Some thoughts on

lab communication

Published September 01 2016


I recently came across a nice blog post by Ambika Kamath, a graduate student at Harvard University, about tough love in science. A passage really stuck out:

“My very first task in the lab as an undergrad was to pull layers of fungus off dozens of cups of tomato juice. My second task was PCR, at which I initially excelled. Cocksure after a week of smaller samples, I remember confidently attempting an 80-reaction PCR, with no positive control. Every single reaction failed … I vividly recall a flash of disappointment across the face of one of my PIs, probably mourning all that wasted Taq. That combination — ‘this happens to all of us, but it really would be best if it didn’t happen again’ — was exactly what I needed to keep going and to be more careful.”

What I love about this quote is how it perfectly highlights how good communication can inspire and reassure — even in a tough situation — and how bad communication can lead to humiliation and disengagement.

I’m sure there are lots of theories and data out there about communication (or not), but when it comes down to putting things into practice, I’ve found that having simple rules or principles is often a lot easier. One that has been particularly effective for me is to avoid “you” language. Just avoid saying “you!”

I’ve been following that rule for some time. There’s a relatively simple principle beneath it: If you’re saying something for someone else’s benefit, then good. If you’re saying something for your own benefit, then bad. Do more of the former, less of the latter.

How does this work in practice? Let’s take the example from the quote above. As a (disappointed) human being, your instinct is going to be to think, “Oh, man, how could you have done that?” But avoiding “you” language will help you to find a more productive response.

Obviously there are counterproductive statements that avoid “you” language as well: “Well, that was disappointing!” “That was a big waste” “I would really double-check things before doing that again.” These are incorrect to say. I think the last one hurts as well.

Let’s dissect the real reasons you would say, “I would really double-check before doing that again.” Of course the trainee is going to be feeling pretty awful — people generally know when they’ve screwed up, especially if they’ve screwed up badly. Anyone knows that if you screw up big, you should probably double-check and be more careful next time. So what’s the real reason behind telling someone to double-check? It’s basically to say, “I noticed you screwed up, and you should be more careful.”

Ah, the hidden “you” language is revealed! This sentence really is about giving yourself the opportunity to vent your frustration.

So what to say? I think the answer is to take a step back, think about the science and the person, and come up with something that is beneficial to the trainee. If they’re new, maybe you could say, “Running a positive control every time is really a good idea,” (unless they already realized that mistake) or, “Whenever I scale up the reaction, I always check …”

These bits of advice often work well when coupled with a personal story: “I remember when I screwed up one of these big ones early on, and what I found helped me was …” Sometimes, I will use a mythic figure from the lab’s recent past, since I’m old enough now that my personal lab stories sound a little too “crazy old grandpa” to be very effective.

It is also possible that there is nothing to learn from this mistake and that it was just, well, a mistake. In that case, there is nothing you can say that is for anyone’s benefit. It really is just better to say nothing. This can take a lot of discipline, because it’s hard not to express those feelings right when they’re hitting you. But it’s worth it. If it’s a repeated issue that’s really affecting things, there are two options: address it later during a performance review or don’t. Often there’s honestly not much difference in outcome between these options, so maybe it’s just better to go with the second one.

Another common category of negative communication is all the sundry versions of “I told you so.” It is so clearly accusatory that most folks know not to say it. But I think this is just one of what I call “scorekeeping” statements, which are ones that serve only to remind people of who was right or wrong: “But I thought we agreed to …” or “Last time I was supposed to …” They’re very tempting, because as scientists we are in the business of telling each other that we’re right or wrong. But when you’re working with someone in the lab, keeping score of these types of points is corrosive in the long term. Just remember that the next time your principal investigator asks you to change the figure back the other way around for the fourth time!

Along those lines, I think it’s really important for trainees, not just PIs, to think about how to improve their communication skills. I often hear people say, “Before I was a PI, I got all this training in science, and now I’m suddenly supposed to do all this stuff I wasn’t trained for, like managing people.” I actually disagree. To me, the concept of managing people is sort of a misnomer, because in the ideal case, you’re not really managing anyone at all but working with everyone as equals. There should be an equal stake and commitment to productive communications, so all parties should learn and improve.

Few of us are born with perfect interpersonal skills, especially in work situations, and extra especially in science, where things go wrong all the time. It practically begs for people to assign blame to each other. It’s a lot of work, but a little practice and discipline in the area of positive communication can go a long way.

Arjun Raj Arjun Raj is an assistant professor in systems biology at the University of Pennsylvania. This post originally appeared on the Raj Lab blog.