Basic Communication Skills for Technical Managers

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Basic Communication Skills
for Technical Managers

by James G.

Docid: 00011553

Publication Date: 1908

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Technical managers play a vital role,
connecting the business side and the technical side of a company.
The technical and non-technical staff in a company often seem to speak two different languages, requiring technical managers to be effectively bilingual. They must be able to
translate in both directions to help the
business and tech sides understand each other and complement each other’s strengths. However, many
of the people in these positions are more comfortable with technical tasks than with communication and
other people skills. For such managers, training in management and
communication (also referred to as “soft skills”) can significantly increase their effectiveness.
Such training is available in a variety of formats including seminars, webinars, computer-based courses, and one-on-one coaching.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Technical managers play a vital role,
connecting the business side and the technical side of a company.

Leading a
Technical Group Tutorial

To do this successfully requires the ability
to communicate with each side in its own language and to mediate or translate between
them. However, many technical managers have risen to their positions from
development roles within the company, and they have more comfort and expertise
with technical tasks than with leadership, communication, and other “soft
skills”. Such managers are often eager for help with the communications
component of their responsibilities.

Improved communication can help a technical
manager become more effective at almost every aspect of his or her job including
presentations, proposals, and progress reports; project and team management;
feedback and performance evaluations; resolving conflict; and building
credibility outside the company with customers, partners, and the press.

Experts offer the following suggestions to
help ensure successful business and technical communication:

  • Decide in advance the purpose of the
    communication and form a plan for achieving it.
  • Know and respond to the interests, abilities,
    needs, expectations, and cultural differences of those with whom you are
  • Attend to nonverbal cues, including facial
    expressions, gestures, posture, tone of voice, and conversational timing.
  • Listen actively and with respect.
  • Be assertive, combining consideration for others with direct communication.
  • Know that misunderstandings are common, and
    verify that the listener has understood the speaker.

Training in management and communication
skills that is specifically targeted for technical managers is widely available
in a variety of formats, including seminars, webinars, computer-based courses,
and one-on-one coaching. Some training programs explicitly address cultural
aspects of communication, an important consideration because diverse
ethnicities and other demographic variables are likely to be represented within
a company or its markets.


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The ability to communicate effectively is
important in any managerial role, but it is essential for a technical manager
who must act as a link between the business and technical sides of a company.
Business people and technical people often have different educations,
experiences, vocabularies, priorities, and even personalities. A technical
manager must be able to communicate with each side in its own language,
understanding and addressing their particular needs and expectations.

In addition, a technical manager is often
called upon to mediate or translate between the two sides. He or she sometimes
acts as an advocate for the technical staff, communicating to the business side
how technical projects are progressing and what resources and timing the technical
people need to achieve a successful outcome. At other times, he or she will have to explain to
the technical staff why and how they need to respond to budget, revenue,
market, and other strategic business factors.

However, many technical managers have risen
to their positions from technical roles within the company, so they have more
comfort and expertise with those tasks than with leadership, communication,
and other people skills. And they know they need help: A survey by the American
Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found that improving communication skills is
one of the top three areas where members believe they could most benefit.
In a 2017 survey from Robert Half Management Resources, communication and
diplomacy was selected as the skill professional workers say managers needed to
improve the most. Thirty percent selected communication and diplomacy, nearly
twice as many as selected greater technical expertise or leadership.1

Figure 1. “Which skill do you think your manager needs to improve most?”

Figure 1. "Which skill do you think your manager needs to improve most?"

Improved communication with superiors,
subordinates, and peers can help technical managers become more effective at
almost every aspect of their jobs including presentations, proposals, and
progress reports; project and team management; performance evaluations and
feedback; resolving conflict; and building credibility outside the company with
customers, partners, and the press. As said by Tim Hird, executive director of Robert
Half Management Resources,
“The greatest ideas go nowhere if a manager cannot express them effectively,
gain consensus and build the work relationships necessary to execute them.”
eSoft Skills reports that research by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and
Stanford Research
Center found that “85 percent of job success comes from having well-developed soft skills and people skills.”

Figure 2. Percent of Job Success Due to Soft Skills vs. Technical Skills

Figure 2. Percent of Job Success Due to Soft Skills vs. Technical Skills


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To help ensure successful business and
technical communication, it is important to know your purpose, know your audience, attend to nonverbal cues, anticipate misunderstandings, listen actively, and communicate assertively.

Know Your Purpose. It sounds obvious, but too often communication goes awry because it
doesn’t have a clear purpose to begin with. The first step in effective
communication is to decide in advance what the intended result of the
communication is and then formulate a plan for achieving it. With a clear
purpose, it is easier to select the appropriate delivery method – whether face-to-face, telephone, e-mail, or formal report – and
then tailor the message to fit its purpose, audience, and context.

Know Your Audience. In order to tailor the message to fit its audience,
it is necessary to know the interests, abilities, experience, needs, and
expectations of those who will receive the message. Understanding any cultural
differences is just as important in order to avoid inadvertently misleading or
even insulting colleagues, superiors, subordinates, or customers.

Attend to Nonverbal Cues. People tend to think communication is accomplished
through words, and to an extent they are correct: The words you choose not only
determine the accuracy and clarity of your message’s content but also convey
connotations and attitude. However, numerous studies have shown that the vast
majority of the meaning in an exchange is communicated nonverbally – some estimate as much as 90 percent. Clear and effective communication
cannot be accomplished without paying attention to and managing what is being
said by gestures, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues – both
your own and those of the other person.

This is perhaps the main reason why e-mails
so often lead to misunderstandings: They lack the nonverbal cues that might
make clear when a message is a good-natured attempt at humor rather than an
angry jab. An e-mail also tends to be composed and sent quickly, without the sender
taking time to review it and make sure that the meaning and emphasis of the message are properly
expressed. It is important to be aware of these risks and compose e-mail and
other written communication carefully. Particularly when
sensitive issues are involved, it is better to speak in person or at least on
the phone to reduce the chance of misinterpretation.

Nonverbal cues are powerful. They can either
support and reinforce a verbal message or undermine and contradict it.
Communication is most effective when the verbal and nonverbal messages are
congruent. When there is a conflict between the two, it creates tension as
well as reducing trust in both the person and the message. In such cases, most
listeners tend to believe the nonverbal message. For example, if you say you
are not angry while clenching your teeth and glaring, people assume that you
actually are angry.

An effective communicator is aware of the
multiple channels through which information can be transmitted and uses this
knowledge both to reinforce the messages he or she sends and to better
understand the messages he or she receives. Table 1 describes seven
communication channels that contribute to the message a person transmits.

Table 1. Communication Channels




Verbal communication is words, either
written or spoken, and their arrangement into sentences, paragraphs, and larger
units. Good communicators are careful to choose the right words and to
organize their messages clearly, realizing that the same word can convey
different attitudes, connotations, and shades of meaning to different people.


Some information is best represented
graphically through images, figures, charts, illustrations, or diagrams,
especially for communication that is targeted toward a technical audience.


People often are not aware of the messages
they communicate visually through facial expressions, eye movements,
gestures, and posture as well as through their clothing, grooming, and other
aspects of personal appearance. Such elements can reveal confidence, fear, or
aggressiveness and often convey different messages in different cultures.
Written communication also has a visual component: A document that is sloppy,
cluttered, or otherwise unattractive is likely to be less effective at
accomplishing its intended purpose.


Tone of voice conveys much about a
speaker’s mental and emotional state, as well as attitude toward
his or her subject matter and listeners.


Touch is used more in some cultures than
in others. For example, Arabs and Latinos tend to use more physical contact
in a business environment than Americans and Northern Europeans. It is
important to be aware of the cultural context and expectations regarding
touch. Too little or too much touching can easily be misinterpreted as either
cold or intrusive, depending on one’s perspective.


The use of space and the natural proximity
between people in a business environment varies significantly between
cultures. For example, Americans feel comfortable within a social zone of
4-12 feet for business associates; anything closer may feel intrusive to


Cultural and regional differences in
conversational timing and turn-taking frequently lead to discomfort and
misunderstandings. One person may wait for a clear pause as a signal that the
other person has finished his turn, while the other may feel uncomfortable
with any dead time in the conversation and feel an obligation to jump in and
fill it. The first person is likely to see the second as rude, aggressive,
and never allowing anyone else to speak, while the second is likely to see
the first as uncommunicative and failing to participate.

Anticipate Misunderstandings. Miscommunications are common in the work setting
because coworkers often have little shared history or understanding of each
other’s styles. Language can also be ambiguous, attention can wander, and
people can simply misspeak or mishear. Whether as the speaker or the listener,
a manager should never assume that a message was received as it was intended,
no matter how clearly and carefully it seemed to be worded. Instead, it is
important to verify explicitly that the listener has understood correctly. One
way is to stop the conversation and give the listener a chance to confirm or
rephrase what was said. Giving or asking for extra context is another helpful
technique; with specific contextual information it often becomes easier
to rule out extraneous potential meanings. A written follow-up confirming what
was said and agreed to is also recommended.

It can be difficult for the writer of a message, who of course knows what he
or she meant, to discern the places where ambiguous phrasing or unintended connotations
could cause misunderstandings by the reader. For high-stakes written communication,
it is therefore a good practice to ask a second person to review
a draft of the document or message before it is finalized.

Listen Actively. Much miscommunication could be avoided if the listener or reader simply
better on the speaker or text, without multitasking or being otherwise
distracted. Active listening also involves looking at the person who is talking
and watching for nonverbal cues and feelings as well as factual information. It
is very important when listening to avoid jumping in and interrupting, as well as to
verify understanding before making any judgments. Finally, after giving the
other person a chance to finish talking, responding by asking open-ended
questions will keep the conversation going rather than shutting it down.

Communicate Assertively.
Another important factor in effective communication is using an assertive communication style.
Assertiveness combines consideration for both self and others, with direct, honest, straightforward
communication. One’s own feelings, needs, opinions, and desires are expressed honestly and respectfully,
without dismissing or insulting others’ perspectives, because each person’s needs, rights, and contributions
are accorded equal worth. An assertive person is seen by others as confident, cooperative, and easy to get
along with – making it possible to achieve desired goals while also improving relationships with coworkers,
customers, and other business contacts.

Three communication styles should be avoided. (1) Passive communicators combine indirect communication
with low consideration for their own needs (although high consideration for others). In their attempt to
avoid conflict and please others, passive communicators fail to achieve their goals, and are often seen as
weak and apathetic. (2) Aggressive communicators combine often overly direct communication with low consideration
for others. In their attempt to win at all costs, they may achieve their goals in the short term, but at the
cost of damaged relationships that lead to poor long-term results. (3) Passive-aggressive communicators combine
indirect communication with low consideration for others. In their attempt to meet their own needs without taking
responsibility, they may use sarcasm, or fail at tasks in a way that evades
blame, for example by forgetting or being late. These strategies often lead to unmet goals and damaged relationships.
These four communication styles are described in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Communication Styles

Figure 3. Communication Styles

Avoid Stereotypes and Prejudice. The University of Notre Dame reminds
managers to reject any negative influences that affect communication, including
adherence to stereotypes and prejudicial opinions:

  • "Stereotypes are a fixed, over-simplified image of a person or group
    derived from only a small sampling of individuals. Most of these
    preconceived assumptions are involuntary, but, can make your attempts at
    communications less effective.
  • "Know your personal prejudices. Do you judge people based on superficial
    aspects such as physical appearance or how they speak? Do you draw conclusions
    about someone before you ever approach them? Take time to get to know your team
    members, looking past any prejudices, so you have good information to determine
    how to best communicate with them."2

Use Storytelling to Communicate. According to analyst Alison Davis,
one of the key communication skills that every manager needs is the ability to
use storytelling to communicate. Often the best way to express a critical
concept – particularly a preferred behavior – is to tell a story (or relate a
real-life experience) that exemplifies how employees should conduct themselves
in specific situations. Part of good call center training, for example, consists
of call center reps listening to actual calls, with managers commenting on which
interactions were handled well and which were not.3

Pursue Good Practices. Robert Half Management Resources provides these suggestions for steps managers can take to improve their communication skills:

  • Request feedback about your communication strengths and weaknesses from managers, peers, and employees (anonymous if they prefer).
  • Identify a manager who has good rapport with staff and watch how he/she interacts.
  • Get help in areas where you are less comfortable, e.g. ask a mentor for pointers or take a class.
  • Practice actively listening to what others are saying rather than planning your response. Pause a bit before speaking to ensure you are not interrupting.
  • Be genuine, human, and occasionally vulnerable so your staff can more easily relate to you, and so they know you don’t expect perfection from them, either.


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With managers spending
up to 80 percent of their time in written or oral communication, improvements
in communication skills can significantly affect a manager’s overall
effectiveness. Most companies wouldn’t hesitate to provide technical training
for their employees; they should have the same attitude about communication
skills training.

In their study of communication skills among
technical professionals, Becker, Insley, and Endres4 found that 64 percent of firms in
the information services area conduct formal communications skills training for
their employees, and that communication skills are perceived to be significantly
more important for managers than for technical or support personnel. In fact,
their study found that technical managers use communication skills 93 percent of the
time (compared with 81 percent of the time for technical and support personnel).

Training in management and communication
skills that is specifically targeted for technical managers is widely available
in a variety of formats.

  • Numerous companies offer seminars, conferences,
    and workshops lasting from two to five days. Such organizations include Alliance Training
    and Consulting, the American Management Association, Business Training
    Works, Learning Tree International, Morgan Training Company, National
    Seminars Training, and UCLA Extension.
  • Another option is a webinar, a live or recorded
    seminar over the web, which a group of managers can attend in the
    company’s own conference room during their lunch hour. For example, the
    American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) offers various webinars
    addressing communication skills for engineers.
  • Other companies, such as (now LinkedIn Learning) and eSoft Skills, offer computer-based courses
    that allow individuals to learn on their own schedules. eSoft Skills also provides a
    Learming Management System which a company can use to provide a library of soft skills
    training for its staff.
  • Individual, one-on-one coaching for technical
    executives and managers is also available. Technical and Scientific Career
    Services, which offers both classes and individual coaching, recommends
    coaching as the most efficient method for executives who have limited

Some training programs explicitly address
cultural aspects of communication, an important consideration since diverse
cultures and demographics are likely to be represented within the company or
its markets.

The Training Registry provides a directory
of training resources including trainers, training companies, consultants,
courses, classes, programs, products and tools, speakers, coaches, and books.
Their course listings include online courses, instructor-led courses, and
courses on DVD.


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Communication is involved in every aspect of
a technical manager’s job and claims the majority of his or her time. Improving
the communication skills of its technical managers is sure to be a worthwhile
investment for a company, with likely benefits in every area of its business,

  • Faster identification of problems and more
    effective responses.
  • Better presentations, proposals, and progress
  • Reduced misunderstandings and conflict.
  • Faster and more reliable completion of projects.
  • Productivity not hampered by people issues.
  • Improved sales and negotiations.
  • Better public image presented to customers,
    investors, professional colleagues, and the press.


1 Sean McCabe. “Staff Seek More Communication in Their Managers, Survey Finds.” Accounting Today.
February 21, 2017.

2 "Effective Communication Skills a Must for Managers." University of Notre
Dame, Mendoza College of Business. July 17, 2019.

3 Alison Davis. "25 Communication Skills Every Manager Needs."
Inc. February 15, 2019.

4 Jack D. Becker, Robert G. Insley, and Megan L. Endres. "Communication Skills of Technical Professionals: A Report for Schools
of Business Administration." Newsletter, ACM SIGCPR Computer Personnel, 18(2): 3-19
(April 1997).

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About the Author

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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst and

business writer with more than 30 years’ IT experience. A member of

"Who’s Who in Finance and Industry," Mr. Barr has designed,

developed, and deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune

500 firms. He is the author of several books, including How to

Succeed in Business BY Really Trying, a member of Faulkner’s Advisory

Panel, and a senior editor for Faulkner’s Security Management

Practices. Mr. Barr can be reached via e-mail at

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