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soft skills

Improving Cybersecurity Communication Skills: Why It’s More Than Just Being Articulate

Cybersecurity Communication skillsCommunication is a skill vital to every role in an organization. Without it, we make assumptions, and breakdowns occur in processes and workflows. It’s often the leading reason for dysfunction in a group. It has equal importance in cybersecurity. However, cybersecurity communication skills are often poor or nonexistent.

When communication fails, your cybersecurity provisions and safety nets can, too. It raises risk and creates distrust in the group. It’s also the most vital soft skill that organizations seek in hiring, according to a recent industry survey.

So, there’s no argument from the field that cybersecurity communication skills are critical. The problem is that most companies aren’t doing anything to develop it in their people. If they are, the training may be obsolete or ineffective, such as online learning classes. Can you really hone your communication skills by watching a video? The answer is likely no. It requires interactive exercises and a strategic approach.

Further, companies often put communication skills in a box that doesn’t apply to all facets. For example, being a great communicator isn’t simply about being articulate. Many technical people are. Yet, communication failures still occur. Communication is a multi-faceted skill that includes being aware of others and their perspectives, understanding nonverbal cues, being active listeners, and communicating to be inclusive (versus lots of jargon and tech-speak).

Communication is step four of the Secure Methodology, which is a seven-step guide I documented in my book, The Smartest Person in the Room. Its purpose is to help cybersecurity leaders transform their people with soft skills to work together more effectively to combat cyberattacks.

In this post, I’ll break down each element of communication and offer tips to develop those in your people.

Cybersecurity Communication Skills: The Four Facets

There are four components of becoming a great communicator as a technical professional. Consider all these when crafting a program that lifts soft skills.

Inclusive Language

Technical people have a reputation for talking in jargon that only “insiders” understand. They do this for several reasons. First, it makes them feel more confident and that they have control of the conversation. They feel comfortable with the geek speak as a nod to their superiority over all things cyber-related.

Using this language also means that others are less likely to call them out, which they secretly fear. If other people understood what they were saying about risks, threats, and solutions, they might receive more questions and requests for explanations. They would see this as losing “control” of the interaction.

Ultimately, this type of communication helps no one. Your technical people don’t get better at defining threats and solutions, so you don’t improve in that area. Also, they won’t be able to convey critical information to leadership, which could impact funding and resources. As a result, the entire organization suffers from greater risk exposure. These patterns are the hardest to break but pivotal because shared language leads to success.

Understanding Nonverbal Cues

A big part of communication is the things we don’t say. Body language presents context around what people say. Often, words don’t match these cues. According to Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 theory, most comprehension is via body language (55%). So, what does that mean exactly?

Focusing only on the spoken words can be an opportunity to miss the message. Ignoring body language as a part of communication causes communication breakdowns. When interacting with others, we need to pay attention to body language because it conveys more than words.

Body language can change suddenly in a conversation, and catching those clues is critical. When a technical person speaks to someone who isn’t, they often use a lot of jargon and acronyms. As the other party takes in this information, they may say little. The body language, however, may say more. They may become guarded or disinterested. This matters because your cyber professionals are talking to their clients (whether internal or external). If they shut down because they don’t understand what the person is saying, it’s not good for anyone. It causes silos between groups, and no one knows the biggest priorities.

There can often be inconsistencies between spoken words and body language. Facial expressions that seem opposite to what words are said or failure to make eye contact indicate the person isn’t comprehending the message. That’s not a good place to be with cybersecurity. This can happen between co-workers and with cybersecurity professionals and leadership.

Tone of Voice

Another aspect of Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 theory is tone, which is 38% of the communication bubble. Tone is the way you speak, which adds context to the words. There is a variety of different tones that people use. Here are some examples

  • Assertive: This tone represents a declarative approach where the person speaking is not amiable to moving their position. It’s often considered rude and curt and is usually counterproductive.
  • Respectful: The person speaking is careful with their words and does not let frustration or bias impact what they say. It can motivate others in the conversation to feel they are free to voice opinions or concerns.
  • Accommodating: This tone promotes collaboration and cooperation. It’s like respectful but even more non-threatening.
  • Dismissive tone: This tone of voice is harmful in that the person speaking is flippant about the situation and anyone else’s position on it. In this category, technical folks are posturing, often speaking quickly, believing no one else could understand.

We can all relate to sentences having different meanings depending on the tone. For example, the simple response of “I don’t know” could have many connotations. An assertive tone could communicate anger. If said dismissively, it could come off as sarcastic. On the other hand, if said with a respectful or accommodating tone, it could be a starting point to go deeper and find the answer together.

Tone interpretation can lead to assumptions, resentment, and disillusionment when negative. If positive, it can change how people respond and interact. It clarifies and conveys meaning.

Active Listening

The last component of cybersecurity communication skills is the ability to be a good listener. In many cases, people listen to prepare their response, either as agreement or dissension. That’s the first obstacle to overcome. Active listening is making a conscious effort to hear the words spoken and the tone to receive the message.

Becoming an active listener takes practice, and several techniques are valuable:

  • Pay attention to the speaker by giving them eye contact and removing distractions from the environment.
  • Illustrate you’re listening with body language gestures, such as nodding, smiling, having an open posture, and encouraging the speaker to continue with comments like “uh huh.”
  • Reflect on what’s being said by paraphrasing back to the speaker (“I’m hearing you say…), asking questions for clarity, and summarizing what you hear.
  • Allow the speaker to finish their points before you interrupt, as that only frustrates the person and creates a negative experience.
  • Be honest and open with responses, opinions, and other information in a respectful manner, even if you have differing perspectives.

Remember that your people will only improve if they take the need to change seriously and practice it consistently. Every conversation they have should include active listening!

Cybersecurity Communication Skills: More Tips and Tricks

Within each realm of communication, you now have a view of what impacts communication. Each aspect requires practice and work. Making this part of your organization’s foundation is crucial for your team to be cohesive. Here are some more tips to consider:

Encourage Transparency in Communication

Do you think your people are afraid to say things? Some avoid transparency to keep the upper hand, but others may be apprehensive because they’re concerned about questioning things. You want people to question stuff and look outside typical approaches. Thus, you’ll need to create a space to “question.” Show your employees that you appreciate and expect honesty. It can improve communication and trust levels.

Lead by Example

How are your communication skills? Do you need to practice what you preach? You have to be the ultimate example to your staff. As they see you leading as a strong communicator, they’ll realize that you are taking this seriously, and it can immediately begin to improve rapport in the group.

Ask Them to Consider Perspective

When technical people communicate with others outside the field, they should keep in mind their perspective. They should think about what this person’s role is in cybersecurity. Is it to support the team? Provide funding? Manage risk? Have visibility into the threat landscape. From perspective, your employees can better manage tone in conversations. What they say will mean different things to different people, and making these adjustments drives better communication.

Communication Is the Most Vital Skill to Develop

Throughout my book, I harp on communication. The emphasis on it is deliberate because it’s where most things go off the rails. In the book, you’ll find exercises, tips, and techniques to develop your staff into effective communicators. Read it today to get started.

Why Communication Aptitude Is the Number One Soft Skill Cybersecurity Professionals Must Possess

communication skillsHaving effective communication skills is an asset in any career, even cybersecurity. It’s a soft skill that nicely complements technical ones. Having communication aptitude is a must for cybersecurity professionals. Without this cybersecurity soft skill, a lot can go wrong.

Poor communication and interpersonal skills are often the roots of cybersecurity incidents. That’s a theme in my book, The Smartest Person in the Room. Unfortunately, some organizations may not see the value in developing communication because they believe cybersecurity is black and white. It’s not. It’s many shades of gray filled with assumptions and a lack of understanding. These things breed when communication isn’t consistent and clear.

The question becomes how to improve communication and make it a priority. In this post, I’ll explain why technical people struggle with people skills, why they need them, and how to develop them in your team.

Why Cybersecurity Professionals Struggle with Communication

My perspective on the struggle comes from years of being a cybersecurity leader as well as research. The points I make in no way are a denunciation of the field. I’m just here to help organizations improve with employees with well-rounded skillsets.

Here are the key reasons cybersecurity teams have a hard time being excellent communicators.

They Are Afraid to Look Vulnerable or Incompetent

One thing that’s necessary for healthy communication is asking questions. Cybersecurity professionals rarely do this for fear they’ll look like they don’t know everything. They’ll make assumptions and fall back to standard ways of resolving issues. That’s not effective in a dynamic and ever-changing landscape with new threats always on the horizon. Fear keeps these people from discovering what they don’t know, which increases risk.

Technical Folks Never Want to Be Wrong

Instead of facing the fact that everybody is wrong at some point, cybersecurity professionals cling to certainty. Except certainty is impossible in the field. This, combined with never wanting to be wrong, prevents healthy communication.

Misconceptions That Technical People Don’t Need to Be Great Communicators

There’s a deep fallacy that exists in technical jobs. The prevailing misconception is that technical people don’t need to be great communicators. They’ll let their technical skills do the talking. But they really need to engage in conversation to improve their technical aptitude and do their job effectively.

Lack of communication sinks cybersecurity. It doesn’t just apply to the technical person’s inability to have productive conversations. They also don’t actively listen when others share their insights, opinions, or other information. They only listen to respond in a defensive posture, so they don’t hear what the other person is conveying. They are only planning their rebuttal.

We’ve touched on the need for cybersecurity communication skills. Next, we’ll dive further into why they are so critical.

Why Do Cybersecurity Professionals Need to Be Effective Communicators?

At a foundational level, cybersecurity professionals need to be effective in their communications because they are part of the problem without it. Data breaches, ransomware attacks, and other cybersecurity failures are often directly tied to poor communication. It’s not that you didn’t have the best technology or strategy. It’s that your people didn’t talk to each other or anyone else!

Here are the other reasons why technical roles need these soft skills:

  • It improves transparency in operations, which typically leads to a greater understanding of the threat landscape and greater trust among teams.
  • Healthy, consistent communication supports problem-solving. That’s a big part of a technical person’s job, and teams can’t excel at this without proper discussions.
  • Good communication builds trust and respect among teams, and that’s essential for their ability to solve cybersecurity problems.
  • Soft skills allow people to be more adaptable to change, and cybersecurity is full of that. New people and threats come into the ecosystem routinely. Without flexible communication skills, adaptability remains low.

Current Communication Styles Are Often Off-Putting

Some of your cybersecurity employees may be talkers. Again, that doesn’t make them great communicators. The style they use is often off-putting and aggressive. They like to use a lot of jargon, which doesn’t mean anything to people outside their technical bubble.

They approach communication in this way because it makes them seem superior. It also covers up their lack of comprehension. The strategy is to make communication so technical and abstract that non-technical people will simply defer to them and end the conversation.

This type of speak can also impact how technical people work together. Because cybersecurity is so broad, there are many roles, and they all have their own “language.” As a result, communication failures happen here, too.

When they learn these soft skills, it can change the dynamic completely. However, communication isn’t just about what you say. It also includes body language and nonverbal cues. Those are just as critical as words.

The 7-38-55 Theory of Communications

Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Theory of Communication highlights that it’s more than just words. The principle states that communication is 7% word choice, 38% tone of voice, and 55% body language.

This is an important concept to share when helping people evolve their communication styles and how they interact in conversations. It can also make them more aware of their tone and body language, which may be causing a barrier. Awareness is the place to start when you begin to navigate communication skills.

Such a theory also taps into technical minds. Communication isn’t just some soft skill. They can recognize its power in influencing how they work and why it could mitigate risk.

Once you have more awareness, you can begin implementing plans to improve communication. The process will take time and commitment. What you get in return is well worth the work.

How to Improve Cybersecurity Soft Skills

We’ve looked at the why and how of communication failure. Now it’s time to talk about how to fix the problem. That’s not an easy road because you’re up against a resistance to change. That resistance often consists of your people being unaware of the communication issues.

Thus, they have to become aware before they can work toward adapting behavior.

Encourage Self-Awareness

Technical people have to get out of their own way, so to speak. They need to be self-aware of how they communicate and why it’s an issue. This requires introspection and a new perspective.

In The Secure Methodology, the framework from my book, Awareness is the first step. In that chapter, I offer multiple ways to help your people through this transition.

Demonstrate the Importance of Communication

If you want your team to be better communicators, you need to make it a priority and lead by example. If there are specific examples you can point to that were communication breakdowns and the consequences, it’s no longer this intangible thing. Now it’s in front of them, and that’s impactful to those that are more logic-based in their thinking.

Champion Active Listening

Technical people who master active listening perform much better than those that don’t. In every conversation we have, we may hear the words but not really absorb and comprehend them. It goes back to the earlier notion of people just listening to prepare their response.

Providing guidance on how to listen actively and exercises can make a difference. As with any change, your team has to be willing and able to adapt.

Make Perspective Key to Communicating

Perspective is another challenge in communication. Often people have no way to see anything other than from their own eyes. That impacts how people collaborate and solve problems.

If you can guide people to open up their perspectives, better communication is more likely. In my book, I spend a bit of time talking about perspective and the best ways to approach it.

Tap into Their Motivation

Everyone has different things that motivate them to change (or not). If you can understand their motivation and make it part of their awareness, communication will improve. It can also help people think with their hearts and minds. Motivation doesn’t have to be altruistic for this to work.

Coach People to Be Flexible

Being flexible and adaptable is critical to becoming a successful communicator. Technical folks are usually either of these. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be, and it will serve them well in a dynamic landscape like cybersecurity. You can coach your people to be more agile with the right strategy. You’ll find tips and exercises to do this in my book.

Through exercises and the development of soft skills, your team can embrace flexibility. When they do, it can be a turning point in their success and performance.

Help Your Team Master Cybersecurity Soft Skills

Setting your cybersecurity team up for success depends a lot on their communication soft skills. If they hone and develop these, they’ll be better at their job and more engaged. It’s also a skill that can have a profound impact beyond their career.

There will be challenges in evolving people. The exercises, tips, and strategies presented in my book, The Smartest Person in the Room, can help. Get your copy today to start the journey.

Check Out The Smartest Person in The Room

Why Do Technical People Struggle with People Skills? And How Can Companies Fix It?

7 Step Secure Methodology - Christian Espinosa
The Secure Methodology Improves People and Life Skills

People skills are a challenge for many individuals. It’s often a combination of personality and experiences. Technical people often get put in a category of lacking them. While this is not universal, it does account for some of the failings of cybersecurity strategies.

Without a robust soft skill set, these professionals get caught in a cycle of bad communication practices, a lack of curiosity, and posturing. It’s time to peel back the onion on why they struggle in this area and how to fix it.

Why Technical People Struggle with People Skills

This analysis comes from years of experience, research, and asking the hard questions. Again, it’s not a condemnation of those in technical fields. Many have a nice balance and are thriving. Through the years, I’ve met and worked with many highly articulate, open, and excellent cybersecurity experts. However, in general, this is the exception, not the rule.

In my book, The Smartest Person in the Room, I lay out the evidence for why this struggle is all too real.

They See the World Exclusively in 1s and 0s

It’s hard to communicate and collaborate with others when your world is solely 1s and 0s or very black and white. The reality is that the world, people, and cybersecurity are gray. That’s hard for some technical minds to grasp.

In a lot of technical disciplines, there is a right answer and a wrong answer. No discussion required. It’s probably more applicable to some areas of math and science. However, cybersecurity isn’t just math and science. It’s an ever-evolving field. New risks and threats emerge all the time.

Further, it requires asking questions and understanding business needs. That can send some technical folks into a free-fall. They don’t have a naturally curious nature in public, so they fall back on what they know and don’t try to find out what they don’t. They fear curiosity in front on others may appear as a lack of knowing or incompetence.

Insecurity Leads to Soft Skill Failure

Many cybersecurity professionals never want to be wrong — another reflection of black/white thinking. The feeling often comes because they are insecure. They cling to certainty, and interacting with other people and having meaningful conversations are too uncertain.

They let insecurity guide what they do, pushing back on the need for two-way dialogue. They’ll figure it out on their own and don’t want to entertain outside ideas. That then leads to posturing.

Poor Communication Sinks Cybersecurity

There is a misconception that technical jobs don’t require communication skills. That’s not true. Every role depends on communication, and when that’s a challenge, it’s a house of cards filled with assumptions. It’s the biggest shortfall for many technical people. It doesn’t mean they aren’t articulate or don’t have a good vocabulary. It means they can’t converse in a healthy and productive manner. Having honest and transparent communication is about listening more than talking. Unfortunately, many people aren’t good at that. These communication issues will bring down any company department.

People fail at communication for many reasons, as discussed above — insecurity, fear, a closed mind, a lack of empathy. This revelation isn’t unknown. A study on business communications found that 89 percent of respondents believe effective communication is important. Yet, 80 percent of those same people said that communication in their company was average or poor.

However, it’s not a dead end. There are ways to develop communication and other soft skills.

Fixing the People Skills Problem for Technical Professionals

Attaining better people skills was a self-journey. The consequences, however, didn’t just benefit me. They helped me create a process that any technical employee can navigate and come out the other side.

There’s no magic fix for evolving people, and they must want to change. So, that’s a barrier for sure. If you’re going to invest in helping your team, you want to know they’re open and have a growth-mindset.

What I’ve developed to counter this problem is the Secure Methodology. The following is a quick review of the framework and how it works. By employing it, people can start to see the gray in the world and be better cybersecurity professionals and experience personal growth as well.

The Secure Methodology

Step One: Awareness

The first step is about being aware of yourself and others. The lack of awareness in a professional setting causes you to miss blind spots. It also causes relationship issues at work because without awareness, communication is poor, and posturing reigns.

The mind has to open itself to new perspectives to achieve awareness. That requires coaching on communication and understanding what motivates a person. There are exercises that can strengthen the awareness “muscle” and open eyes.

Step Two: Mindset

You either have a fixed or growth mindset. Those with poor people skills are trapped in fixed. It’s not permanent. The key to a growth mindset is accountability. It’s no secret that a growth mindset is critical for cybersecurity. So, you must open those minds. The best way to approach it is to encourage reflection, ask the right questions, and urge quick decision-making.

Step Three: Acknowledgment

Acknowledgment in the workplace is a rampant issue. In cybersecurity, without positive acknowledgment, employees fall into disengagement and resentment. Many times, if there is acknowledgment, it’s negative, which feeds into further anger.

The other issue is that a cybersecurity team that receives no acknowledgment can’t concede their overly complex framework isn’t working. They lose the ability to simplify. To end this cycle, you should recognize their positives in the present before you expect them to master acknowledgment. You can improve this by building rapport and trust with exercises from the book.

Step Four: Communication

We’ve talked a lot about communication because it’s applicable in every aspect of nurturing people. We’ve identified the reasons why people are bad at it. Another critical factor is that technical folks like to speak geek as a sign of their higher intelligence. For those outside the industry, it may as well be another language, and technical professionals have to interact with non-technical folks. They build a wall with it instead of a bridge.

Shared language is inclusive and promotes active listening. Getting to this involves reframing and simplification, achievable through specific activities.

Step Five: Monotasking

The world wrongly praises multitasking, believing it epitomizes capability. In fact, humans weren’t born to multitask. It’s a real problem in the cybersecurity field, leading to errors and mistakes. It also creates a lot of anxiety — as if anyone needs more of that.

Retraining to monotask means that you can focus completely on one task. It can be much more productive than trying to do five things at once. Fostering this behavior includes blocking time for specific tasks and blocking out distractions (that means not answering a call, email, or text immediately).

Step Six: Empathy

A cybersecurity culture without empathy will not succeed, at least not long-term. You may wonder why it matters in technical roles. It matters in everything, really. The problem in the workplace is an us vs. them mentality. There’s no room for consideration and compassion in this model.

Empathy is a core people skill, but we’re not born with it. It’s something people develop. When it’s nonexistent, technical people don’t care about their clients or their data. Nor do they have concern for colleagues. If you’ve been able to make it through the first five steps, then you’re on a path to spreading empathy. There are also specific activities to do on the team level to develop it further.

Step Seven: Kaizen

The final step is a Japanese term meaning “continuous improvement.” In terms of the Secure Methodology, it’s a more tangible action of root cause analysis. Root cause analysis helps understand real problems and how to improve them. That applies to cybersecurity and people skills. Mastering it requires constant change and adaption, and you can’t get there without the former six steps.

Do Better People Skills Really Lead to Better Cybersecurity?

You may look at the Secure Methodology and think it sounds great in theory but are skeptical about its real-world implications. That’s fair. Again, there isn’t a guarantee because nothing is. What you should know is that it’s proven. I’ve witnessed it, and I can without hesitation say that better people skills lead to better cybersecurity.

If this is a path you want to send your team on because you realize the deficit of soft skills, your next step is to get the complete picture of the Secure Methodology by reading my book, The Smartest Person in the Room. In it, you’ll find activities specific to the seven steps to build the people skills they’re missing.

Check Out The Smartest Person in The Room