7 Tips for Better Communication with Colleagues in Your Lab

Life in the lab can be challenging. Here are some tips on communication style, equipment and reagent sharing, and interpersonal skills.

Updated on September 16, 2016

Two researchers working together on a manuscript for better communication

Having good relationships with your colleagues impacts more than you might think. Aside from having a reliable lunch partner or friends to tell your weekend plans to, research shows that being more engaged in your work environment increases growth and productivity. And who doesn't want that?

As many of us know, good relationships begin with good communication. But in a lab with so much activity, so many different personalities, and a variety of research taking place, this can be difficult. It's for this reason that our team has put together a list of tips for better communication with your labmates. These should come in handy whether you're trying to navigate a hard situation, a difficult personality, or even if you are just looking for a new lunch friend.

1. Determine how your labmates prefer to communicate.

Do your colleagues like to communicate in person or do they prefer email and digital conversations? Chances are some of your labmates prefer one and some prefer another. Another aspect to be mindful of is how much communication people are comfortable with. Some people thrive on continuously connecting, while some find constant interactions to be draining. Learning the different styles of each of your colleagues can be very helpful in balancing and maintaining good relationships.

2. Learn the times of day your labmates prefer to work.

Every person has a time of day that they function at their best. For some people, it's in the morning; for others, it's in the afternoon or evening. Try to find out the best times of day for the people you work with most. They'll likely appreciate it and will probably be more helpful and responsive.

3. Schedule your equipment.

Scheduling time to use a shared piece of equipment not only ensures that you're able to use it at the time you need, it also prevents you from infringing on time scheduled by your colleagues. Different labs may have different systems for scheduling, and some may also share equipment with other labs.

Whatever system is in place in your lab, be sure to learn and follow it. Or, if your lab doesn't have a scheduling system in place, suggest one. It can be as simple as a calendar printed out and set next to the PCR machine, where people can sign up for certain days and times. By doing something as easy as scheduling in advance, you're showing respect for your labmates' time and needs.

4. Help ensure supplies and reagents stay maintained in your lab.

As many people know, sharing supplies can be a serious source of contention. In order to keep this from becoming a conflict between you and your labmates, be proactive in making sure supplies stay stocked. If you're in a lab with a lab manager, it may be as simple as following the process that the manager has put into place. If your lab doesn't have someone already managing reagents and supplies, and you're naturally organized, you may be able to contribute to making your lab run more smoothly.

One easy way to begin implementing a system is to to mark the last reagent to indicate that it's the last one, for example, using a piece of red tape. Another useful process would be to have a whiteboard, list, or clipboard hanging somewhere in the lab in which people could fill in what they needed and how many. Make sure to include things like the reagent, order number, how many you need, and the date of your request. The most important aspect is finding and following a system that works well for your lab.

5. Don't hold onto small offenses.

If you get offended about something your colleague did, don't wait for them to do it several more times before saying something. At that point, you'll most likely be irate, and the conversation won't be as productive. Instead, if someone does something that annoys you, such as leave a mess on your bench, mention it the next day. It may just be that the person left in a hurry and didn't even realize what they had done. If you address it sooner than later, it will help create a more open relationship between the two of you.

6. Ask questions instead of making accusations.

If you do have to discuss a conflict with a labmate, the best approach is to ask questions. Making accusing statements will cause the person to get defensive immediately and will reduce the chances of the conflict actually being resolved. For instance, if your labmate uses the last a reagent without yet ordering more, don't assume that they did it to make your life more difficult.

Instead, ask questions like: “Did you use the rest of the reagent? Have you ordered more? When will it be here? Why did we run out?” Asking questions can open up the conversation and possibly help you both discover solutions to problems that you didn't know existed.

7. Take a class on communication.

Classes are a great way to learn new information and techniques, especially around a topic as important as communication. You can check to see if any classes on communication are offered by your university, research societies, or even funding agencies. For instance, the U.S. organization, the National Institutes of Health offers a variety of classes, including ones about communication and working within a team. Examples of ones that they have offered include, “*Speaking up: How to ask for what you need in the lab and in life*”, “*Workplace dynamics III: Conflict & feedback*”, and “*Workplace dynamics IV: Team Skills*”.

In addition to looking for classes offered by research organizations, Coursera can also be a great platform to find classes. They have many classes about communication, and they offer classes in several different languages. You can also choose which type of communication skill you would like to focus on, such as speech or writing.

What is one thing you can start now?

Trying to implement all 7 tactics at once may feel overwhelming, so what is one thing could you begin working on now? Maybe you've had a tendency to inwardly (or outwardly) blame labmates for mistakes, and you could resolve to start by asking questions the next time something happens. Perhaps you haven't been as diligent about scheduling shared equipment, and that's an area for improvement. Or maybe you're interested in taking a class, and you can sign up an upcoming session.

Whatever the opportunity for improvement, good communication takes intentionally practicing good habits. Eventually that practicing will become a part of your natural demeanor and communication skills. And on the days when you're dealing with someone difficult and you don't feel like exercising good communication skills, just remember that having better relationships with your labmates will ultimately lead to better science.

*Thanks to April Troester, Jaime Fox, and Jennifer Kirchoff for contributing to this article.*

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