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I am currently in an internship as an engineer working on a project. With me there is another intern, who has a creative job, let's call them J. We are expected to work together, each of us in our field to generate the best output.

My problem is, that I just can't figure out what is the right way to talk to J about technical issues. Sometimes it seems they know a lot about tech and stuff and I am impressed. Other times J asks questions that appear as if they have no knowledge whatsoever in that same field. When I try to explain everything I often feel this seems like I think J is stupid because they already know. But when I don't explain I am not sure if J understands.

My question is how can I develop a form of communication that makes sure everything is understood, but does not seem like teaching as this might seem arrogant? How can I find out what knowledge J has to make communication easier?

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    "Other times J asks questions that appear as if they have no knowledge whatsoever in that same field." Could it be that he is just bad at phrasing and there is substantially more to the question than appears at first glance? – Anne Daunted Dec 5 '17 at 14:42
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    @Mister Positive something like graphical design – Lehue Dec 5 '17 at 14:52
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    I speculate that you are young because you are doing an internship. Asking this kind of question show a level of maturity. Congratulations. – Sebastien DErrico Dec 5 '17 at 16:37
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    He might do frontend development on his freetime, which would obviously expose a good chunk of general development concepts to him. But without formal experience/training he would also be oblivious to many "obvious" software development concepts. He would know how to implement a design pattern, but not know the name of it. – Juha Untinen Dec 5 '17 at 19:44
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    We have all been in this position. I knew a brilliant Java/JavaScript programmer who asked, "What is a Start button?" She also asked, "What is FTP?" Over the decade I knew her, she remained one of the most gifted programmers I have ever known amongst the very best in the world. There can always be surprising gaps in knowledge that do not make sense. Always address with kindness and good cheer! It pays dividends. – closetnoc Dec 5 '17 at 23:01
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Since J is not working in a technical job, lean towards over-explaining. Before going into details say, "Feel free to let me know if you already have a handle on this." Then explain as if you were talking to someone with no technical experience. This puts the onus on your coworker to tell you if you are going on too much.

You might also casually feel out their knowledge with questions like "Have you ever encountered x technology?" And then continue the conversation to see what level of knowledge they have with that.

  • One way I casually feel out people's knowledge is to say, in a really unassuming way, "you know how such-and-such does this-and-that, right?" as if I'm starting a conversation where you'd naturally just review a fact before going on, something like "you know how my dad works as a lumberjack, right? well his axe disappeared, and..." and I wait for their response. A lot of people IME will respond with a nod and possibly "yeah" or "mhm" when they know what I'm talking about, and if they don't they'll usually say "actually I didn't" with some degree of piqued interest. Just one way to do it. – 2rs2ts Dec 6 '17 at 0:43
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My question is how can I develop a form of communication that makes sure everything is understood, but does not seem like teaching as this might seem arrogant? How can I find out what knowledge J has to make communication easier?

Normal conversations should uncover the level of depth you need for effective communication. Checking in with the listener periodically will ensure you stay on track.

If I'm not sure, I ask something like "Does that make sense?" to see if I am getting through. If not, I adjust my conversation accordingly.

And watch for body language. You can usually tell if someone is not comprehending what you are saying if they look confused, or furrow their brow. And if you are doing too much unnecessary lecturing, the listener's attention may waver, they may become distracted, or get annoyed.

  • I agree that questions to "check-in" on the listener are vital to keeping the conversation and information transfer on track. It is usually better, however, to ask open-ended questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" response. And anyways, knowledgeable folks will want opportunities to talk and fill-in what they know when they're asked thought-provoking questions. – teego1967 Dec 5 '17 at 23:19
  • +1 - Agree that body language is a good cue but as the poster is an engineering intern it may be a little over their head which may be contributing to the problem they're facing. – mcottle Dec 6 '17 at 3:19
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This is very common even in non-workplace contexts, for example, explaining my mom some elementary functions on her smartphone with her reacting like "hey, I sure know this, you deem me that stupid? (chuckle)".

So, I think that you might give the impression of "teaching" and "arrogance" only if you "take for granted" that he does not know what you're talking about and automatically start explaining.

When you encounter a subject which you are unsure whether J is knowledgeable about, you might want to try what I call "a little groping question":

compare

So I visited my brother and his cat - which is a four-pawed furry little mammal - attacked me. [This is the possibly "teaching"/"arrogant" version]

with

So I visited my brother and his cat... [Hesitate] Know a cat? [He'll answer "yes"] There, it attacked me.

Only if he answered no, you'd catch the opportunity to explain.

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    I think you mean probing question, not groping question... – Michael McGriff Dec 5 '17 at 18:15
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    Also, instead of asking "Know a cat?" it would be better to ask something like "Have you ever owned a cat?" - it seems like you're trying to get to know the person better, and if they don't know what a cat is it gives them the perfect opportunity to say so. – Rob Watts Dec 5 '17 at 18:41
  • @MichaelMcGriff true, althought I actually intended to evoke the "groping" meaning as in PING. – Markino Dec 20 '17 at 10:54
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I work in a technical field and have spent a lot of time explaining things to less technical people (mostly designers who were my customers) and to people of the same or higher technical level (sometimes you simply have a piece of information a highly technical person needs). I sometimes begin by saying "I'm not sure of your level of knowledge on this so I'll start at the beginning. Feel free to stop me if I'm covering anything you already know"

Another trick I've learned is to continuously monitor the conversation by use of use feedback cues.

  • Are you familiar with XYZ?
  • Does that make sense?
  • Got it?
  • Shall I take it back a step?

While the person might not be technical they could be smart in other ways. I sometimes describe this as "lacking the intellectual scaffolding upon which to hang technical concepts" It is sometimes beneficial to frame a new technical concept in more everyday terms by using analogy and metaphor. "Your filesystem is like a filing cabinet. Having the data is one thing, but you also need to be able to find it. That's why there's a catalog. If that gets messed up your data is still there, you just can't find it till you repair or rebuild it"

Above all try to avoid an air of condescension and never show signs of frustration. Keep in mind that your success is tied in part to your ability to explain things clearly to others.

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