Unleash communications from their e-mail chains

Communicating is key to an engineer’s job, and it is our professional responsibility to do it well—and correctly.


Recently, I was on the receiving end of a six-page e-mail string that, from my perspective, tried to resolve an issue that should have been resolved in the field. This particular e-mail started in mid-May with an innocent question regarding water discharge location related to a fire pump test and ended in mid-June with exasperation as to no resolution to the original question.

As engineers, we get so caught up in problem solving that we tend to overlook proper communication techniques. When an e-mail chain continues for that length of time, the original question or issue can be lost. When a long e-mail string comes your way, it is best to stop it—to break the chain and start over—or, here’s a thought, maybe even pick up the phone.

How do you recognize when to break the chain? What are your options for communicating effectively? When should you stop hiding behind the electronic world of words we engage in? Years ago there were three primary means of communication: phone calls, letters, and face-to-face meetings, all of which still exist and are just as effective today, but they require commitment, practice, and follow-through. Today there are additional means of communication, such as e-mail, fax, and social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. Can these means be used effectively, or are they becoming a distraction from the real needs and methods of communicating?

Solving a project problem is not always pleasant, but communication avoidance or obfuscation can lead to trouble. Let’s look at communication methods and explore how to use them.

  1. Phone calls. Why do people call? Because they want to talk with you. Phone calls and voice messages should be returned with phone calls, not e-mail. Try to avoid phone tag (like returning calls during lunch); it delays effective communication.

  2. Letter writing. To whom, reference, salutation, pleasantries, purpose, factual body, follow-up, closing, thank you, copy to. If we write like this on company letterhead, we should write the same way in an e-mail. Sometimes composing a rough draft first to release our emotions allows us to then start over and focus on the facts that need to be addressed.

  3. Face-to-face meetings. How easy it is to prepare an agenda, make an appointment, go see someone, and talk about topics and issues. This task can be very difficult when the topic is unpleasant, but easier when you know the person from regular visits. Major issues should be resolved in face-to-face meetings, with the decision or action necessary recorded with appropriate follow-through. Observe body language, eye contact, handshake, attention span—things you cannot see over the phone or in e-mail.

  4. E-mail. It’s a quick and easy way to share information and attach files, but did the recipient actually “get” what you meant? E-mail seems safe, nonconfrontational, nonemotional, and a good way to hide. Limit the content if possible. Use e-mail for confirmation only—not problem resolution. Avoid the temptation to just “shoot” someone an e-mail. Think about the what, the why, and the expectation. Say please and thank you.

  5. Social media. LinkedIn seems to be the professional platform of choice now. Connection is quick, a network can easily be grown, and good information is posted, but how much time can one devote to this on a regular basis? It is a great way to keep up with contacts and learn what they are doing, but hearing a voice in a phone call goes a long way.

  6. Texting/messaging. Texts are great for abbreviated messages, but could be strained and difficult in business communication. Texting is rude during a meeting when others are talking.

J. Patrick Banse, PE, LEED AP, Smith Seckman Reid Inc., HoustonCommunicating can be a tough job, but it is our job and our professional responsibility to do it well and correctly. It takes thought, practice, and follow-through. Also, communicating affirmatively in many different media is imperative for engineers who desire to become managers and have leading roles in business development.

Banse has more than 35 years of experience in the consulting engineering field with the past 30 years in healthcare design and engineering. He is a member of Consulting-Specifying Engineer's Editorial Advisory Board.

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