ERIC Identifier: ED390114
Publication Date: 1996-01-00
Author: Irmsher, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Communication Skills. ERIC Digest, Number 102.
On average, leaders are engaged in one form or another of communication for
about 70 percent of their waking moments. This Digest provides suggestions for
school leaders who want to increase the effectiveness of those interactions.
WHAT ONE SKILL IS MOST ESSENTIAL FOR EFFECTIVE
"Seek first to understand, then to be understood," recommends
Stephen Covey (1990). He, and many others, believe this precept is paramount in
interpersonal relations. To interact effectively with anyone--teachers,
students, community members, even family members--you need first to understand
where the person is "coming from."
Next to physical survival, Covey observes, "the greatest need of a human
being is psychological survival--to be understood, to be affirmed, to be
validated, to be appreciated." When you listen carefully to another person, you
give that person "psychological air." Once that vital need is met, you can then
focus on influencing or problem-solving. The inverse is also true. School
leaders who focus on communicating their own "rightness" become isolated and
ineffectual, according to a compilation of studies by Karen Osterman (1993).
Good listeners don't interrupt, especially to correct mistakes or make
points; don't judge; think before answering; face the speaker; are close enough
to hear; watch nonverbal behavior; are aware of biases or values that distort
what they hear; look for the feelings and basic assumptions underlying remarks;
concentrate on what is being said; avoid rehearsing answers while the other
person is talking; and don't insist on having the last word (Richard Gemmet
To master the art of listening, Gemmet advises developing the attitude of
wanting to listen, then the skills to help express that attitude.
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER SKILLS OF EFFECTIVE
"Asking questions" is an excellent way to initiate
communication because it shows other people that you're paying attention and
interested in their response. Susan Glaser and Anthony Biglan (1977) suggest the
* ask open-ended questions
* ask focused questions that aren't too broad
* ask for additional details, examples, impressions
"Giving Feedback." Several types of feedback--praise, paraphrasing,
perception-checking, describing behavior, and "I-messages"--are discussed in the
paragraphs that follow.
When giving feedback, say Charles Jung and associates (1973), it is useful to
describe observed behaviors, as well as the reactions they caused. They offer
these guidelines: the receiver should be ready to receive feedback; comments
should describe, rather than interpret; feedback should focus on recent events
or actions that can be changed, but should not be used to try to force people to
One especially important kind of feedback for administrators is letting staff
members know how well they are doing their jobs. Effective school leaders give
plenty of timely positive feedback. They give negative feedback privately,
without anger or personal attack, and they accept criticism without becoming
"Paraphrasing." Charles Jung and his colleagues stress that the real purpose
of paraphrasing is not to clarify what the other person actually meant, but to
show what it meant to you. This may mean restating the original statement in
more specific terms, using an example, or restating it in more general terms.
"Perception Checking." Perception checking is an effort to understand the
feelings behind the words. One method is simply to describe your impressions of
another person's feelings at a given time, avoiding any expression of approval
"Describing Behavior." Useful behavior description, according to Jung and his
associates, reports specific, observable actions without value judgments, and
without making accusations or generalizations about motives, attitudes, or
personality traits. "You've disagreed with almost everything he's said" is
preferable to "You're being stubborn."
WHAT'S A NONTHREATENING METHOD OF REQUESTING BEHAVIOR
"I"-messages reflect one's own views and rely on description rather
than criticism, blame, or prescription. The message is less likely to prompt
defensive reactions and more likely to be heard by the recipient. One form of
"I"-message includes three elements: (1) the problem or situation, (2) your
feelings about the issue, and (3) the reason for the concern. For example, "When
you miss staff meetings, I get concerned that we're making plans without your
For expressing feelings, Jung and colleagues recommend a simpler form. You
can refer directly to feelings ("I'm angry"), use similes, ("I feel like a fish
out of water"), or describe what you'd like to do ("I'd like to leave the room
HOW CAN INDIVIDUALS IMPROVE THE NONVERBAL COMPONENTS OF THEIR COMMUNICATION?
Whether you're communicating with one person or a
group, nonverbal messages play an important role. Kristen Amundson (1993) notes
that one study found 93 percent of a message is sent non-verbally, and only 7
percent through what is said. Doreen S. Geddes (1995) offers the following
*"Body orientation." To indicate you like and respect people, face them when
*"Posture." Good posture is associated with confidence and enthusiasm. It
indicates our degree of tenseness or relaxation. Observing the posture of others
provides clues to their feelings.
*"Facial expression." Notice facial expressions. Some people mask emotions by
not using facial expression; others exaggerate facial expression to belie their
real feelings. If you sense contradictions in verbal and nonverbal messages,
gently probe deeper.
*"Eye contact." Frequent eye contact communicates interest and confidence.
Avoidance communicates the opposite.
*"Use of space." The less distance, the more intimate and informal the
relationship. Staying behind your desk when someone comes to visit gives the
impression that you are unapproachable.
*"Personal appearance." People tend to show more respect and respond more
positively to individuals who are well-dressed, but not overdressed.
HOW CAN SCHOOL LEADERS ENHANCE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH COLLEAGUES AND CONSTITUENTS?
Vision, humor, accessibility,
team-building skills, and genuine praise all can help to create a positive
"Vision." Allan Vann (1994) notes that "principals earn staff respect by
articulating a clear vision of their school's mission, and working collegially
to accomplish agreed-on goals and objectives." This process should begin before
school starts, and be reinforced throughout the school year.
"Removing Barriers." Communication barriers can deplete team energy and
isolate individuals who may then proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions.
Meetings and various inhouse communiques, combined with private discussions, can
remove interpersonal barriers before they become larger problems.
"Giving Praise." Communication experts recommend using sincere praise
whenever possible to create a more constructive atmosphere. An indirect way of
giving praise is through telling others stories about people at your school who
are doing remarkable things.
"Being Accessible." It is important to be available and welcome personal
contact with others. Informal meetings are as important as formal ones. Ask
people about their families and call them by their first names. An administrator
who takes the time to get to know the staff will be able to identify, develop,
and make best use of each staff member's capabilities.
"Building Teamwork." When schools move toward site-based management, open
communication becomes even more essential. A sense of teamwork can be nurtured
through an earnest effort to help each staff member achieve his or her
"Using Humor." Various researchers indicate humor is the seventh sense
necessary for effective school leadership. Results of a study by Patricia
Pierson and Paul Bredeson (1993) suggest that principals use humor for four
major purposes: (1) creating and improving school climate; (2) relating to
teachers the principal's understanding of the complexities and demands of their
professional work life; (3) breaking down the rigidity of bureaucratic
structures by humanizing and personalizing interpersonal communications; and (4)
when appropriate, delivering sanctions and other necessary unpleasantries.
Amundson, Kristen. "Speaking and Writing Skills
for Educators." Arlington, Virginia: American Association of School
Administrators, 1993. 20 pages.
Covey, Stephen R. "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." New York:
Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Geddes, Doreen S. "Keys to Communication. A Handbook for School Success." In
the Practicing Administrator's Leadership Series, edited by Jerry J. and Janice
L. Herman. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 1995. 59 pages. ED 377 575.
Gemmet, Richard. "A Monograph on Interpersonal Communications." Redwood City,
California: San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools, 1977. 48 pages. ED 153
Glaser, Susan, and Anthony Biglan. "Increase Your Confidence and Skill in
Interpersonal Situations: Instructional Manual." Eugene, Oregon: Authors, 1977.
Jung, Charles, and others. "Interpersonal Communications: Participant
Materials and Leader's Manual." Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational
Laboratory, 1973. 935 pages. ED 095 127.
Osterman, Karen F. "Communication Skills: A Key to Caring, Collaboration, and
Change." A paper presented at the annual conference of the University Council
for Educational Administration, Houston Texas, October 29-31, 1993. ED 363 973.
Pierson, Patricia R., and Paul V. Bredeson. "It's Not Just a Laughing Matter:
School Principals' Use of Humor in Interpersonal Communications with Teachers."
"Journal of School Leadership" 3, 5 (September 1993): 522-33. EJ 466 909.
Vann, Allan S. "That Vision Thing." "Principal" 74, 2 (November 1994): 25-26.
EJ 492 877.