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.


"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 1977).

To master the art of listening, Gemmet advises developing the attitude of wanting to listen, then the skills to help express that attitude.


"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 following:

* 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 change.

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 defensive.

"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 or disapproval.

"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."


"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 input."

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 now").


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 pointers:

*"Body orientation." To indicate you like and respect people, face them when interacting.

*"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.


Vision, humor, accessibility, team-building skills, and genuine praise all can help to create a positive emotional climate.

"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 potential.

"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 153 323.

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.

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