Industrial Career Advice: Be a Good Listener

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #52.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerEngineers love to solve problems. If your questions are intelligent and you appear conscientious and dutiful in understanding and using the information for a solution, the office door will generally be open for you. A person can tell if you are listening. I use a notebook to capture key ideas and details. Not only does this help in retrieval of the knowledge offered over time, the act of taking notes impresses upon the expert that what he/she is saying is important and will be used. I enter with an open mind and an eagerness to acquire knowledge that is often undocumented and even unspoken.

The discussion should not be driven in a preconceived direction. The conversation should be free to take new directions as insights are gained. Intuitive reasoning as a complement to analytical reasoning is the key to success. Of course, you need to make sure the original problem is addressed but there is a definite advantage in allowing the conversation to pursue unforeseen opportunities. When there is a pause, be quiet and wait; you need to let the expert have ample time to restart.

I have extensively used this simple approach in my Control Talk column for the last 10 years to capture and share the expertise of people whom I know have something to offer. The process is totally different than the interview method traditionally used. There is no list of questions, no agenda, and no sales pitch. For Control Talk, the conversation goes wherever it naturally flows. I usually end up with four pages of notes for a one hour conversation. The whole process is casual, open, and enjoyable. If you become a really good listener and promoter of conversation, you might become the next Oprah (OK, maybe not).

If some piece of advice proves to be wrong, you must inform the expert but don’t forget to mention what you learned in the advice that helped you to solve the problem. Make sure the expert remains part of the solution. This approach avoids making the expert defensive, shutting off future discussions. I have found that the greater the expertise, the greater the ego and the need to be right.

Learning from operators and maintenance technicians is extremely important because they are on the front lines. You generally need to establish a personal relationship before such individuals will open up. This requires time and patience. The best thing you can do is hang out in the control room and instrument shop and observe without interfering. Becoming an insider rather than an outsider is essential. The worst thing you can do is to offer your opinions unasked. You may need to be proactive in asking questions because the arenas of knowledge of engineers and technicians/operators are so different. You also need to seek observations more than conclusions because knowledge of causal first principles and automation systems is rare in operations and maintenance personnel. War stories often rule. Getting the observations of different shifts also helps with perspective, and further discussions with operations supervision and process technology support are important to sort out fact from fiction.

Concept: Egos and today’s fast pace of life tend to encourage sound bites, superficial understanding, and the reinforcement of established practices. When seeking the knowledge of others you need to “chill,” build relationships, truly listen, record what you have learned, and share results in a positive, constructive manner.

Details: Develop personal relationships with knowledgeable people in research and engineering, at suppliers, and in control rooms and instrument shops. Start a conversation to solve your problem. First choice is to see them in person, second choice is a phone call, and last choice is email correspondence. Ask an initiating intelligent question. Take time to listen and let the conversation go where it needs to go. Take notes. Share results and be generous in acknowledging the contribution of everyone involved. “Always asking why,” emphasized in Tip#1, is the essence of being an engineer.

Watch-Outs: Specialists may have a narrow view and may not realize when their knowledge is on the borderline of another expertise. Preconceptions may rule. There is also a “not invented here” obstacle on both a personal and an organizational level. Be aware that some experts will not be able to recognize or admit that their advice was wrong. If the dialog becomes negative, destructive, or prejudicial, quickly direct the conversation to a different topic. If the statements are clearly false, correct the person and state the truth clearly (but diplomatically). If recommendations are found to cause adverse results, emphasize the detrimental consequences to the point where the mistakes are not repeated.

Exceptions: While writing notes may be friendlier, more casual, and less intimidating, the future is digital. Voice recognition software can work well for capturing ideas if you can interject your thoughts by supplemental typing. The recording device must be inconspicuous and your typing not a distraction.

Insight: The knowledge of individuals can be openly shared if the environment is inquisitive and friendly and egos take a back seat to truth and problem solving.

Rule of Thumb: Develop personal relationships and engage in meaningful dialog to gain technical and first principle knowledge from research & development (R&D) and design, and what works and doesn’t work from operations and maintenance.

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