Point of Beginning

The Business of Surveying, Part IV

October 1, 2005


Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us worthy evidence of the fact.
-George Eliot, nineteenth-century Victorian writer


In our study of what it takes to be a professional, we have looked at where we are, what skills we need to possess and how to develop those skills. In this article, I would like to break down the skill of communicating so we can better understand how to make it a skill of our own. In my opinion, communicating is crucial to a professional surveyor's success. No matter what skills a surveyor possesses, he or she will not survive without the ability to communicate. The professional surveyor must direct staff, consult with clients, discuss code and law with government employees, coordinate with contractors, and sometimes present projects to various councils. Even for single person owners/operators, communication skills are paramount.

What prevents most people from being good communicators? Some are too shy to speak up, which usually causes them to be directed by others. Others spend too much time speaking up. They constantly interrupt others in an attempt to show how much they know. Their interruptions often skew the speaker's train of thought. Others absorb a small amount of information, associate it with something familiar to them, then let their attention wander. These people usually want to let everyone know how much they know by comparing what's being said to a situation they've faced in the past. This reaction stifles the person's ability to learn from the speaker. And some others focus on trivial details and miss the overall big picture of what is being communicated.

The roots of most of these problems can generally be found in three obstacles to communication: poor listening skills, unclear speaking and fear. Let's take a look at each, starting with poor listening skills. Ernest Hemingway once said, "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." Have you ever noticed how most conversations are really two monologues rather than one dialogue? One person downloads information while the other person loosely follows the line of thought, then the next person downloads without considering what the first has said. Effective listeners don't interrupt to tell their own thoughts until the speaker is through conveying a train of thought. They may only speak to gain clarification, or possibly show their understanding of a complex idea if needed. They listen intently, tuning in to the speaker's words and mannerisms. A good listener can often help a speaker to stay on track if the speaker's focus wanders. Good listeners often take notes-or they have someone else take notes so they can stay focused on the speaker. It takes patience and training to become a good listener, but the rewards are amazing. Focusing on becoming an attentive listener can greatly help one's communication skills.

Speaking concisely is imperative to good communication as well. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it well when he said, "Be sincere; be brief; be seated." One of the pitfalls many new managers fall into is over-explaining instructions. Most want to show how they came to their determination by giving the entire line of thought leading up to a decision. This just isn't necessary. If someone questions your logic, then you can provide a more detailed explanation. Another pitfall is the use of uncommon words. Many people who wish to make others believe they are intelligent are constantly learning new words so they may throw them out when speaking. Having a good vocabulary is fine, but what good are words that most people don't understand? Unless you plan to hand out dictionaries to everyone each time you speak, avoid uncommon words.

Fear, another obstacle to communication, impairs good communication in many ways-and many of us recognize that this occurs in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. One of the biggest inhibitors of solid communication is the fear of admitting to others what we don't know. This is prevalent in the workplace, especially between peers who see another person as possible competition for future promotion. However, without open communication lines between peers, mistakes often follow. If peers cannot be open throughout the course of a project, things end up missed, or tasks are performed twice or inefficiently the first time. Fear also forces people to make others believe they understand something when they really don't. Pulitzer-prize winning author Daniel J. Boorstin once said, "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance-it is the illusion of knowledge." A person who is open about what they don't know may be criticized by their peers, however, they will grow in their career faster. They won't let their fears inhibit them from gaining knowledge.

A person with mediocre surveying skills and excellent communication skills will always rise to the top faster than someone with excellent surveying skills and mediocre communication skills. And rightly so, for how can a person lead without the ability to convey not only instructions to the team, but also motivate them? A professional and a leader must keep the individual's goals and the team's vision in sight, and the only way to do that is through dynamic communication. But a dynamic communicator must have credibility with an audience for the team to heed the message. One way of gaining that is exhibiting your own belief in the message. A leader can clearly communicate a new rule to the team, but if his or her heart isn't in it, the rule won't be followed. Dynamic communicators take their own belief in the message and inspire others with it. A leader's fire will spread if he or she can connect with the team by demonstrating his or her own belief in the message.

Great communicators and leaders must care about the people they are working with for the team to grow. It is more work to communicate effectively with the team than to not. Some professionals just dump information on their subordinates without ensuring understanding and they don't discipline them when tasks aren't completed as efficiently as they should be. But how does the team feel about this type of manager? If their willingness to perform comes from fear of discipline and not having a shared vision, then they will be less likely to care about the performance of the overall team, which must be paramount for a team to succeed.

Communication comes in forms other than speaking and listening. Living what you communicate is as important as communicating the message. A team that witnesses their leader showing up late, leaving early and taking short cuts will most assuredly do the same. Attitude is also a form of communication. If you are willing to take the time to experiment, study how others are affected by your attitude. Your attitude communicates to others more about you than you realize. All the clear speech and proactive listening in the world won't amount to much without conveying a good attitude, which again brings us back to caring about the goals of the individuals and team. Team members with bad attitudes must be addressed quickly and concisely. Their negative influence will spread like a disease to other team members, even if only through the team's dislike for the person with the bad attitude.

Good communicators and leaders are rare in this world. They have dynamic personalities that inspire others to act, and their messages are grounded in what is best for everyone. While not all of us are naturals, the skills needed for good communication and success can be learned. But most of us have our opinions on how things should be and make our assessments on the messages of others based on those opinions. This does little but hold us back. Like John Wooden, Hall of Fame basketball coach, once said, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

This is the fourth part in a six-part series. Click to read Part I, Part II, and Part III.