„One cannot not communicate.“Paul Watzlawick
Communication is a topic you could spend your whole life learning about. It is as complex as human beings themselves, but also as the social structures that frame it. Unfortunately, learning to communicate authentically and efficiently is not something that finds its place in our school curricula.
The result is that, at the end of their school education, many students haven’t developed the ability to express their thoughts in line with their true inner state, to have an argued discussion, to listen actively, or engage in dialogue with people with differing opinions.
However, every teacher can use his classroom to improve his students’ communication skills, primarily by being a positive role model. Ideally, you will also explicitly talk to your students about what good communication skills are and why it’s important to work on them actively.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the most important communication skills and tools that we think young people should acquire before graduating and stepping into the world of adulthood. Developing the skills for successful communication during their school years will better equip them to navigate interpersonal relationships throughout their lives.
Although non-verbal communication is an important part of our communication, in this article, we’re going to focus mainly on aspects of verbal communication that your students can develop through guided practice.
Read on to find out more about:
- The 4 sides communication model
- Meta-communication – a remedy available to all
- Why and how you should use I-messages
- Active listening – a prerequisite for understanding
- Intercultural communication and overcoming prejudice
- Teacher-student communication
- Developing communication skills through experiential learning
Let this article serve you as an inspiration to reflect on your own habits and skills and as an encouragement to work on your students’ communication skills, so that ultimately all of us contribute to creating a society where we listen to each other better, talk to each other more authentically and are open to accepting the differences between people.
The 4 sides communication model
The German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun, who’s dedicated his life to researching communication and teaching people of various professions how to communicate successfully, finds that every message we communicate has 4 sides:
- Factual information – what I inform about
- Self-revelation – what I reveal about myself
- Relationship – what I think about you and our relationship
- Appeal – what I want to make you do
The factual information that the message carries seems to stand independently from the other three aspects and often hides the disagreement of the speakers on another side of the message.
In every speech act, the speaker reveals something about himself. That can be his mood, beliefs, values, desires or hopes. We all communicate verbally and nonverbally at the same time. The speaker can express a piece of factual information verbally while showing their true inner state through nonverbal communication, which can be inconsistent with what he said.
In the way a speaker transfers factual knowledge, he also expresses his view of the relationship to the listener. Although his interlocutor might agree with the expressed information, as long as he disagrees with the speaker’s perspective of their relationship, it’s unlikely he will receive the message the way the speaker intended it.
The appeal of the message is the reaction that the speaker expects to provoke with it in the listener. You can express the appeal openly or hide it behind the other sides of the message, which is more often the case.
Just as the speaker “packages” the message most often unconsciously in those 4 facets, the listener receives all four aspects of the message through the filter of his personality. Then he creates his interpretation of the message, which will usually differ from what the speaker originally intended to say.
You can see easily see from this model that both the speaker and the listener need to become aware of all 4 facets of communication messages. As speakers and as listeners, we tend to give more attention to certain aspects of a message and neglect others.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that often, very easily and unintendedly, we provoke a conflict that usually becomes even worse the more we try to talk it out.
Meta-communication – a remedy available to all
Schulz von Thun, along with many other psychologists, will agree that meta-communication – the conversation about how we communicate with each other – is an excellent “remedy” for bad communication between people.
Meta-communication requires us to step away from the conflict for a moment and together observe the way we communicate from aside.
The 4 sides communication model can be a helpful tool for successful meta-communication.
You can use this simple tool to perceive a communication situation more clearly and better understand what is going on inside of you and between you and your interlocutor.
Although it is often challenging and uncomfortable to honestly say what exactly is going on inside yourself at that moment, often, that will be the key to an unresolved tension in a discussion. As soon as one person finds the courage to name the real underlying reason for the conflict, very often, the others will also feel empowered to do the same.
Why and how you should use I-messages
Most probably, you’ve already heard about the importance of using I-messages instead of You-messages for the improvement of interpersonal relationships.
Very often, especially when we find ourselves in the middle of a quarrel, we tend to use You-messages to hide what is happening inside of ourselves.
“Why do you always have to interrupt me?!”
“You insulted me!”
You-messages pass the guilt to our interlocutor. The speaker himself usually is not even completely sure what it was that the other said that triggered him to react that strongly. When we send You-messages, we don’t simply share information about our inner state but hand the complete responsibility for it to the other person.
The reaction of the interlocutor, especially if it’s a teenager, will usually be defensive, he will reciprocate a reproach, or pull away. (Požnjak Malobabić, 2016)
Using I-messages is a way of communicating assertively and lets the speaker clearly express his inner state and carry the responsibility for it. I-messages have a lot of self-revelation inside of them. Instead of blaming the other one for your reaction to what he said, they express what is happening inside of you at that moment. Instead of defense, they trigger empathy in your interlocutor.
“I get mad when someone interrupts me. I have feeling that what I have to say is not interesting enough.”
“I feel hurt.”
For the same reason, I-messages are useful when giving feedback to another person. They reveal a lot about the speaker, how he perceives the other person, and what it is that he wants him to do. (Schulz v. Thun, 2001)
Active listening – a prerequisite for understanding
Active listening is a method often used by talk therapists, but it can also be beneficial to anyone , during a discussion, especially when you don’t share the other person’s opinion.
Active listening means that the you particularly focus on the self-revelation aspect of the speaker’s message. In doing so, you’re not diagnosing or judging the speaker, but trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand his perspective.
During a conversation, it often happens that, instead of listening attentively and trying to grasp the other’s perspective, in your head, you’re already preparing what to say next. What happens then is not a real dialogue because you’ve made up your message in advance and it reflects only your previously established attitudes, without considering the other person’s point.
The capacity for active listening requires a person to be able to feel empathy towards others.
Active listening also includes paying attention to all 4 sides of communication messages. (Schulz v. Thun, 2001).
Intercultural communication and overcoming prejudice
Successful communication with members of other cultures usually requires being conscious of differences among cultures and of your own culture and the values you’ve taken from it.
However, “culture” is not to be understood simply as the characteristics of the inhabitants of a state or region. Even in one town, you’ll be able to find people of very diverse cultural backgrounds, whether they belong to different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, subcultures, or even professions. All those aspects are cultural backgrounds that affect your communication habits.
If you’re aware of the impact that culture has on your communication habits, you can understand that not all misunderstandings and disagreements stem from individual differences, but from differences in the speakers’ cultural backgrounds. Every culture has its own unwritten communication rules that its speakers subconsciously know and obey.
However, it’s important to note that when you communicate with members of other cultures you need to be ready to question your prejudice and be open to concluding you were wrong.
Openness and curiosity are the main characteristics of successful intercultural communication!
Although raising awareness about differences among cultures and respect for them is an important first step, you can develop intercultural communication skills most efficiently when talking to people from other cultural backgrounds.
Youth exchanges are a great opportunity for students to meet and become friends with peers from other countries. In those occasions, besides developing foreign language skills, they also develop their intercultural competence.
Successful teacher-student communication is extremely important, especially during teenage-years.
In this period of life, the “balance of power” between the speakers – the adult teacher and the teenage student – becomes very important. Teenagers wish to become as close as possible to a reciprocal relationship with adults – one where it’s acceptable for them to speak to adults the way they speak to them.
Students of this age will still want to talk to and confide in parents and teachers, but only just as long as they feel respected and trust that they won’t be laughed at, belittled, or talked to from above. (Rajić, 2017)
Don’t forget that teenagers are very sensitive to inconsistencies between what adults say and what they do. Keep that in mind also when talking to them about communication skills.
Only if you’re able to consistently lead by example, you’ll be able to affect your students’ communication habits.
Developing communication skills through experiential learning
Although scientific communication theories are useful to know, good communication is primarily learned through practice.
Which means, by communicating and meta-communicating.
That is precisely why experiential learning is such an efficient method you can use to develop your students’ communication skills.
David Kolb’s experiential learning model says that after planning and engaging in a certain activity, you should reflect on the experience. If your goal is to develop your students’ communication skills, your reflection questions may sound as follows:
- How well do you feel you could express yourself during the activity?
- How well do you feel the others understood you?
- How did you feel during the activity?
In that way, you not only develop your students’ awareness about their communication habits, and they receive feedback from their peers, but they also learn how to communicate on a meta-level.
Communication is a key part of human relationships and, while it enables cooperation and connection, it can also cause conflict and misunderstandings.
We’ve all grown up within a community have learned to communicate in a certain way by observing others, through upbringing, and education. If we’re being honest, however, we must admit that when it comes to communication skills, for most of us, there’s space for improvement.
If we intend to prepare our students for being active and successful members of society, it’s important that we consciously put effort into developing their communication skills, both within the school system and through non-formal education.
First and foremost, be a role model for your students when it comes to conscious communication. Second, develop their ability for meta-communication:
➡️ Present them a communication model that you find useful.
➡️ Introduce them to I-messages and practice formulating them together.
➡️ Explain them what active listening is. Use it when communicating with your students.
➡️ Talk to your students about the impact of culture on the ways we communicate.
➡️ When possible, try out the experiential learning method and encourage your students to take part in non-formal education activities.
Finally, we’d like to know – how do you work on developing your students’ communication skills? 😊
👇 Let us know in the comment section below!
- Schulz v. Thun, F. (2001): Kako međusobno razgovaramo. Zagreb: Erudita
- Rajić, A.: „Kako kvalitetno komunicirati s tinejdžerima?“ hr, 4.8.2017, http://skole.hr/dobro-je-znati/odgoj
- Požnjak Malobabić, A.: „Korištenje „JA poruka“ u komunikaciji s mladima u adolescenciji (tinejdžerima)“ hr, 23.3.2016, http://skole.hr/dobro-je-znati/rijec-strucnjaka