of all time: Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath. Highly recommended (not a paid endorsement).

This book covers SO MUCH on how to effectively communicate ideas. In fact, being ‘concrete’ is only 1 of the 6 principles in making people understand and remember an idea.

For instance, another principle is ‘emotion’. If you can get an engineer to talk about how he FEELS about his ideas, you’ve unlocked another level in communication! Probably sounds obvious to some of you, but this book explains things in a way that’s just head-shakingly good.

Conclusion

Down at the level of concreteness, people can more easily understand each other.

And this point is PARTICULARLY applicable to engineers, because of how often we LIKE to make things more abstract. We invent lots of words and equations, because to us it actually makes things easier.

And so, realize that with some patience and empathy, you can actually help guide your engineer(s) to become stronger communicators, by bringing them back down to earth when they start to float into the clouds. Because sometimes, they just don’t realize they’re floating away.

This post first appeared on Jamie’s blog at https://askmeabetterquestion.com.

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