“First build trust, then you can build effectiveness,” said Rice University alumna Emily Mitaro. As a Mercer project manager focused on client employee research, Mitaro continues building on the global communication skills she developed through a non-linear career path. From studying statistics and clinical psychology to working in global health and now HR consulting, Mitaro notices how she uses the same communication skill set across roles.
“The skills I was using to communicate in my research labs and nonprofit settings are the same skills I use in HR consulting today. I wasn’t sure that my experience would transfer across settings, but so much of how industries work is universal. Everyone needs to communicate to get things done,” she said.
Build trust through actions rather than words
Today, she focuses on building trust on the Employee Research team at Mercer. “Employee research is a way for companies to understand what their employees need and what company actions will keep employees engaged. As a project manager (PM), I work closely with both clients and consultants to make sure each employee survey is executed effectively. Because clients, consultants, and PMs all have slightly different needs, it’s important for me to establish a strong foundation of trust early in each project so that my team knows I’m on top of our tasks and considering their needs through every step,” Mitaro said.
“While trust is primarily earned by what you do, how you do it is equally important,” she says. “By leveraging soft skills to connect with team members and stakeholders, we can create inclusive spaces and a culture where everyone is comfortable speaking their mind. I always want to be clear that we’re all on the same team working towards a common goal.”
This lesson about trust was especially visible while she was working at the Rice360 Institute for Global Health Technologies during the pandemic. “My role involved partnering with senior faculty both here at Rice and at institutions across the globe that worked to re-envision engineering education. Working virtually, I quickly learned the value of investing time into building relationships, and it made a world of difference.”
She realized that if she did not take the time to become familiar with a partner’s background and understand their cultural experiences, she was less likely to anticipate how a partner could interpret her intentions.
“When working with partners from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, it is important for the project leader to foster a transparent and respectful space that intentionally builds an area for questions and opinions.”
Create an open space for dialogue
Three of the devices Mitaro uses to create that open space for dialogue are sharing vulnerability, practicing active listening, and patiently waiting out a silence.
She said she has become comfortable being the first one to say, “I don’t know what this means,” or “This is where I’m struggling in my own work, are you struggling with anything?” By opening a conversation with her own weakness, Mitaro creates a safe space for others to express uncertainty or gaps in their own understanding.
“Another favorite tactic of mine is active listening – paying attention to what’s said, but also what’s not said,” according to Mitaro. “Someone can say they agree with you, but their tone and body language can paint a different story. Are they enthusiastic or hesitant? Is their face relaxed or is their brow furrowed? These gestures can be subtle, but noticing them can reveal important context kept below the surface. Especially when you’ve taken the time to invest in your relationships, it can be easier to pick up on and pull these cues out.”
Mitaro’s final tip for creating space for open and honest dialogues is to become comfortable with silence. “Don’t rush in to fill a pause. Be willing to wait for someone else to fill it,” she said.
“Simply sitting in silence indicates you are not trying to rush a point. Have you ever had a teacher who asks the class a question and then answers it while you are still mentally working through your response? Just wait for it. Also, the silence is another way of expressing vulnerability and willingness to both hear and learn from your partners and your team, which then helps you understand them better.”
Reflecting on her trajectory, Mitaro has learned many lessons that she wishes she’d known as a student.
Mind your audience
“As an undergrad, every presentation I gave was oversaturated with detail. Pulling out your most important talking points is really hard - it’s much easier to brain-dump everything you know about a topic and hope the audience can sift through it. In reality, you’re just putting the hard work on your audience, leaving everyone completely overwhelmed,” she said.
She noted that she saw similar patterns while supporting undergraduate summer interns in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen Summer Experience in Engineering Design (SEED) program and the Rice360 Institute for Global Health Initiatives (Rice360).
“The students worked all summer on their projects – of course they wanted to share every detail,” said Mitaro. “We brought in Tracy Volz to work with them on effective communication and how to think strategically and adapt their presentations for specific audiences. The growth was amazing. I’m eight years out of undergrad and I still learned so much from her!”
Mitaro continues to apply these principles in professional settings. “Professors and senior executives are incredibly busy and don’t have time to solve every problem alone. That’s why they delegate.
“When you show up to a meeting having done your due diligence, it takes something off their plate. I would say, ‘This is what I’ve researched. These are the options we could pursue, and here is my recommendation.' And give them time to react and allow space for feedback. I have found this to be effective in academia and the private sector alike,” she said.
Turn tasks into communication learning experiences
Mitaro credits her internships and customer service experiences as the most helpful communication training activities – specifically, and somewhat surprisingly, answering the phone.
“One of the best things you can do to improve your ability to communicate with a wide range of people is to accept a customer-focused role. Particularly if you have crippling phone anxiety, like I did,” she said with a laugh.
“As an intern at a psychology clinic, I was responsible for tasks including scheduling appointments, phone interviews, and greeting patients for appointments. These roles forced me to think on my feet, learning when and where to ask follow-up questions or how to handle curve balls that come completely out of left field. It’s nerve-wracking at first. But with time and experience, it becomes easier to stay calm and adapt quickly.”
“The most important advice I can give other engineers who are struggling to improve their communication is the assurance that it is okay not to have all the answers. You can always say, ‘Let me get back to you on that.’ You don’t have to know it all the first time out.”
Looking forward, Mitaro said, “I certainly am still figuring things out along my winding path, and so are most people I meet along the way. But even as my goals evolve, I’m confident that investing in my ability to communicate will help me find success professionally, personally, and with my team.”
Rice University engineering students, faculty, and postdocs can learn more about clear communication skills with Activate resources and coaching.