How can I help coach someone to communicate better in a technical field?
September 7, 2018 8:06 AM   Subscribe

I work in a technical field. I have a coworker – a direct peer – who is very bad at communicating clearly. Is there anything we can do to coach them to communicate better? (Please don't say "fire them". Assume that's under consideration. I'm asking what can be done as a last-ditch, good-faith effort before firing them.)

(I'll call this person "T". To avoid using clunky gender-neutral language such as "they", I flipped a coin to decide what pronouns to use, and the coin said "male".)

T is significantly less experienced in the field than I am. That, in itself, is not a problem. In fact, I would be glad to help guide him. Unfortunately, though: it's almost impossible to communicate with him.

When it comes to non-technical conversations, he's fine – it's entirely possible to have a conversation about our respective weekends, video games, his family, etc.

But as soon as the conversation turns to work-related topics, everything falls apart:

He doesn't know the correct terminology for things. This is a huge part of the problem. In any technical field, there's an established body of jargon for communicating concisely and precisely about complex technical concepts. But T does not speak the jargon of our field. He uses a lot of generic words – "it", "thing", "the other one" – or uses terms that are in the general ballpark, but inaccurate enough to be confusing and misleading.

I've tried gently correcting him. It doesn't work. He either can't learn the correct vocabulary, or doesn't care to.

(This isn't simply a matter of T being less experienced. He isn't even articulate in the areas that he does have experience with.)

He goes off on tangents, and fixates determinedly on red herrings. I can ask a question about topic X, and before I know it, T has bounced to topics Y and Z. The connections that led him to Z are never clear, but it's often next-to-impossible to pull him away from Z. This happens with even the simplest, yes/no questions – I simply cannot get a straight answer from him about anything. There's no point he can't miss, and he has an uncanny ability to derail conversations in the most disorienting way. Talking to him is like being in a fun-house maze. (Honestly, I've never seen anything quite like it.)

He interrupts. A lot. He doesn't really listen to what other people say. More precisely, he listens to the first few words – then decides that he already knows what they're going to say (he doesn't), and interrupts to wrench the conversation toward some misguided tangent. I've pleaded with T about this, and he's gotten better – but it's still a problem.

He doesn't provide context, and doesn't calibrate his communication to his audience. T seems to assume that everyone already has the same background information that he does – so he never volunteers that information. He just makes flat assertions, without explaining how he arrived at that conclusion, or how it connects to the present conversation.

And it's almost impossible to drag the context out of him – whenever I try, he invariably seems confused that I'm asking, misunderstands what I'm asking for, and responds by dragging the conversation toward yet another tangent. (Sometimes I get the sense that, when I ask for context or background info, he thinks I'm challenging his assertion – but instead of defending the assertion with facts and reason, he deflects to a tangent. Sometimes I honestly wonder whether he understands the very notion that answers to technical problems need to be based on a chain of clear reasoning. His method of arriving at conclusions seems to be a lot more...impressionistic than that.)

When he talks to less technical folks, he indundates them with technical information which they couldn't possibly be expected to understand, even if he wasn't misusing the jargon and (often) misrepresenting the technical facts.

He has no sense of priority or proportion. This is related to the "fixating on tangent Z" that I described above. Whatever idea has caught his fixation most recently is the most important thing. The other day, I raised concern X with him. Like clockwork, he bounced to tangents Y and Z. Then he decided that Z was an emergency, interrupted a meeting with our department head to tell them about it, and declared that the imminent client deadline he was working on must be delayed so he could deal with the (nonexistent) emergency.

When this kind of thing happens, I know (from experience) that there's nothing I can do – so I just watch quietly, and wonder where my life went wrong.

So, yeah – it's very challenging. Every single conversation turns into a meandering, 40-minute-long fun-house ride – and, more often than not, I just end up more confused than I was at the beginning. Sometimes things get heated, because I only have so much patience for this shit.

As a result, I've simply learned to avoid discussing technical issues with T – but that's just not a viable long-term solution. We are peers. We work on the same projects, and manage the same systems. We are the only technical folks here. We need to be able to communicate.

I am not the only person who has noticed the problem – far from it. Multiple coworkers have complained privately, I've watched vendors sit across the table from him with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, and our superiors are very much aware of the issue.

I should note that English is his second language, and I've considered whether this might be part of the problem. But I don't think it is. He has many years of experience speaking English in a fully immersive environment, and he's perfectly fluent in non-technical and non-work-related conversations. Aside from slightly clumsy diction, I would never guess that he's not a native speaker.

I've also considered whether T may have ADHD. I think it's a distinct possibility.

And, you may be thinking: "maybe T just doesn't know what the hell he's doing?" And, frankly: yes, that is part of the problem. His work is haphazard and undisciplined. He's wholly unfamiliar with some of the basic tools and techniques of the trade. He uses certain terms that are big red flags that he's an amateur in the field, and takes his cues from other amateurs. In my opinion, he should never have been hired for the role (and should probably consider changing careers). But, he's here (for now, at least) – so I have to figure out how to deal with him.

My question: What, if anything, can we do to help him learn to communicate more clearly? If he's ever going to achieve the level of competency that's required for his role, then this is the first step.
posted by escape from the potato planet to Human Relations (17 answers total)
 
His work is haphazard and undisciplined. He's wholly unfamiliar with some of the basic tools and techniques of the trade. He uses certain terms that are big red flags that he's an amateur in the field, and takes his cues from other amateurs.

It doesn't sound to me like communication is his issue, just that this is the most annoying aspect of it to you. I think you're being too nice and will cause yourself issues by trying to fix a problem that is not yours to deal with. You are peers, he is not your problem to manage or fix, basically. It kind of reads like you're trying to find a way to help *him* but not do what is best for the company. It's not your problem to fix him and could potentially damage you professionally if you spend time and effort doing so if it impacts your work - raise your concerns directly with management calmly and unemotionally and deal with him as little as possible to avoid any of his drama and incompetence affecting your own performance or assessments.

Also, consider that the tangents may not be a bug but a feature from his side - constant deflection and distraction to try and hide the fact that he has zero clue what he is doing and knows it. So if that is the case (it is unlikely they don't know they suck so badly at their job after your description) that there is no 'fixing' the problem when the person involved may be doing it consciously/partially because they are completely out of their depth. If they won't admit that they are in the wrong job, you don't have a starting point.

Summarising your OP is basically 'This guy can't do his job'. The answer is to fire him, and I appreciate you don't want to hear that for this question, but I can't understand WHY you feel you need to try and fix a fundamental issue with an incompetent employee. Also, do not at all get involved in a mental heath diagnosis.
posted by Brockles at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2018 [18 favorites]


I have to agree that this is a cover for not understanding the job. If you don't want to fire T, you could create a strict performance improvement plan with weekly goals and check-ins that includes reviewing x aspect of the job each week and, in the check-in, a discussion of that aspect (and building week to week until the facility is such that T can communicate broadly about the work).

That, however, may be more work than T's employ is worth, in the end.
posted by wellred at 8:34 AM on September 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


You say this guy is a peer - you need to have his boss/supervisor involved, and his boss/supervisor needs to tell him these things in actual, clear words (not avoiding the problem or couching it, but saying "you did X and Y and it doesn't work because Z. I need to see you improve this in order to succeed in the position.", and seeing if T does it. It doesn't sound like he will catch hints or suggestions, someone who is in a position to do so needs to spell out the problem and explain that it's a problem and ask what he needs support-wise to fix it.
posted by brainmouse at 8:41 AM on September 7, 2018 [5 favorites]


Ugh, I have been there and found these conversations very frustrating. Does he understand that he gives the impression of being completely uninformed about the field in which you are working because he cannot answer a yes or no question? Perhaps he could be offered a choice of either technical training in whatever area he seems weakest in, or a technical communications class. That would at least help narrow down the problem.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:44 AM on September 7, 2018


The other day, I raised concern X with him. Like clockwork, he bounced to tangents Y and Z. Then he decided that Z was an emergency... (etc).

Yeah, I will try to come back to the communication issue, but the example above is something above and beyond a communication problem. It sounds like a priority problem. Whoever his boss is needs to set and reinforce more clear priorities. And I am fixating on this issue because it seems serious and recent enough that it could be discussed after the fact. ("Why did you leave meeting such-and-such last week to dash off and take care of topic Z?") He should be asked what he was thinking by his boss. And if he can't answer on the spot, he should be given 24-48 hours to write down three or four paragraphs explaining his thinking re: this particular bizarre incident. Maybe there was a good reason?? And maybe he should write in his first language first, while thinking hard, and then later translate his ideas.

If he doesn't have deep technical knowledge in some areas, then you probably can't have good technical discussions with him, certainly you can't get answers that are helpful in difficult / disputed areas. If this were a school and you were the teacher, you would figure out what he does know and "work from his strengths." (In a business situation, maybe it needs to become a stated thing that you are the senior tech person and he is junior, even if he doesn't like that.) Do you know any teachers? Teachers might have tips for helping someone who is over his head and not admitting it.

Make meetings and any communications you can more structured. Meetings should have an agenda. Technical questions and concerns submitted to him, should maybe me on a form -- my idea here is pretty vague -- but something that gives context. If you can get him giving written answers that would also help because then you can go over them line by line and clarify words like "it" "thing" and "sometimes".

If complex communication isn't working, make it simpler for awhile and gradually build vocabulary and comprehension. (Are there reference materials that define all the office buzzwords?) And when I say simpler, I also mean shorter. Like one sentence, and then clarify. I think you might need to stop him every time he uses a vague word. You mentioned politely giving him the correct word and said it wasn't working. I encourage you to persist, and to also be less polite. You can tell him "people won't be able to understand you unless you use the right word." If he won't take correction reasonably gracefully, that is another problem.

(It would be nice if you, or whoever is running a meeting or discussion, had the power to stop him when he goes off the rails conversationally and force him to get back to the point.)

It sounds like his fluency is pretty good, so language classes aren't needed, but more practice talking with coworkers about less technical parts of your company's business might perhaps be helpful in bolstering his fluency.

"Active listening" is a concept we sometimes see used in relationship counseling, since communicating for understanding is so important. I don't have a link to a good book off of the top of my head, but maybe someone else does. There's some pausing after each sentence or several sentences to check comprehension and shared agreement.

(My answers are most useful to you if you read them in reverse order.)
posted by puddledork at 8:55 AM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Can you change the medium of conversation? For coworkers who go off on tangents I’ve had great luck communicating almost entirely through email. Which is frustrating for me, I’d much rather talk face to face. But for some coworkers emailing is more effective, or using the office IM. There’s a chance T does know more terminology then expressed when talking, but the pace of a conversation he thinks he needs to keep is too fast to find the right words.

Having to write everything down can be slow and frustrating and he may be tempted to come by to answer in person. If you can firmly tell him you don’t have time to talk, need to focus, ask him to send an email as soon as possible, or even get up and go elsewhere.

And good luck, this sounds difficult and I hope it works our.
posted by lepus at 9:02 AM on September 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


And, you may be thinking: "maybe T just doesn't know what the hell he's doing?" And, frankly: yes, that is part of the problem. His work is haphazard and undisciplined. He's wholly unfamiliar with some of the basic tools and techniques of the trade. He uses certain terms that are big red flags that he's an amateur in the field, and takes his cues from other amateurs.

Who knew the author of the lodestone NYT op-ed would be so frustrated with the pace of the Mueller investigation that they came to the green for advice? Seriously, there is nothing you can do about this kind of active narcissism and incompetence in a colleague other than trying to sideline him as much as you possibly can while working to get him fired. I would be less concerned with him obsessing over Z when he has a deadline than him being allowed to do bad work on important projects. Frankly, "Then he decided that Z was an emergency, interrupted a meeting with our department head to tell them about it, and declared that the imminent client deadline he was working on must be delayed so he could deal with the (nonexistent) emergency." sounds like he's deliberately using dramatic interruptions and distraction to push back deadlines he can't meet because he isn't qualified for the job. You're giving this person more good faith than he deserves.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:27 AM on September 7, 2018 [6 favorites]


(Not to threadsit, but since it's a theme: trust me; I would've fired him ages ago. I wouldn't have hired him in the first place. But it's not my decision to make, so I'm trying to cooperate gamely with my superiors' approach. And I've made my concerns very clear.)

(Also: part of the problem is that there is no one above us who understands our field well enough to coach him. I've tried, but, well, here I am.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:46 AM on September 7, 2018


You have a boss problem, not a colleague problem. Your boss is making your working life miserable by refusing to deal with your bumbling colleague.

One perfectly rational response to dealing with a bad boss is for you to look for a new job or request a transfer. If your job doesn't have other redeeming features, go that route.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:08 AM on September 7, 2018 [11 favorites]


Since you aren't his supervisor, you really have no standing for doing this unless he invites you to help him. The only ways for this to happen is for you to offer it in the context of helping him achieve some kind of goal. This can work if you have the kind of relationship where you can, after one of these incidents occur, take him aside and, very casually but clearly say that you had some feedback about what just happened in the meeting, and would he like to hear it?

If he's open to the feedback, focus PURELY on behavior - don't make any statements about attitudes, possible ADHD, etc. Say things like, "When person Y in the meeting said ABC, you started talking about XYZ, and then person Y didn't think that you understood what he was talking about. Did you notice that?" If he *did* notice something problematic in the interaction, that's great! He's got some self-awareness! He should be praised for it. You can then ask him for his ideas on how he could handle the situation next time. See what he says and then ask if he'd like a suggestion from you.

If he *didn't* think there was anything problematic about the interaction, you're on much shakier grounds particularly since you are peers, as he may then start to push back against your offer to help.

My language for this kind of stuff is to phrase the problematic behaviors as things that undermine his credibility, that make it possible for people to not take his thoughts seriously. I do this, because the frame of the conversation is on improvement, not on what he's doing wrong.
posted by jasper411 at 10:11 AM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


You buried the lede(s): We are peers. We work on the same projects, and manage the same systems. T is significantly less experienced in the field than I am. We are the only technical folks here. We need to be able to communicate... I am not the only person who has noticed the problem – far from it. Multiple coworkers have complained privately, ...vendors, superiors are very much aware of the issue. His work is haphazard and undisciplined. He's wholly unfamiliar with some of the basic tools and techniques of the trade.

You're putting in a huge amount of effort, and I would re-direct that effort from understanding them to managing your time with them very strongly, with lots of documentation. As far as understanding, I think you neglect the possibility that T isn't very bright or very motivated.

Gender matters in work behavior, even though it shouldn't. If you are female and deal with a male staffer aggressively, you'll be branded "aggressive bitch" and it can be extremely difficult to deal with this label as it affects your ability to do your job. If you are male and T is female, be tough but friendly, in any case, meet regularly, be tough, act like the supervisor.

I should note that English is his second language I would simply ignore this as it can only be trouble. I've also considered whether T may have ADHD Don't do this. It is absolutely not your role to diagnose T, or give them an opportunity to ask for accommodation. All the ways of managing a staff member with attention issues are basically best practice, so tell T what the issue is, discuss the issue, repeat the conclusion verbally and in email. Schedule, use the office calendar system for meetings and remember the agenda.

Push management to do their job and require T to fill in their knowledge gaps and improve performance. There's a strong tendency to avoid problem staff because everybody hates confrontation. He doesn't know the correct terminology for things. ...He either can't learn the correct vocabulary, or doesn't care to. ...work is haphazard and undisciplined. ...wholly unfamiliar with some of the basic tools and techniques of the trade. He doesn't provide context, and doesn't calibrate his communication to his audience ...unable to talk to less technical folks. Meet with the manager, explain specific areas where T should improve knowledge and competence. This has to be in the framework of how it affects your ability to get your work done. Have examples of all the behaviors, and only discuss behaviors, not personality or feelings. It's about performance and productivity. There are technical resources in every field. He should be required to take classes, read journals, get certification, whatever.

If you are asked to supervise T, be cautious, a person like this who is over their head can absolutely make their supervisor's life hellish. Your question absolutely reads as supervisory, think about if you want that. If you do end up supervising T, ask for lots of money, because it will take any joy out of your work.

He goes off on tangents, and fixates determinedly on red herrings. When you meet with T, always have an agenda; keep going back to it. He interrupts. That's rude, label it. Tee, you seem to interrupt a lot. I have limited time for this meeting, so I'm going to continue with the point I was making. In the future, when they interrupt, talk over them, or say, We can get to your point in a moment, but I'm going to finish this. Agree with lepus that email will be most effective. Keep your communication pointed, limit nuance, do not assume T has any context, so be explicit.

Decide how much effort you want to put in to this Explain his incompetence to your supervisor, then it's okay to do your jjob and let him screw things up, putting effort into keeping him from screwing up your work.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on September 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


In your next 1:1 with your boss, pick ONE of the things he does, raise it, let your boss know it is lowering your morale and making it harder to do your job, and ask their advice on how to mitigate it.

Follow that advice dutifully, and let your boss know how it is going: if it is going well, say so, and if it is not, say so. Stay focused on that thing, don't jump around or talk about other issues you have with the guy (you can, if asked, say "there are other issues, but I'm trying to focus on one at a time").

Essentially, enlist your boss as a mentor in dealing with this challenging person effectively. Consider it a good-faith effort on your part to help this guy, but also to learn from your boss. Dealing with difficult peers is a skill your boss should be able to help you with, and if not, at least you're in it together (which will help your boss deal with the issue more effectively at their level.)

After all, you aren't his boss and he obviously doesn't want your help, so you can't help him directly... But by getting mentorship to help yourself, it will help management deal with him (through coaching or firing.)
posted by davejay at 1:43 PM on September 7, 2018


I've also considered whether T may have ADHD.

T might have ADHD, but it's completely possible for people to have ADHD and be great at dealing communicating with people about technical issues. Whether or not T has ADHD is besides the point, and if they did and were to get treatment for ADHD that's not going to solve these issues. Please don't let T's issues give you a bad impression of people with ADHD overall.

He doesn't really listen to what other people say. More precisely, he listens to the first few words – then decides that he already knows what they're going to say ... I've pleaded with T about this, and he's gotten better – but it's still a problem.

(This isn't simply a matter of T being less experienced. He isn't even articulate in the areas that he does have experience with.)

People CAN learn to be better. You've provided one example of T learning to be a little bit better. But it takes a lot of time for a person to learn to overhaul their communication style, and a lot of time for others to coach them to do this.

If T really wants to change, some sort of executive coach or communications coach that has a little bit of technical background in anything might be the way to go. (even if they got a bachelors in technical field and don't have any work experience in that field, this should be helpful) If T simply doesn't know the field and that's why they are employing this style of communication, this will only prolong the inevitable for everyone involved.
posted by yohko at 3:44 PM on September 7, 2018


It sounds like he doesn't pause to consider his audience at all - he's dumping thoughts into words without thinking of the listener. That is the direction I'd suggest for highest-impact coaching.
posted by Lady Li at 6:21 PM on September 7, 2018


Given the clarity of how you describe the language difficulties, it's clear you are a highly expert communicator, so no wonder you are frustrated with someone who is obfuscating in their language with every opportunity. Could it be this is an unconscious strategy by T to cover up their lack of skills? If so, there is no fixing or retraining them, it's their tactic and tool whether planned consciously or not.
Basically your boss needs to tell T to upgrade his skill set to company direction or be fired. On your end of things, a tactic I use in poor communication situations is only use binary choices. Usually this works best via email. Howdy X, here's the situation, do you want choice A or B?
If there were a way to fix T with some training, I'd suggest an Anki deck with your technology terms as a start.
posted by diode at 6:35 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


You talk about "pleading" and "gently correcting." I think what you really need to do is insist-- not that he change the overall errors of his ways, but that he give you what you need to proceed with the part of your job that he impacts. In other words, you need this piece of information; you need a direct answer to this question and if you don't get it, you're not going to waste any more of your time with him in that moment. If it's him asking for information and he begins talking over you or acting like he already knows the answer, you can ask him if he needs the information or not, or you can say, "OK," and walk away.

He sounds a lot like students I've had who were indeed in over their heads and tried to control the situation by making the discussion about something else. With people like that, you can have a conversation that is a complete waste of time from your point of view, but from theirs it is somehow a success because they've gotten you to interact on their terms. It was my responsibility to help these students out; I would argue it's not really your responsibility to help a co-worker with their evasive tactics. But you do end up helping him if you insist he stay on point, and spell out very clearly what you need from him and that you don't need that other stuff.
posted by BibiRose at 8:56 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


One tree in the forest: for many kinds of business writing, a list of the things that need to be included, or even a fill-in-the-blanks outline can help.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:29 PM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


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