Theoretical background

Manner and style of communication of most people are, first of all, learnt. We learn about communication mostly under the influence of our parents, environment and other close and important persons who do not have exclusively the efficacy-model approach to communication. Consequently, we are building the ways of our behaviour and relations towards the others which, when negative, are manifested as inability or lack of the skill to express our own feelings, thoughts and emotions, and when positive, as ability to listen with understanding, to accept other people and to assertively express our feelings, thoughts and emotions.

Why do we learn communication skills?

Skills of people employed in any field can be divided into three basic categories (Fig. 1). Those are as follows: 

  1. technical skills,
  2. social skills and
  3. conceptual skills.

Technical skills comprise knowledge and specific skills required for a particular profession. For example, technical skills of IT engineers imply setting the networks or programming, while electrical engineers should understand how a transformer operates. Social skills surpass the professional level, and they are necessary in relations and communication with other people, behaviour in presence of the others and communication in professional environment. For instance, social skills are required in building professional relationships and in dealing with associates and clients. Finally, conceptual skills include skills and abilities of applying ideas in specific situations and resolving complex situations. For example, conceptual skills refer to building the leadership and management strategies in companies.

The mentioned categories of the skills are required in different measures for different organisational levels. Figure 1 shows requirements for technical, social and conceptual skills at the levels of supervisory, middle and top management (Finch and Maddux, 2006: 16). The presented categorisation is general and equally applies to the context of various vocations. To adjust the knowledge and skills acquired at this module to the targeted group of students, we are going to do a similar analysis at the penultimate practical class within the context of knowledge and skills required from modern engineers.

required skills

Figure 1: Requirements for technical, social and conceptual skills at supervisory, middle and top management level (Finch and Maddux, 2006: 16).

Let us first analyse relation between technical and conceptual skills. At supervisory organisational levels, technical skills are considerably more important than conceptual ones to do the job successfully. For instance, employees in a call centre of a company do not need to know detailed business plans for the next five years, but they should be able to help quickly and efficiently to a user calling for technical malfunction of the system. At a lower management level such as the call centre team manager, certain technical skills are still required, but beside them the supervisory management should also have some conceptual skills which can help in development of the middle-term and long-term business plan. As we move to the higher levels of management, the requirements for technical skills are decreasing, being replaced by growing requirements for conceptual skills. Finally, persons in the top positions such as presidents of the large companies' boards should have exceptionally developed conceptual skills while the requirement for the technical ones becomes minimal.

Of course, there is exception to any rule. For example, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is known as a person of exceptionally developed both technical and conceptual skills. Similar can be said about the other giants of information technology industry like  Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. However, such exceptions only prove the rule: at all management levels the possession of additional skills turns us into higher-quality workers and more competent competitors in the market.

As we can see in the Figure 1, social skills have equal significance at all organisational levels. For instance the tasks such as self-introduction to a prospective employer, and presentations of business proposal, report or project include presentation of our technical and conceptual skills, but only social skills enable blending those skills in a harmonious entirety acceptable to our environment. Analysing the social skills in the field of engineering disciplines, Sharon Beder says:

Engineering appears to be at a turning point. It is evolving from an occupation that provides employers and clients with competent technical advice to a profession that serves the community in a socially responsible manner. Traditional engineering education caters to the former ideal, whereas increasingly both engineers themselves and their professional societies aspire to the latter. Employers are also requiring more from their engineering employees than technical pro?ciency. A new educational approach is needed to meet these changing requirements. It is no longer suf?cient, nor even practical, to attempt to cram students full of technical knowledge in the hope that it will enable them to do whatever engineering task is required of them throughout their careers. A broader, more general approach is required that not only helps students to understand basic engineering principles but also gives them the ability to acquire more specialised knowledge as the need arises. (Beder, 1999).

If you want to find out more about social skills in engineering, I recommend you to study knowledge and skills required from modern engineers and the bibliography given below.

Social and communication skills are dependent on each other. Communication skills are one of the most important components of social skills, but social skills are much broader term than communication skills. Persons with poorly developed social skills cannot have good communication skills, while poorly developed communication skills make strong negative impact on social skills. That is why we will be equally developing social and communication skills at the Communication Skills classes.

Soon after the semester begins, the content of the lectures will be conceptually separated from the content of the practical classes. Lectures will deal with a broader context of social skills, while the practical classes will be focused on communication skills. Of course, it is only a rough division: social skills are still inseparable component of every practical class and communication skills continue to pervade each lecture.

Delivery methods

Practical classes in the Communication Skills module are based on educational approach which was promoted by a famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in the late 20th century. In brief, it is a dialogical teaching method in which a group alone chooses topics to be addressed. In this manner is achieved the relevance of the classes for a specific context of every single group of students, i.e. a high degree of the class adjustment to the requirements of the students.

In the Communication Skills classes, the facts are taken into account that the students bring to the classes the baggage of their family background, of all other courses they attend at the college, of the social environment, of the cultural and economic situation in society and of their personal problems. Some of them work, the others enjoy the privilege of living at the expense of their parents, while some cannot find a job. Teachers at the Communication Skills module encourage a constructive approach to such problems and hold them as excellent topics to discuss at the practical classes. In this context, the classes also contain the elements of the approach of Freire's student and famous Brazilian theatre director Augosto Boal who seeks solutions to various social issues through the interaction on equal terms between actors and audience by means of the artistic endeavour. Of course, the approaches of Freire and Boal serve mainly as intellectual models and they have been thoroughly processed for the context of this module's delivery.  

The famous Freire's maxim that "education is always, always, always politics" (1972) is also appreciated in the classes of the Communication Skills module. The topics tackled in the Communication Skills module inevitably include wider social and economic circumstances such as ever growing costs of higher education, relations between the students at polytechnics and at universities, as well as seemingly less related topics like permissibility of abortion and/or adoption of children by the same-sex couples. However, following Freire and Boal, it is not enough to merely understand the objective circumstances we live in. Understanding necessarily initiates action that is changing objective circumstances in which we live, and that change again initiates action, and so it goes as far as one can see on the path to a better and a more righteous world. Therefore, in several different places in this textbook you will find, as s sort of leitmotiv, the sentence that the subject promotes humanistic values such as mutual responsibility, inclusiveness, freedom of expression, respect and tolerance for differences.

Still, the main goal of the module – developing the communication skills – overbearingly dominates the work in the classes. Here, you will manage the skills required for successful communication with individuals, in a group and with audience. The foundation of communication skills contains clear expression, active listening and respectful information feedback. Those skills will be adopted by interactive work in small groups through the non-verbal communication analysis, impromptu and prepared speeches, impromptu and prepared debates, and various debate formats. You will play different roles: once you are a speaker, then a spectator or a presenter, then a devil's advocate.

During the Communication Skills practical classes you will analyse various aspects of communication of your fellow students and start the process of developing the awareness of basic communication channels: speech, listening, perception. Yet, in thirty teaching periods of lectures and thirty teaching periods of practical classes you will receive only practical tools: enhancing your own communication is a serious and a lifelong learning task. Therefore, we can rightly say that you will be able to start serious studying of communication skills only when you have passed the exam in this subject! 

Relations between practical classes and lectures

Practical classes and lectures in Communication Skills are considerably different. Lectures primarily deal with concepts and ideas. For example, lectures on multicultural communication explain various theoretical views of the issue of multiculturalism as well as a whole range of arguments in favour of the openness towards the other cultures and the need for open communication on equal terms. Lectures on feminism thoroughly analyse different implications of gender-determined terms (e.g. a doctor and a nurse), explaining the students the theoretical background of the necessity to discontinue that tradition.

Practical classes in the Communication Skills module are entirely focused on practice. In the introductory practical class, the students are introduced to each other and to their lecturer and given reasons why we are studying this subject. The second and the third practical class deal with non-verbal communication, the fourth and the fifth with impromptu speech, and the sixth with impromptu debate. Right half way through the classes, we leave the world of improvisations for the world of prepared speeches. The seventh class addresses the prepared debate, the eighth tackles Karl Popper's debate, the ninth focuses on Popper's debate with plan, the tenth deals with the World Schools Debate and the eleventh with the British parliamentary debate. In the twelfth, the students independently choose a debate format and decide if the Communication Skills module should be compulsory at the professional studies of the Zagreb Polytechnic. Finally, the thirteenth class analyses the knowledge and skills acquired in the Communication Skills module, connecting them with private and professional life of students.

Although with different focuses, lectures and practical classes in the Communication Skills module are complementary. I sincerely hope that in future we will write a similar textbook on theoretical part of this module, which would encompass at one place all materials required for its attendance.  

Bibliography

Beder, S. (1999). 'Beyond Technicalities: Expanding Engineering Thinking'. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, 125 (1), pp. 12-18. The article available here.

Boal, A. (2008). Theatre of the Oppressed (Get Political). London: Pluto press.

Finch, L.; Maddux, R. B. (2006). Delegation Skills for Leaders: An Action Plan for Success as a Manager. Third edition. Boston: Thomson. 

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education Specials.

Nguyen, D. (1998). 'The Essential Skills and Attributes of an Engineer: A Comparative Study of Academics, Industry Personnel and Engineering Students'. Global Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 2 (1), pp. 65-76. The article available here.