Back in 2017, when I attended the first class of "Communication for Computer Scientists," I thought I was going to be taught how to write papers and present in conferences. I wasn't wrong - only, I learned a whole lot more. Recently, I found myself telling this story to two women at a coffee shop, and seeing how they were intrigued by it, I thought I should write this somewhere.
The MSc in Applied Computing program I had just joined had the course in question as a mandatory credit. It was in line with the program's aim to produce industry-ready applied scientists. My cohort, though, couldn't be too serious about the idea of the unconventional, bright and chirpy Lil Blume teaching them how to "listen empathetically", "convert this "you" sentence to an "I" sentence", or "write a 300-word essay on that time when someone disagreed with you and how you worked it out." After all, we were a class of geeky grad students. We didn't need that communication crap, right?
I did start out paying attention in the class, but only out of respect for the instructor. She was, honest to God, one of the most dedicated teachers I have had the pleasure of being in class with. Not only that, she even let me be my disruptive, vocal self. What more could I ask for? When I failed to keep the deadline for my essay, she said "write me an apology email" - I had to look up "how to apologize" section in our binder. Fascinating.
A few classes in, I had let the course breach my reservations, like that curious co-passenger on a long flight that you got into conversation with only to end up talking through your childhood issues. In one exercise, Lil asked us to remember the time when we had a conflict with a close friend. This took me back to some troubling times. The exercise had us reframe how we communicated with the other person. To my surprise, I wished I had known this skill a few years ago. This happened again and again - I was realizing how these skills were not only practical, they were also the "aha" solutions to many interpersonal challenges I had faced all my life. The course was teaching me a structured way of developing subtle, important ways of navigating through a messy, complicated battleground: communicating with other adults.
It didn't take long before I saw this course shaping my professional life. The second half of my MSc program was an internship. I still remember falling for the passionate pitch by a start-up about how they had engineers working in a full-time pairing setup. From the first day at work, though, I began to realize how much of a challenge this pairing system was going to be. A couple of months in, I found myself stressed out by the evening, heart racing, socially exhausted. I realized that sitting with another engineer and solving problems as a unit took its toll. "I'm a team player", "I love collaborating and learning from my peers", all those lines that were so easy to proclaim about myself now felt strangely foreign.
I had a conversation with the "coach" at my workplace about how pairing with another person was not easy for me, although I was all for it. Talking to him, I realized that while working as a pair, I was finding it difficult to convey what I felt we needed to do. Sometimes, I needed to convey to my partner why I needed something to be done in a particular way. When we disagreed, we often had conflicts. One of us got defensive, and a tension was growing between us.
This was when I recalled an exercise in the communications class! I dusted off the thick bundle of photocopied pages in a red binder from the Communications class. Flipping through, I found the page with the "I, not You" exercise. I could immediately see how this applied to workplace interactions. For instance, I once told my partner "Yo! Stop planning so much. It's frustrating," drawing a defensive response from them. Instead, the lesson suggested that I address my unmet needs (a sense of progress, in this case), and express how I felt when they aren't met (I was anxious). I may then also talk about what I thought we should do instead. "When we plan as much as we do before we try anything, it makes me anxious because I need a sense of progress" - this helped me take responsibility of my feelings and also realize what my needs were. This way, I was giving my partner information about my problem.
This was not just with work, in fact. In 2018 when I met the girl that would be my partner, on the first day, I was hyper-aware of how I communicated with her. Let me explain why. A lot of friends who knew me from a long time, including the mutual friend who introduced us, always described me as "annoying, but hard to not love." Compliment, maybe, but a reference to parts of me that I was insecure about. I was an outspoken, "no filter" kind of guy. I got into conflicts with my friends and coworkers. "You argue for argument's sake," I would get told, for instance. In the communication class, when I wrote essays for Lil, I took the liberty of diving into the past for stuff that happened in my life. It was therapeutic to work on how I could have communicated better and more efficiently.
In this relationship, I find myself being a better communicator. Not perfect, no kidding, but I reach into my communication tools when conflicts arise, when the 4000 kilometers that separate us try to drive a wedge between us, when one of us is angry or moody or hurt. I am more tuned into what I say, how I was say it, and what the situation demands. Finding my personal life benefitting from a class I attended in my MSc really helps when I feel bad about making those student loan payments.
Back to the recent coffee shop situation, then. People sitting at the table next to me were talking about how engineers at their workplace had problems communicating with each other when in conflicts. This got me intrigued - I mustered the courage to interrupt them and offered up my story. They were all ears as I narrated the uncut version of the rambling you've just been the victim of. As it turned out, they were HR professionals from a tech company and they had just helped an engineer at their workplace work through a conflict. They reckoned a course like this would be ideal for their engineers too! As we parted ways, I did shout out Lil's website to them.
That's it, then. If you are sitting at your MSc orientation, when course instructors are on stage to give a brief preview of their courses, if you spot an energetic, funny lady talk about something communication something, know that it is not an easy course to warm up to. The instructor and the methodology are both very unconventional (for engineers) and yet so traditional (essays, activities, photocopied notes!) I recommend, though, that you approach the course with curiosity and you might live to tell stories like these.