Interpersonal Communication

"…there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped to establish." (Norlin)

The process of communication is the essence of education. Teaching and learning occur via the process of communication. It is in the interactions between teachers and students as well as in the interactions amongst students facilitated by the instructor where education takes place. It is not simply the ability to communicate, but the ability to communicate effectively that is essential in the process of education. To be an effective educator one must be an effective communicator. This module provides values-based skills that, when applied, inherently increase effectiveness in communication. Effective communication enhances student learning.

Effective Communication

"Communication is an intangible process that can be verbal, nonverbal, or a combination of both, and always involves the transaction of meaning between persons" (Scileppi Krivanek, 2000). Effective communication is defined as accuracy in encoding (creating) and decoding (interpreting) of a message between people. In other words, the meaning attached to a message that is sent is similar to the meaning attached to the message that is received. Effective communication occurs when a message that is received by the listener is closely aligned with the message that was sent by the speaker. Misunderstandings often occur either when the sender of a message is not clear or when the listener misinterprets a message. Effective communication is achieved through communicating mindfully (Langer, 1989) and practicing rhetorical sensitivity (Spano & Zimmerman, 1995) in our interactions with others.

Civility and Respect

Civility and respect are the cornerstones of society (Krivanek, 2000). Civility and respect are achieved through mindfulness and rhetorical sensitivity.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is an approach to communicating. It involves a sense of awareness of one's behaviors (verbal and non-verbal) in the process of communicating. Being mindful is being consciously aware of the communication process as it is occurring. To be truly mindful one must be open to new information, create new categories and realize there is more than one perspective. Mindfulness in our communications with others involves the ability to bring our own communication to a level of awareness. Rather than communicating on automatic pilot (learned, scripted, responses), the mindful communicator begins to monitor the communication process. S/he learns to tailor his/her message based upon the receiver of the message. This infers that one aspect of the role of the instructor is to not only know his/her subject matter, but to be very in tune with the students as individuals. In understanding the students as individuals, messages will be adapted for particular classes, and/or particular students in the classes.

Besides bringing one's communication to a level of awareness, mindfulness in communication incorporates these three elements:

1) openness to new information,
2) creation of new categories (cognitive complexity), and
3) realizing there is more than one perspective.

Rhetorical Sensitivity: Practicing rhetorical sensitivity involves incorporating these five elements in our interactions with others:

1) accept personal complexity
2) avoid rigidity in our interactions
3) realize that an idea can be expressed in many ways
4) balance self-interest with interest of others
5) appropriateness/timing

These five elements aid in encoding and decoding messages more accurately. Each human being is very complex. The more clearly we can see these complexities (via mindfulness), the more flexible and adaptable we become in our interactions with others (via rhetorical sensitivity). These complexities coupled with flexibility and adaptability leads us to realize that any idea can be expressed in many ways. Knowing these will help instructors to be more open minded. If we don't accept personal complexity and are rigid in our interactions, we may be short-changing a student and not balancing our own interests as educators with the interests of the students. Yet, as instructors, we must also maintain our own self-interest. Appropriateness, in how/where/when a message is communicated, is essential in maintaining civility and respect in the education process.

Impersonal /Interpersonal Communication

Impersonal communication occurs when we communicate from our roles.

"Interpersonal communication is an encounter between two persons in which roles and rules are transcended and at times abandoned and the honest and natural flow of life is allowed to regulate the interaction" (Krivanek, 2000, p. 27).

Even though we must interact with others based on the context of the relationship, we must not limit all of our interactions to be simply impersonal. It is through interpersonal interactions that we grow as individuals. "People are human beings, not human doings" (Krivanek, 2000, p.295). Our students are not only students; they are also human beings. We must not limit their growth by refusing to interact with them on an interpersonal level.

It is important to communicate with students both impersonally and interpersonally. Often times, as instructors, we focus on communicating with our students merely from the role as instructor. However, students' affinity towards instructors can increase through appropriate self-disclosure and allowing students to see their instructors as real people. As such, it is essential to communicate with students both impersonally (from our role of instructor) and interpersonally (outside of our role).

The Transactional Model of Communication in the Classroom

The transactional model of communication occurs in the classroom setting (Figure 2.3, pp. 30 & 31). Even though the classroom setting might initially appear to be communication from one to many, it is still the transactional model because the sending (encoding) and receiving (decoding) of messages is occurring simultaneously. Even if one particular lesson is primarily lecture, the students are still sending messages non-verbally. The instructor is interpreting these messages. For example, some students make a lot of eye contact and nod as if they are following the lecture. Others might look bored, confused, tired, etc. It is important to remember that we rely heavily on non-verbal cues even though they can be very ambiguous and, therefore, highly inaccurate.

One of the most important features of this model is to recognize the central focus of intrapersonal communication. This is also known as internal monologue, or the things that one is saying to oneself. Intrapersonal communication, in turn, drives the communication process. As instructors, it is very important to manage our own intrapersonal communication functionally and to aid our students in doing so also (See, for example, Lesson 6: Improving Student Resilience.) Whether we are communicating with our student impersonally or interpersonally, the transactional model applies.

Values-Based Skills: Assertiveness, Listening, Giving Feedback & Responding to Feedback

There are four additional skills that can be incorporated into an instructor's behavioral repertoire that can enhance student learning and teaching effectiveness. Although the following values-based skills are presented as behaviors that are effective in the classroom, they are also skills that teachers can model so that their students will also learn to integrate these into their lives. These four skills are:

1) Assertive non-violent communication
2) Assertive listening (listening with an open mind and heart)
3) Giving Feedback
4) Responding to Feedback

Assertiveness/Non Assertiveness/Verbal Aggression
"The assertive communicator is able to directly state and declare his or her thoughts and feelings without offending, abusing, or manipulating the other person." The assertive communicator has a win-win attitude towards interactions with others. Assertive communication is "self-enhancing because it shows a positive firmness." In order to more fully understand an assertive style of communication, it can be compared to the non-assertive and aggressive styles of communication. The non-assertive communicator is "too politely restrained, tactful, diplomatic, modest, and self denying." The aggressive communicator "demands and makes comments to achieve his or her own goals at the expense of others. Assertive communication is inherently linked to rhetorical sensitivity. The assertive communicator balances one's self-interest with others' interests. (Insert Table 2.1, page 47)

I. Assertiveness: involves communicating in a way that indicates that we are standing up for our own rights, but at the same time respecting the rights of others. (Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, Sudweeks, Stewart, 1995)

A. Assertive communication enables you to act in your own best interest without denying or infringing upon the rights of others.
B. Express your thoughts/opinions/feelings without hurting others in the process.
C. Assertiveness is a way of communicating to others that you have a high sense of self-regard & a high sense of regard for others.
D. Our culture values assertiveness.
E. Important to note that assertive individuals are capable of acting assertive when they want to be,
but can also be non-assertive if the situation seems to call for it.

II. Non-Assertiveness

A. When a person is non-assertive, how does he/she behave?
    1. timid, reserved, unable to assert their rights regardless of the situation
    2. deny own feelings/opinions
    3. allows others to make decisions for them
B. Are there any situations in which being non-assertive may be appropriate/acceptable? Yes.
    1. Any situation, when you do not care what happens - or perhaps if you are assertive and someone's feelings may be hurt, or cultural differences.
    2. Specific examples: assertiveness in many Asian and Hispanic cultures is viewed as insulting/disrespectful.
    3. So non-assertiveness can be, at times, the appropriate communicative style.

III. Verbal Aggressiveness: is the tendency to attack the self-concepts of individuals instead of, or in addition to, their positions on topics of communication (Infante, 1987 - cited in Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, Sudweeks, Stewart, 1995).

A. How do aggressive people behave?
    1. examples: hostile, arrogant, pushy
    2. verbally they attack people's character, competence, self-worth, etc.
    3. non-verbally what do they do? Gesture, facial expressions.
B. Generally, aggressive people appear to think little of the opinions, values or beliefs of others, yet are extremely sensitive to criticism of their own behavior.
    1. So if these verbally aggressive messages attack people - what are these messages doing?
    2. Think of another name for aggressive messages - HURTFUL MESSAGES & PUT DOWNS.

Assertive Listening
Assertive listening (MODEL p. 72) is essential to understand for effectively communicating in the educational process. "The personhood of the listener is an important part of the listening process" (Krivanek, 2000). As such, instructors must be in tune with their own internal monologue as well as understanding the personhood of their students. We begin to understand others through listening to not only verbal messages, but also to non-verbal cues.

Listening is a learned skill. As instructors, we can also aid our students to be better listeners by asking them to pay attention to their own listening processes and reminding them to choose to listen! We can also aid students by previewing and reviewing each lesson. Additionally, applying a variety of teaching strategies aids students in their own listening processes.

I. Difference between Hearing and Listening
(Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, Sudweeks, Stewart, 1995)

A. Hearing: physiological process - it is the physical process of taking in auditory sensations without deliberate thoughtful attention.
Listening: mental process - involves paying close attention to and making sense of what the message being sent, verbally and/or non-verbally.
C. Listening is a choice!
D. Most people are poor listeners, and that is why we need to make a conscious effort to become Assertive Listeners.

II. Assertive Listening: is a mindful process in which we focus on the meanings of other peoples' verbal
and nonverbal messages, and we clearly indicate to them that we are paying

A. Assertive Listening does take time and energy, however it is necessary.
    1. It helps us to comprehend the content and the relational meanings of other people's messages.
    2. It is critical when we want to understand others.

B. 6 Guidelines to keep in mind when trying to be an Assertive Listener

  1. Be ready and willing to listen:
    - give them your undivided attention
    - we have to mindfully choose to be ready and willing to listen.
    - "Be" with that person, clear your mind
    - Use all elements ears (eyes, face, voice, body ,mind, and our heart) to listen in a nondistracting environment.
  2. Remain silent to allow the other person to speak:
    - It allows others time to collect their thoughts and to decide what they want to say
    - Everyone has different orientations toward silence - some high/low
    - Because most of us have a low tolerance for silence, we must mindfully choose to be quiet and allow other people to talk.
    - We don't want to try to solve problems and give lots of advice, unless it is requested and we have gathered enough information to give advice
    - interrupt and trying to solve others problem when it is not requested only decreases the
    information the other person will choose to share.
  3. Verbally and Nonverbally show you are paying attention:


    - eye contact: signals we are following what the other person is saying. Appropriate eye contact indicates we are interested in other people and their messages. The appropriate length of time to hold eye contact depends on our relationship with other people and our cultural background.
    - body posture / leaning: leaning back with our arms crossed = not interested;
    leaning forward facing the person = interested
    **When we listen responsively, we move our bodies while avoiding motions that distract the speaker. If we are totally still, we may signal we are not listening. If we remain still, we may appear cold.

    - verbal cues and short phrases serve to signal other people that we are following the conversation. cues such as "um-hmm" and "uh-huh" serve as encouraging signals for other people to continue to express their ideas and feelings.
    Short phrases: "I see," "I hear you," "That is very interesting," "Tell me some more," "Go on," "Really?" helps us stay alert and indicate we are paying attention.
  4. Paraphrase verbal content in your own words:
    - the goal is to make sure we accurately understand the content of their message.
    - it involves verbally restating our interpretation of the content meaning of other peoples' messages on our own words (ex. "in other words, your saying that").
    - it is not repeating what they said in their words.

    - hold out on giving advice or judging until we are sure of the message.
  5. Reflecting your understanding of the relational meaning:
    - reflections reveal an act of empathy; they tell the other person he or she has been heard. Imagine how the other person would feel.
    - they do not involve analyzing a message. Rather they simply show that meaning has been registered.
    - do not restate what other person has said, rather clearly tell the other person we understand what they said. ex. "oh my" "that is so unfair"
    - when we accurately reflect the feelings or meanings that lie behind the questions (asking for advice), the speaker often forgets that he or she even asked a question and usually plunges into a deeper discussion of the matter and begins to grope towards a solution.
    - if the speaker recognizes that their questions have not been answered, listeners can help the speaker solve problem.
  6. Ask probing and clarifying questions:
    - probing involves open ended questions (who, what, when, where, how) to look for an extension of the content of what is being said or the relational meaning behind the message.
    - clarifying questions such as, "I am not sure what you mean, can you explain yourself further?" helps us gather more content and data from the other person.

We should not use assertive listening skills all of the time - it is too time consuming, use it when it is important that we fully understand the other person. In addition to assertive listening, some other important guidelines are discussed by Krivanek (2000). She explains the guidelines for informational listening and listening to help.

Informational Listening
Informational Listening involves listening to understand or comprehensive listening. This guidelines can both be used by instructors when interacting with students and can be shared with students to aid them in their own listening skills. The guidelines include the following:

  1. Listening readiness
    Because listening is a choice, we must prepare ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically to listen.
  2. Talk Less
    Talking less isn't limited to refraining on offering too much information verbally. It also includes controlling our own internal monologue and to speak with a purpose rather than talking aimlessly.
  3. Avoid interrupting
    Interrupting causes anxiety for the speaker and disrupts the communication process. All interruptions cannot be avoided, so interrupt for questions of clarification at the appropriate times.
  4. Listen for main ideas

Listening to Help
Listening to help involves listening to understand, and from that understanding the notion of helping another. Again, these guidelines can both be used by instructors when interacting with students and can be shared with students to aid them in their own listening skills. The guidelines include the following:

  1. Listening readiness
  2. Listen with the whole self, from personhood, interpersonally rather than only impersonally
  3. Keep an open mind
    We can understand another's perspective (empathy) without having to agree with their perspective.
  4. Develop sensitivity for the unspoken message

Giving Feedback

Constructive criticism (giving feedback) is a major function of a college instructor. As such, the ability to give appropriate feedback is very crucial. These are not only important in the role of instructor, but can also be discussed explicitly with the students and help them to give feedback appropriately so that they can be successful students.

A. Introduction to giving feedback

  1. Feedback: information we transmit to others in reaction to the verbal and nonverbal messages we have received from them.
  2. Though we can give feedback for a variety of reasons (to encourage, to give advice, to disagree or agree, to show appreciation, to assert our point of view), most people offer feedback only when something goes wrong.

B. To give effective feedback we must be sensitive to others' needs & interests. We must consider their character, and our relationship.

C. We must consider (9) General Guidelines: Need to adapt to specific situation.

  1. Timing: Close to occurrence of behavior.
    ex. Don't talk to a student about coming into class late a week after it happened. Make sure people are ready to hear. Do not give feedback when someone is exhausted or upset.
    ex. Don't talk to a student about their disruptive behavior (ex. passing notes) in class when they have just told you that someone in their family has just passed away, they are likely not to listen.
  2. Specificity: Need to be clear, unambiguous, direct. Have examples. If giving feedback in writing, say what exactly could be improved.
    Don't be general or vague. Identify reason for your interpretations.
  3. Nonevaluative: Separate person from problem/issue to avoid defensiveness.
    ex. "I feel I can't get in a word with you" rather than "You always interrupt me."
    Avoid judging others
  4. Mutual Problem: Saves interpersonal relationships.
    ex. "What can we do to solve this?"
  5. Assertive Manner: The use of "I" messages signals ownership of perceptions ex. "This is how I interpret what happened."
    ex. "I am disappointed because ."
    Limit what you say to your own observations - NOT - what others have told us. Avoid offensive, obscene language (aggressive) as well as harsh manner of speaking (raising your voice or yelling). For feedback to be assertive, there needs to be an opportunity for other people to maintain their public images when we give them feedback.
  6. Fairness: Allow people to maintain face (public image).
    Neg. feedback in private is good.
    Examples: outside the class or in your office.
  7. Balance: Positive with Negative
    ex. "I like your use of examples in the paper, they're good; let's work on the transitions."
    "Sandwich Method"
  8. Here and Now: Focus on the present.
    If we drag up the past, we decrease the effectiveness of our feedback and increase the possibility they will feel we are "dumping" on them & not listen to the feedback.
  9. Concluding Feedback Session: Should end with a clear statement of mutual understanding of the situation and the statement of the specific actions that will be taken in the future.
    ex. "o.k. - so we have agreed that if your paper is not turned in by Thursday, I will no longer accept it. Correct?"
    Closure - allows both to know future expectations.

When we take into consideration how to give effective feedback in our classrooms, we are more likely to build a more positive learning environment for our students. We are likely to achieve understanding and shared meanings; therefore, feedback is a major resource we can use for effective communication with others. Giving feedback effectively by following these guidelines increases the quality of the rapport we build with our students. The more you practice - the easier it becomes!

Responding to Critical Feedback

In addition to giving feedback effectively, the ability to respond to feedback is also very crucial. These are not only important in the role of instructor, but can also be discussed explicitly with the students and help them to respond appropriately to feedback so that they can be successful students. There are two typical responses to receiving critical feedback, or constructive criticism: fight or flight. These are other wise known as the "you're no good" or "I'm no good" responses. The fight or "you're no good" response puts blame on the person giving the critical feedback and results in anger and lowered self-esteem. The flight or "I'm no good" response puts self-blame on the person receiving the critical feedback and results in heightened levels of anxiety, uncertainty, and lowered self-esteem. Neither of these responses is either effective or functional. The mindful choice is the self-esteem response. The person receiving the critical feedback perceives the critical feedback as an opportunity for learning. This results in higher levels of self-esteem and more effective communication between instructor and student. More effective communication results in more successful learning.