Tips for Troubleshooting Human Communications

This cheat sheet offers communication and collaboration tips for technologists, engineers, and information workers. To print, use the one-page PDF version; you can also edit the Word version for you own needs.

What if They Just Don't Get It?

  • The person might want to agree, but emotions won't let them. Help them back out without losing face.
  • Don't assume they don't understand your reasoning; explaining again in the same way often doesn't help.
  • Empathy is the key. What is your listener's perspective? What's important to him or her?
  • Acknowledge your differences in perspectives.
  • Phrase your argument using your the other person's terminology, objectives, and world view.
  • Maybe you're not yelling loudly enough. (Kidding!)
  • Take a time out. Switch the venue or medium.
  • Involve an impartial, respected person as a mediator.
  • Watch out for jargon. If it obfuscates the issue, look for a way to get it rephrased.
  • Track interaction approaches that work with the person; stick to the method that succeeded earlier.
  • Maybe you're wrong. It happens to the best of us.

Persuading a More Technical Person

  • Research technical aspects of the issue beforehand. What objections or new data may arise?
  • Get solid data to support your argument. Be ready to drill into details.
  • Remember that people often decide based on emotions, even when presented with data.
  • Practice in front of a friendly more technical person.

Persuading a Less Technical Person

  • Don't make the other party feel dumb due to the lack of technical insight. Sounding superior backfires.
  • State your conclusion first, before discussing the details of how you arrived at it.
  • Research non-technical aspects of the issue beforehand. What objections or new data may arise?
  • Practice in front of a friendly less technical person.

Tips for Better Email Messages

  • If you haven't persuaded after several back and forth emails, pick up the phone, or speak in-person.
  • If your message is longer than 2 paragraphs, shorten it or use another medium.
  • If your email is being ignored, send a follow-up. Don't take it personally—people get too much email.
  • Note time of day/day of the week when the recipient responds most often. Send your message then.
  • Lead with the strongest statement to grab attention.
  • Assume only your first 2 sentences will be read.
  • Use the Subject line to get your main point across.
  • Use email to prepare the person for an in-person meeting or a phone conversation.
  • Don't respond in the heat of the moment. Let your emotions cool off before hitting the Send button.
  • Don't forget about non-email mediums: phone, postal mail, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, billboard, tattoo, etc.

In-Person Conversations

  • Dress appropriately for the venue, topic, expectations, and social norms.
  • Consider where to speak: your workplace, his or her workplace, water cooler, lunchroom, etc.
  • Find the best timing: some are grumpy in the mornings, sleepy after lunch, in a hurry at 5pm, etc.
  • Come prepared. Impromptu talks on important topics have been known to lead to trouble.
  • Harness the power of sharing a tasty treat.
  • When in doubt, use a breath freshener.
  • If you or the other party are in a foul mood, consider putting the conversation on hold and resuming later.
  • Mimic the other party's general posture and gestures, but not exactly movement for movement.
  • Be mindful of cultural differences in gestures and the distance between speaking parties.
  • Smile. Breathe. Don't avoid eye contact.
  • Practice a strong handshake. No limp wrist!
  • Conclude by agreeing on the next steps and timeline.
  • If sending a thank-you note, send it ASAP.

Presenting to Managers and Executives

  • Be brief. (E.g., consider "the elevator pitch.")
  • Make your message business-relevant.
  • If showing slides, use fewer bullet points. Consider skipping the slides altogether.
  • In preparation, ask yourself and answer, "So what?" for the facts and conclusions you will discuss.
  • Find an "executive sponsor" who will offer feedback in before and support you during the presentation.
  • Use the tools, terminology, and conventions that your audience employs (e.g., the SWOT matrix).

At a Social Networking Reception

  • Come early—fewer people and attendees are fresh.
  • Don't stay by your friends' side. Meet new people.
  • It's OK to come up to groups of strangers and join a conversation. Receptions are public conversations.
  • Welcome newcomers into your conversations.
  • Prepare chit-chat topics by reading news, books, etc.
  • Hold an appropriate prop (e.g., wine glass) in one hand, but have one hand free to shake hands.
  • Use people's names when speaking with them.
  • Be enthusiastic. Try to look friendly, approachable.

Improving Communication Skills

  • Improvisational or stand-up comedy classes help.
  • Consider joining a local Toastmasters club.
  • Attend writing workshops (creative, resume, etc.).
  • Practice on friends and in low-risk environments.
  • Article: How to Be Heard in IT Security and Business


This cheat sheet is distributed according to the Creative Commons v3 "Attribution" License. File version 1.5.


About the Author

I transform ideas into successful outcomes, building on my 25 years of experience in cybersecurity. As the CISO at Axonius, I lead the security program to earn customers' trust. I'm also a Faculty Fellow at SANS Institute, where I author and deliver training for incident responders. My expertise, which spans cybersecurity, IT, and leadership, allows me to create practical security solutions that drive business growth.

Learn more