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Communicating Engineering Concepts with Clarity

Updated: 6 days ago

Hi, I’m Shauna and I’m a recovering engineer.

I used to think the most important part of an engineer's job was to create technically sound construction plans. Of course, that is a big part of many engineers' jobs, but now I'm spending most of my time reviewing engineering studies and preparing grant applications. My current role has made me realize how even the most exceptional technical designs and studies can be undermined by poor communication.

At one of my former positions, I was hired as a design engineer in the Water Resources Department, responsible for the calculations and modeling of complex drainage projects. Taking this job and working with this highly technical, award-winning team felt like the Ivy League. However, my colleagues' experiences had been limited to working for developers, typically focusing on the short-term gains of receiving permits. Conversely, my career has been dedicated to serving communities with a longer-term view. Our perspectives clashed like green and gray infrastructure, threatening to create turbulent waters in our shared sea of expertise.

My immediate supervisor saw my differing point of view as a boulder planted firmly in the middle of his tranquil department. His boss, our director, saw things differently. He noticed that I quickly put our client communities at ease.

As a former municipal client of my new team, I knew how important it was to follow the client’s communication style and listen to the concerns of the homeowners within the project area. I also knew that, even though these engineers were technically proficient, poor communication prevented them from being selected for future projects with municipal clients.

Before I joined the company, I was the Assistant Village Engineer overseeing a project designed by my new team. When the team completed the design, their survey, analysis, and concept plans were more detailed than we required. However, poor communication between the team and the community resulted in an impractical design for the neighborhood that failed to consider the unique needs of our community. We did not require them to change the design, but the strained relationship meant that my community would not hire them again.

I knew I could add value to this otherwise competent team by improving the client experience. Because of my strong communication skills and my director's interest in building client trust, he gave me opportunities and responsibilities beyond my menial title.  

Anticipating Problems

As I was finding my place in my new company, I was assigned as the design engineer for a drainage improvement and attended the kickoff meeting with the project manager. The client was a spunky lady with strong opinions, but little experience with infrastructure projects. The project manager from my company was a very rigid and technical female engineer. Like me and my coworkers, the project manager and client had opposing views on everything.

I shared my observation with the project manager on our way back to the office, even though I could sense her reluctance to receive my feedback. I explained that the client is not accustomed to working with engineers. I suggested we act as an extension of the client’s staff, reporting to her as if she were our boss, and providing regular updates to help build a trusting relationship and prevent misunderstandings.

Then, just as the project was going to bid, I received a thunderous storm of emails from the client who was out of state at a funeral. She was furious and didn’t know where to turn. She forwarded me a series of emails from the project manager and asked me for help.

The project manager quoted contract language as an excuse not to complete the required paperwork. How could the project manager be so insensitive? Regardless of whether the paperwork was explicitly written in our contract, completing it took less time than arguing about it. I informed my director, and like a swift current, I was thrown in to settle the turbulent waters the project manager created.

Resolving Conflict

Now it was my turn. I knew turning the tide wouldn’t be easy, but I liked this client and wanted to salvage the relationship. I was excited to work with her when she showed up to our first meeting in her jean capris, graphic tee, and bright blue blazer. We had similar interests and shared passion for helping the underserved. I knew no one else at the company had experience preparing this paperwork, so I did it over the weekend.

Still, feeling terrible about how the project manager treated her, I remembered our conversation at a public meeting. She told me how she loved farm-fresh eggs and would travel out of her way to pick some up. That Sunday, I went to my local farmer's market, picked up a dozen farm-fresh eggs, and delivered them to her office the next day with an apology note.

My peace offering worked and it set the tone for our relationship. We became fast friends and I continued to work with her on future projects.

My Communication Strategy

My job is not just to provide a product that is technically sound, but also easy to understand. I believe in clear communication, lifting the fog of technical jargon.

  • How will you use each of the deliverables? Some are obvious, such as construction drawings and specifications. However, exhibits and reports may be used at a public meeting or sent to an engineer for review and can be tailored as needed. The client I mentioned above was not an engineer and I noticed she always wore bright colors, so I knew she would appreciate colorful, easy-to-understand exhibits and face-to-face meetings. She liked my exhibits so much that she decorated her office with them.

  • Do you prefer emails, phone calls, or meetings? Some people prefer to review the details independently and others want to talk about the project together. The moment I met this client I could tell she was excited to attend our first meeting. Since face-to-face meetings were her preferred method of communication, I scheduled monthly meetings with her to discuss the project.

  • I connect to the human impact the project will make. For this project, we hosted a public meeting in the neighborhood, where I learned about the high crime rate in the area. The residents were uncomfortable parking their vehicles on the street overnight, so I adjusted the construction sequencing to provide uninterrupted driveway access.

  • I work as an extension of your staff. The better we communicate and the more I learn about your community, the better the final product will be. Learning that my client loved farm-fresh eggs helped me connect with her months later. I also learned that she is passionate about helping underserved populations, a cause that resonated with me. Every time I spoke to her, I could hear her passion. She knew the name of every homeowner in the four-by-four block project area. She helped me write the names of each homeowner on the exhibits. When I had a question about a particular address, I would ask about the person, not the address number, because that was how she knew each house.

Like a carefully designed drainage system, these communication strategies prevent misunderstandings and conflicts that could divert your project.


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