Saturday, June 11, 2016

Some thoughts on lab communication

I recently came across this nice post about tough love in science:
and this passage at the start 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. Cock-sure 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.
Now, communication is easy when it's all like "Hey, I've got this awesome idea, what do you think?" "Oh yeah, that's the best idea ever!" "Boo-yah!" [secret handshake followed by football head-butt]. 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 to follow and to quantify. One that has been particularly effective for me is to avoid "you" language, which is the ultimate simple rule: just avoid saying "you"! Now that I've been following that rule for some time and thinking about why it's so effective at improving communication, I think there's a relatively simple principle beneath it that is helpful as well: 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 out 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!?" A simple application of no-you-language will help you avoid saying this obviously bad thing. But there are counterproductive no-you-language ways to respond as well: "Well, that was disappointing!" "That was a big waste" "I would really double check things before doing that again". Perhaps the first two of these are straightforwardly incorrect, but I think the last one is counterproductive as well. Let's dissect the real reasons you would say "I would really double check before doing that again". Now, of course the trainee is going to be feeling pretty awful—people generally know when they've screwed up, especially if they screwed up bad. Anyone with a brain knows that if you screw up big, you should probably double check and be more careful. So what's the real reasoning 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 revealed! What this sentence is really about is giving yourself the opportunity to vent your frustration with the situation.

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 "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, like "I remember when I screwed up one of these big ones early on, and what I found helped me was…". I will sometimes use another mythic figure from the lab's recent past, since I'm old enough now that 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 which case, there is nothing you can say that is for anyone's benefit other than yourself, and in those situations, it really is just better to say nothing. This can take a lot of discipline, because it's hard not to express those sorts of feelings right when they're hitting you the hardest. But it's worth it. If it's a repeated issue that's really affecting things, there are two options: 1. address it later during a performance review, or 2. don't. Often, with those sorts of issues, there's honestly not much difference in outcome between these options, so maybe it's just better to go with 2.

Another common category of negative communication are all the sundry versions of "I told you so". This is obviously something you say for your own benefit rather than the other person, and indeed it is so clearly accusatory that most folks know not to say this specific phrase. But I think this is just one of a class of what I call "scorekeeping" statements, which are ones that serve only to remind people of who was right or wrong. Like "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 and wrong, but when you're working with someone in the lab, scoring these types of points is corrosive in the long term. Just remember that the next time your PI asks you to change the figure back the other way around for the 4th time… :)

Along those lines, I think it's really important for trainees (not just PIs) to think about how to improve their communication skills as well. One thing I hear often is "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 with this. 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 rather working with them as equals. That implies an equal stake in and commitment to productive communications on both ends, which also means that there are opportunities to learn and improve for all parties. I urge trainees to take advantage of those opportunities. Few of us are born with perfect interpersonal skills, especially in work situations, and extra especially in science, where things change and go wrong all the time, practically begging people to assign blame to each other. It's a lot of work, but a little practice and discipline in this area can go a long way.


  1. Well said. I particularly like your last point, that the training period provides plenty of opportunities to improve communication and interpersonal skills. I even think that these skills are selected for, at least in part, during the PI recruitment.

  2. Just listened to a podcast about "I told you sos", which your post made me think about. Not really on topic, sorry, but an interesting mini-aspect.

    1. Oh, that is a great podcast! Definitely related, I think. "I told you so" is so much more satisfying in the abstract than in practice. For me, I've realized that progress for everyone on the same team is the most satisfying in reality.

  3. I remember vividly finding a severe flaw in my research in the 3rd year of grad school; results that I was excited about and had been presenting at talks. Walking into the PI's office to relay the awful news was just dreadful. That sinking feeling of "I'm not a scientist. I should just leave the graduate program."

    I tell Jasper Rine the details of the mistake and how it happened. Instead of rage and scolding, I get, "This is great Lenny! So glad you caught it before publishing. This is a tricky one; lots of credit to you for thinking of the alternative explanation and doing this control."

    Many such instances with me and others in the Rine lab. Instead of quitting the Ph.D., you come out beaming. You come out feeling like you are a good scientist.

    1. That is such a great story! I've definitely heard the opposite happening as well.

      It's such a fine line with being optimistic and upbeat all the time. I feel like if you're always upbeat, even in the face of undeniably bad news, you can seem either fake or delusional. I wonder about how much disappointment to show outwardly.