Mastering soft skills for engineers and designers

Learn how to improve soft skills for engineers and designers, from more effective conversation techniques to communicating scope creep to clients.

Image composite of a man holding a paper smile

Jean Thilmany

June 3, 2015

min read
  • Engineers may have a strong technical prowess, but they could benefit from developing their communication abilities and interpersonal skills.

  • Training methods show engineers how to effectively communicate, handle “scope creep” in projects, and manage different communication channels.

  • Learning soft skills can ultimately enhance their performance and positively impact the business environment.

Two men laugh in an office setting
Learning soft skills can help you be more of a “people person” at the office.

You know your way around a jobsite or a shop floor like nobody’s business. You know the software inside out. You have awesome “hard skills,” but what about “soft skills” for engineers and designers?

And what are soft skills, exactly? It’s those personality traits and characteristics that make one person a “people person,” the other an office hermit.

Good communicators do just that: They communicate well. And in the process, they close sales, are team players, keep customers happy, and set boundaries in gentle, specific ways. Office hermits, alas, aren’t so great at those skills.

Obviously, businesses want employees with both hard and soft skills, but not everyone can be a people person. Companies know this. The good news is that soft skills can be taught, say the heads of three businesses that teach this gentle art to those in the technical field.

“We’re all human beings, and soft skills are as important or more important than hard skills at any moment in time,” says Randy Mysliviec, president and CEO at RTM Consulting, which teaches soft skills to employees at technology companies of all stripes.

Is this you? Soft skills for engineers and designers

Being mindful of tone when speaking to colleagues is an important part of building soft skills.

So maybe you’re reading this and getting concerned you’re not the constantly chipper, outgoing, energetic employee (or even business owner) that you should be. Don’t worry.

Everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum between the friendly, engaging, and easy to get along with and the succinct communicator, says Greg Baker, president and CEO of Advance Consulting. Those who seek a nudge toward the engaging end can come by it through employee training. “Soft skills can absolutely be taught,” he says.

And Baker should know; his company has been carrying out soft skills training for the past 25 years. Through a variety of training methods, classes offer tips (and then role-play scenarios) on having effective conversations with teammates and clients.

Steven Cerri heads STCerri International of San Rafael, CA, and leads workshops that teach communication and interpersonal skills to technical professionals.

For one exercise, Cerri asks his students to program a videocassette recorder. He tells them to do this two separate times, using the exact same wording and instructions each time. There’s a hitch, of course. When he gives the first set of instructions, he condescends to students via verbal tone and body language. The second time, he speaks calmly.

Cerri then asks his students what they thought of the exercise. They usually tell him they felt uncomfortable with the first time he told them what to do, and the second time they didn’t. And they were better able to program the VCR the second time.

“I say to them, ‘I only changed my tone,'” Cerri explains. “Then they get it. They usually haven’t gotten this before.”

In Mysliviec’s training courses, he reminds students to determine the best medium over which to convey a message, whether via text message, email, phone call, or in person.

Remember the medium and message in communications with clients.

“If the customer is extremely upset and wants a response right now, text message or email isn’t the best because it can’t convey tone or body language,” he says.

People should also wait a bit before sending emails or messages or before making a phone call in order to reread them or to prepare. This helps ensure that communications are warm, straightforward, and don’t convey ambiguous meanings, Mysliviec says.

He encourages clients to review at home how they can show—whether by tone or body language—concern, empathy, or confidence, and then call upon those lessons when meeting with others.

It’s going to cost how much? Communicating scope creep

Three people on a construction site
More companies are seeking soft-skill training for employees to boost their bottom line.

Mysliviec also finds many of his own clients seek training on how to best handle “scope creep”—when a project costs more or runs longer than originally planned.

“Managing scope creep is as much a process of hard skills as it is soft skills,” Mysliviec says. “You might have a have technologist who’s more introverted than not and doesn’t like conflict. So when a customer asks, ‘Can we just add these three things, and for free?’ the technologist will say ‘yes.’ Then the boss says, ‘Who’s going to pay for this?’”

He also talks to students about how to relate to customer’s issues.

“What if you’re working on implementing a new product with a customer and they have a problem with it?” Mysliviec says. “How you react as a service provider has a lot to do with how the customer perceives your company and your product. Do you panic or show a lack confidence, and the customer walks away? Or do you say, ‘We can get this fixed. Here’s what we do.’”

It’s hard to quantify the benefits of soft skills, but both Mysliviec and Baker say it can be done, if only indirectly. Some companies see increased sales after training. Others see a firmer line on scope creep.

More companies have sought soft-skills trainers over the past decade as executives realize that people skills bring a benefit to their bottom line. And Baker expects soft skills will only grow in importance in the future.

“I can’t overemphasize the value of soft skills,” he says. “What we do and how we do it and how we say it has a huge effect on outcome and our ability to have a positive impact on the business environment.”

Jean Thilmany

About Jean Thilmany

Jean Thilmany is a writer and editor in St. Paul, MN. who has long written about engineering technology and finds it fascinating.

Recommended for you