This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July. For details email Bob Dick firstname.lastname@example.org
...in which three sets of important communication skills are described: expressive skills for stating a point of view non-defensively; listening skills for learning another's point of view; and process skills for managing the overall interaction
There is a French translation by Natalie Harmann.
- The information chain
- The skills of communication
- Non-verbal expression
- Expressive skills
- Listening skills
- Listening skills in more detail
- Managing the overall process
- Process issues
- In conclusion
Edgar Schein 1 visited Australia in 1980. On one occasion he described the most important management skills as technical, interpersonal and emotional.
By emotional skills Schein meant the ability to make difficult decisions, to take responsibility, and the like. A simpler equivalent term is courage, with elements of self-management.
Emotional skills, he said, were most important. Without emotional skills the interpersonal skills cannot be used to most effect. And without interpersonal skills the technical skills may be wasted. Emotional skills are a necessary foundation for interpersonal skills, which in turn are needed to make the most of technical skills.
Schein was talking about managers. I believe the same can be said for action researchers and evaluators.
Below 2 I set out the bare elements of good interpersonal skills. I describe them in such a way that under some circumstances you can get by with only moderate levels of emotional skills. You communicate as if you are self- confident. You achieve this by using an explicit problem- solving approach in your communication.
The real gains are achieved, however, when you have the courage as well. The usual forms of communication in our culture do not usually favour effective problem solving. There are rules which discourage people from giving the information which is often important to developing a solution.
Especially important are rules which forbid exchanging information about motives and about negative feelings.
To communicate well you often have to change the rules. You have to renegotiate the unstated rules of communication. To complicate matters, there are rules against renegotiating the rules. There are rules against making the rules explicit. 3
That is where the courage comes in. It is needed to challenge the taboos and renegotiate the rules. With courage, though, it usually works. The result, for both parties, is a clearing of the air and an improved relationship. 4
This is most apparent when you are involved in difficult communication. When you are severely under threat, you will find the approach to be described below may work if you are a person of robust self-confidence, well practised in this approach. Otherwise you will probably do as most people do: act impulsively, and perhaps regret it later.
To make matters worse, threat triggers a set of defensive strategies. Emotional skills are required for people to accept that they may be part of the problem. People are least able to understand their own contribution when they are most under threat.
The approach described in this document is built around specific ways of getting and giving information. In other words, it comprises listening skills, and expressive skills. In both, I define what information you can most usefully give and get.
The information chain
Imagine two people within a close relationship. Of the two, consider who is most likely to have accurate information about each person's behaviour; each person's beliefs; each person's feelings.
We can see another person's behaviour more clearly than our own -- notice how surprised people are to see themselves on videotape for the first time. Among other things, our eyes are better placed for observing others than for observing ourselves. We tend also to judge ourselves more by our intentions than by our behaviour.
We cannot see each other's feelings directly; we deduce them from the behaviour we see. We are able to sense our own feelings directly (though we may sometimes fail to do so).
Similarly, we can be aware of our own beliefs. We must depend on other people's report to know their thoughts, or again deduce them from behaviour.
For two people A and B:
can most clearly perceive
can most clearly perceive
material outcomes for A
material outcomes for B
A's intentions towards B
B's intentions towards A
This is the information which may be relevant for action researchers and evaluators. For instance, it may help to define roles or resolve a conflict or to provide important but threatening critique.
You will notice that each person has part of the relevant information. Yet some issues become resolvable only when each person understands all this information.
The tasks of the effective communicator are twofold. One is to give and get appropriate information. The other is to guide herself and the other person through a process which is constructive for both.
The elements of the information chain are linked together. Actions by one person typically produce material outcomes for the other. In response to these outcomes, the second person develops thoughts about the first person, typically about her motives. There is then some emotional response to this. The second person forms an intention to act, arising partly from the emotional response.action --> outcomes --> beliefs --> feelings --> intentions
Action then follows. This starts an equivalent chain of information in the reverse direction. Under some circumstances, common where there are relationship problems, the reverse chain gives rise to more of the actions which started the problem in the first instance. Defensiveness begets defensiveness.
In many instances, particularly when there is a history of conflict or friction, all of the information above is relevant: behaviour, feelings and thoughts (including intentions).
The skills of communication
By way of example, suppose I wish to improve a relationship with a client. I can now classify the skills I need into three varieties, each requiring emotional skills as a foundation.
- Expressive skills to convey my information to others. I can use expressive skills to give others information about their behaviour, and my beliefs and feelings (and perhaps intentions). Emotional skills enable me to say those things which need to be said, but which are difficult to say.
- Listening skills obtain information from others. I can use them to get information about my behaviour, and their beliefs and feelings and intentions. Emotional skills enable me to take on board even the more threatening aspects of what the other person is saying. They also enable me to postpone my own concerns until I understand the other person's.
- Skills for managing the overall process and identifying the needed information -- which information to give or get? and mine or others'? Emotional skills enable me to challenge a poor process, and renegotiate the rules of the interaction.
The three types of communication skill are described in a little more detail below.
It is hard using the written word to describe the aspects of communication other than the words. The nonverbal aspects are, however, extremely important. No matter what words we use, how those words are said may determine what the listener makes of them. Attitudes in particular are likely to be judged more from nonverbal than from verbal behaviour.
These non-verbal aspects of communication will be addressed first.
Factual information is often deduced from the words used. As already said, attitudinal information is often assumed from the nonverbal aspects. These include the characteristics of a person's speech such as tone of voice, pace, pauses, inflection, volume, timbre and the like. They also include facial expression, direction of gaze, posture, gestures, and nearness.
Aware of it or not, we make a judgment about how genuine the other person is. To a large extent we base our judgment on the amount of agreement between what their words say and what the rest of their body says. The simplest way to handle the non- verbal aspects of expression, therefore, is to be honest and attentive. For most of us, the nonverbal aspects will then look after themselves. 5
We are often unaware of our nonverbal behaviour. We often process other people's nonverbals without conscious attention. It may be difficult (an not always useful) to make this conscious.
In understanding other people's feelings, however, there are some overall patterns which can be used. Large-silhouette postures, advancing gestures, threatening facial expression, loud volume, sustained eye contact together may indicate aggression. Small-silhouette postures, retiring gestures, troubled or masked facial expression, low volume, and avoidance of eye contact together may indicate appeasement or withdrawal.
Non-defensive tone of voice, posture and gesture tend to be intermediate between the two patterns just listed:
tone of voice
minimal eye contact
sustained eye contact
Overall patterns are important. I wouldn't recommend that you take the individual elements too seriously.
Aggression and appeasement are both means of self-defence. People very often react to defensiveness with defensiveness, producing a vicious cycle of escalating defensiveness. Both aggression and appeasement therefore encourage defensiveness in the other person.
As implied above, changing your non-verbal behaviour by taking conscious control of it is very difficult. Your behaviour is likely to become stilted. The effects on the other person may be very different to what you intend.
However, you may become aware of some habitual postures or gestures that others interpret as defensive. When you know about these behaviours you can then deliberately avoid them while still leaving most of your behaviour under unconscious control.
(Whether you intend these gestures as defensive is not the issue. Whatever your intentions, certain nonverbal behaviour is likely to be interpreted as defensive. If so, it is usually simpler to avoid it.)
Non-verbal aspects of communication are important in all three types of communication skill...
These are the simplest skills. You can use them to convey to another person the information to which you have access. You do this in three stages...
- first you get the other person's attention;
- then you convey the information to her; 6
- then you check her understanding.
You can put together the necessary information by asking yourself these questions...
- What precisely does she do or say?
- What are the material outcomes for me of this behaviour?
- If relevant, what do I assume she is trying to accomplish with these actions?
- If relevant, what do I then feel like doing in response (that is, what is my emotional response)?
- If relevant, how do I intend to act in response?
- If relevant, how do I actually react?
The other person is more likely to understand it if you convey it specifically, and not defensively. It helps to avoid blaming, criticising, interpreting, or making demands on the other person.
It is also an advantage to convey as much as possible of this information by describing specific actions and things. The other person can then most easily verify it.
If relevant, you can also add the information on your beliefs and feelings, and perhaps intentions.
Information about your intentions needs to be handled with some care. It may otherwise be taken as a threat.
Rather than learn this as a formula, I suggest you find your own words, and experiment with different ways of saying it. Some people find they get better results if they change the order of this to describe the consequences for themselves first.
For a particular situation, it may sound like this: 7
"I have the impression that, recently, you haven't been as enthusiastic about this program as you were in its early stages. For instance, I thought when you postponed the formation of the monitoring team, this may have illustrated some caution on your part. As well, you've missed the last couple of planning meetings.
"I realise I may be quite mistaken about this. However, at the possibility that you may be withdrawing your support I get pessimistic about the program, and quite discouraged.
"As I say, this may be fantasy on my part. It's important to me to know how you really feel about this project. It's important to me that we can continue to be open with one another about our views.
"How do you see it?"
So far I've addressed the use of expressive skills to deal with the issue which you hope to resolve. No matter how well you do it, it may still trigger defensiveness on the part of the other person. Treat that as a sign that it is time to use listening skills. When you understand the other person's position, you are able to return to your own issue.
The easiest way of describing listening skills is as a mirror image of expressive skills. They are the skills needed to help the other person make a clear and unthreatening statement of her own position. You...
This can usefully be further expanded.
Listening skills are in most respects a little harder than expressive skills. One reason for this is that, again, they depend upon a foundation of emotional skills. It is hard to place yourself one hundred per cent at the other person's disposal when you are under threat.
Yet this is what good listening requires. It is listening for understanding, not listening for ammunition (a different listening style), and not mentally rehearsing your next statement.
Another reason for the difficulty is that there are more components to listening than to speaking. After you have given the other person your attention, there are still three or four different things for you to do (the fourth of them is unnecessary, but can be useful under some circumstances).
Briefly, they are as follows...
The "enquire" is optional, and not used in the effectiveness training literature 8 or in some of the counselling literature.
In more detail:
- L isten
- Give the other person your undivided attention as you try to understand what the problem is like for her. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears -- use her verbal and non- verbal expression to work out just what it is like to be in her position as she perceives it.
- A cknowledge
- Let the other person know just what you have understood her to imply verbally and non-verbally: the whole message. Make clear that this is just your interpretation.
- C heck
- Make sure that you understand her, by making it as easy as possible for her to amend or add to your understanding.
- E nquire
- Ask the questions that will help the other person to change her first answer (which probably avoids the issue, or blames, or demands) into one which gives specific information about what you have done or said, or about what she wants you to say or do.
Of these components, acknowledgment is by far the most important. If it is done well, and often, it automatically improves your use of the other components. The rest of the communication process is then much more likely to be effective.
Listening skills in more detail
The form that listening skills take depends on two things. One is how complex the problem is. The other is how upset the other person is, and how strong her beliefs are. But in general, good listening ...
An example follows...
Jack's response to the earlier example might be framed like this:
"You've noticed that I've missed a couple of meetings. You think that this might be evidence that I'm not as enthusiastic about the project as I was. You think my delaying of the monitoring team might also be an example.
"Your reaction is that you think this may place the program in jeopardy, and -- you said "discourage" -- you wonder if the effort you're putting into it is worth it?
"And, although you didn't say it in so many words, you're disappointed that I didn't mention it?
[Jack waits for confirmation]
"It is true that I've allowed other distractions to divert me from the project. That's why I missed the meetings. I could have made more of an effort.
"I'm as enthusiastic about the long term worth of the program as I ever was. I am disappointed at how slowly it's moving."
Jill is fortunate, here. Jack shares her skills, and makes her task easy. In practice, it is unlikely that the other person will use good expressive skills. Instead she is likely to make assumptions, cast blame, and make demands. The best way of responding will depend on the circumstances.
The style used by the other person may change over time as she slowly defuses her emotion by expressing it. For many issues, five distinct stages can be identified...
Visible emotion It is evident in the person's non-verbal behaviour that she is emotional. Your task is to listen, and from time to time restate what you think she is saying. Avoid inquiry or defence.
Loaded words The emotionality is less evident in behaviour; but she uses words ("good", "bad", "disloyal", "should", etc.) which say more about attitude than about fact. Your task is to restate the message. Include what is implied as well as what is actually stated. Agree with what is true. It is best to avoid inquiry or defence.
Vague words The words no longer have strong negative or positive connotations, but are not very specific or concrete. You can now use inquiry to good effect.
Concrete detail You now begin to get specific information about what you (or someone) said or did, and with what consequences. You need only restate from time to time, and enquire after information when you don't understand.
Complete information Now is the time to move to resolution.
Managing the overall process
Third person skills are the skills I need to decide whose concerns to work on and what sort of information to exchange. In other words, third person skills are about choosing priorities -- deciding what can most usefully be tackled first or next.
Before a mutual concern (or one which is an issue only for you) can be worked on, there may be other issues that need to be got out of the way.
Similarly, there are priorities about the type of information to be exchanged.
This second set of priorities can be remembered as FIDO:
F eelings which are
allow the interchange and understanding of
I nformation which if
helps those present to make more effective
D ecisions. If these
then the desired
utcomes are more likely to be realised
FIDO is not intended to be a description of the stages of communication. It is instead a set of priorities. In more detail, it can be used to determine the appropriate information to be used in problem solving. In the event of difficulty at any level, attention is given to the higher priority level.
For example, imagine that you are having difficulty achieving the end results (the outcomes) that were agreed to. The model would indicate that revising the decisions might be the most appropriate action.
The communication style described above will help you to engage more easily with interpersonal issues, and in ways that in the long term improve relationships. Used to deal with issues as they arise, they more often allow mutually-satisfactory outcomes to be achieved.
There real power, however, is when they are used to address process issues -- that is, to renegotiate the rules by which the interaction is taking place. Precisely the same skills are used: expressive skills to describe the process you believe is occurring; listening skills to understand what is happening for the other person; skills in managing the overall interaction.
The main difference is that you are dealing with immediate and present information: what is happening between you and the other person right now.
The information chain can still be used...
In other words, the information you need exists in the present.
The rules can be renegotiated either before you start the interaction, or as required.
If you know ahead of time that the situation is likely to be difficult, you can negotiate with the person for a time when you can both give the process your full attention, without distractions.
You can begin the interaction by indicating what you hope to get out of it, and inviting the other person to express her goals. You can then agree, jointly, on the process you will use and the way you will monitor it.
A caution. If the other person is likely to be mistrustful of your motives, it is important that you do not impose a process on her. If she is familiar with a problem-solving process that can be effective, use it. If not, ensure that you take her views into account.
On other occasions you will find yourself in the thick of an issue before you realise it. The following sequence will then often be appropriate...
Using these skills to address the issue will eventually improve your style of interaction, and your relationship. The strongest improvement, however, results when you address the process and the relationship directly. The more difficult the person is to deal with, the truer this is.
Acquiring the skills of good communication is not difficult. Using them when it really matters is the difficult part. To help, there are several things you can keep in mind...
It takes two sets of skills, which I have called expressive and listening skills, to give and get information. A further set of skills is then needed to manage the overall process.
Often, however, there is more good will between people than is at first apparent. When everyone understands all the information, and when there are good enough relationships between people, resolution often emerges easily.
The two most common barriers to effective communication, I think, are a lack of skills, and the rules which forbid certain information. Using the skills within the existing rules may resolve many issues. The difficult issues, however, may not be resolvable within the rules.
Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-2000. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (1997)
Communication skills. [Available online].
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.08w last revised 20141130