CYC-Online 15 APRIL 2000
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Communication skills for leaders

Karen Irmsher

On average, leaders are engaged in one form or another of communication for about 70 percent of their waking moments. In this ERIC Digest, the author provides suggestions for administrators who want to increase the effectiveness of those interactions

What one skill is most essential for effective communication?
"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. Program 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 non-verbal behaviour; 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, and then the skills to help express that attitude.

What are some other skills of effective communicators?
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:

Giving feedback. Several types of feedback – praise, paraphrasing, perception checking, describing behaviour, 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 behaviours, as well as the reactions they caused. They offer these guidelines:

One especially important kind of feedback for administrators is letting staff members know how well they are doing their jobs.

Effective leaders give plenty of timely positive feedback. They give negative feedback privately, without anger or personal attack, and they accept criticism themselves 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 behaviour. Useful behaviour description, according to Jung and his associates, reports specific, observable actions without value judgements, and without making accusations or generalisations about motives, attitudes, or personality traits. “You've disagreed with almost everything he's said" is preferable to saying “You're being stubborn."

What's a non-threatening method of requesting behaviour change?
"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:

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:

How can individuals improve the non-verbal 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% of a message is sent non-verbally, and only 7 percent through what is said.

Doreen S. Geddes (1995) offers the following pointers:

How can program leaders enhance interpersonal relationships with colleagues and constituents?
Vision, humor, accessibility, teambuilding skills, and genuine praise all can help to create a positive emotional climate.

Vision. Allan Vann (1994) notes that directors “earn staff respect by articulating a clear vision of their program's mission, and working collegially to accomplish agreed-on goals and objectives."

Removing barriers. Communication barriers can deplete team energy and isolate individuals who may then proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions. Meetings and various in-house 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 on your staff who are doing remarkable things.

Being accessible. It is important to be available and to 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 organisations move toward more decentralised 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 humour. Various researchers indicate humour is the seventh sense necessary for effective leadership. Results of a study by Patricia Pierson and Paul Bredeson (1993) suggest that principals use humour for four major purposes:


Amundson, Kristen. (1993). Speaking and Writing Skills for Educators. Arlington, Virginia: American Association of School Administrators. 20 pages.

Covey, Stephen R. (1990). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster.

Geddes, Doreen S. (1995). Keys to Communication. A Handbook for School Success. In the Practicing Administrator's Leadership Series, edited by Jerry I. and Janice L. Herman. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press. 59 pages. ED 377 575.

Gemmet, Richard. (1977). A Monograph on Interpersonal Communications. Redwood City, California: San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools. 48 pages. ED 153 323.

Glaser, Susan, and Anthony Biglan. Increase Your Confidence and Skill in Interpersonal Situations: Instructional Manual. Eugene, Oregon: Authors, 1977. (1973).

Jung, Charles, and others. Interpersonal Communications: Participant Materials and Leader's Manual. Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. 935 pages. ED 095 127.

Osterman, Karen F. (1993). 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. ED 363 973.

Pierson, Patricia R., and Paul V. Bredeson. (1993). “It's Not just a Laughing Matter: School Principals' Use of Humour in Interpersonal Communications with Teachers." Journal of School Leadership 3, 5 (September 1993): 522-33. & 466 909.

Vann, Allan S. (1994). “That Vision Thing." Principal, 74, 2 (November): 25-26. & 492 877.

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