Listening as Engineering Communication

When we talk about “professional” or “engineering” communication, we almost exclusively focus on the skills required to deliver our intended messages to others. Even on this site, we almost exclusively focus on tips, skills, and techniques around writing and speaking persuasively and effectively (though sometimes we talk about visuals). But in a discipline whose main purpose is to serve the needs of its communities, stakeholders, and clients, accurately receiving their messages and understanding their intentions is just as important – perhaps more important. The skill of listening is crucial to understanding engineering problems, which is the first step to doing engineering right. 

Yet, as Jon Leydens and Juan Lucena argue, listening is not often formally taught in engineering curricula [1]. This is despite the fact that the skill of listening is – both explicitly and implicitly – identified as a key attribute for engineers by multiple agencies, such as the National Academy of Engineering and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. 

In that article, Leydens and Lucena make an important distinction between “basic” and “contextual” listening that has significant ramifications for engineering design and problem solving, particularly for understanding the needs of stakeholders. Basic listening frames the act of communication as a “dyadic process of speaking (output) and hearing (input)” [1]: your ability to hear or pay attention to the speaker is sufficient. “Contextual” listening, Leydens and Lucena argue, involves making meaning from more than just speech, but involves using clues from the socio-cultural and historical contexts of stakeholders to facilitate deeper meaning making and understanding between listeners and speakers.  

More specifically, they argue, contextual listening can help engineers do better design and problem solving by, among other things:

  1. Going beyond the one way transmission of information to developing a multidirectional and empathic relationship between agents in the conversation
  2. Transforming the actions arising from listening: actions become collaborative rather than individual, with stakeholder empowerment and project ownership as outcomes
  3. Allowing for a dialogic relationship that fosters accountability and transparency
  4. Creating a context sensitive awareness of individuals’ roles and abilities, and hence, an awareness of biases and their consequences [1] 

Many examples of the limits of basic listening can be seen via cases in sustainable engineering design. The case of the PlayPump, for example, presents one such warning. In this case, well meaning engineers heard only the very basic needs of their stakeholders – acquiring potable water from underground sources – and insinuated their own biases into their understanding – their desire to see children at play. Their design was quite ingenious given that interpretation of the engineering opportunity – a merry go round that would pump water into a storage tank as children played; but their failure to incorporate context, engage in real dialogue, and collaborate with the communities involved led to the PlayPump’s failure to deliver on its most important promise. In many cases, the PlayPumps were replaced by hand pumps, left unused, or had broken down. Those failures may have been mitigated by contextual listening, which would have allowed them to hear that children didn’t play for nearly enough time to produce sufficient water, that replacement parts and the know how to replace them wouldn’t have been easy to come by, or that the underground water source was not easily accessible in the area. [2]

Leydens and Lucena’s article demonstrates the limitations of basic listening, as well as the importance and implications of contextual listening (and hearing). It also explores why we might be resistant to contextual listening and the challenges of teaching it to engineers: read more about those here, and learn more about how to incorporate contextual listening into your engineering work. In producing meaning from listening, you may want to try going beyond “what you hear” to seek out more “what others say” in light of a given community’s own understanding of its history and socio-cultural values.  Doing so may mean the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one. 

[1] Leydens, Jon & C. Lucena, Juan. “Listening as a Missing Dimension in Engineering Education: Implications for Sustainable Community Development Efforts.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 359 – 376. 2009. 

[2] Frontline, PBS. “Troubled Water.” Available online: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/southernafrica904/index.html