Insights on Effective Communication: Some "Sabbatical" Observations
Ralph, Edwin G., Education
This report summarizes the author's observations of the communication effectiveness of 426 individuals whom he encountered in a variety of situations during a recent 6-month sabbatical leave. He conducted unobtrusive assessments of the quality of the communication of these subjects, when he met them within the daily routines of regular interpersonal interactions.
Employing an ethnographic approach, the author noted key feature(s) that impressed him either positively or negatively about each communicative event. Results generally confirmed what the pertinent research literature identifies as characteristics of effective communicators.
Post-secondary educational institutions typically grant sabbatical leaves to faculty-members in order to: ... provide a means by which employees increase their knowledge, further their research, stimulate intellectual interests, strengthen their contacts with the ... community of scholars, thus enhancing their contribution to the University on their return. (University of Saskatchewan, 1995, p. 66)
For me to fulfill these obligations to my institution, I recently completed my first sabbatical leave pursuing my interests in instructional development and the improvement of teaching, K-16. Because the process of communication is fundamental to the teaching/learning enterprise, I decided to concentrate my efforts on systematically examining: the communication effectiveness of not only the educators I would meet during my leave--but also of all the people I would encounter on my itinerary.
The purpose of this report was to synthesize my observations of the communication effectiveness of these individuals and to compare these findings with what some of the related research-literature has identified as characteristics of effective communication.
Essentially, all interpersonal communication involves the transactional exchange of two types of messages: the content and the relational. The former focuses on a particular function, subject, topic, or goal; while the latter includes the affective dimension--the emotional element that touches on personal and social feelings, values, beliefs, and impressions (Adler, 19911; Burton & Dimbleby, 1990). Communication scholars and psychologists have shown: that in the communication act human feelings are as important as the intellectual processes involved; that individuals' responses in interactions are determined not only by what is communicated, but how it is interpreted by the receiver; and that one's whole being is involved--cognition, emotion, and physical aspects (DeVito, 1988; Dimbleby & Burton, 1985).
Thus, effective communicators are adept at what Burbules (1993) identifies as both the techne (i.e., the mechanical or technical skills) and the praxis (i.e., the interactive and actual practice of an art) dimensions of human activity, where the former is viewed in terms of a set of basic competencies applied to present clear meanings, and the latter refers more to the creative, spontaneous nature of communication.
Some of the technical skills of proficient communicators are: (a) the use of one's voice (e.g., variations in projection, tone, inflection, pausing, pitch, and rhythm/pacing); (b) kinesics (e.g., body posture and space); (c) chronemics (i.e., periods of silence); (d) oculescis (i.e., eye contact); (e) haptics (i.e., physical contact); (f) clarity/pronunciation/enunciation/articulation of speech; (g) modeling correct language (e.g., avoiding patterns of fillers, such as: "like", "uhm", "ah", "like", or "yuh know"); (h) using persuasive arguments; (i) giving/receiving interpersonal feedback; and (j) projecting acceptance and/or approval (Andres, 1993; "Firms with attractive workers," 1997).
The effect of this technical or task-oriented dimension of communication is determined in large part by the human-relational context that is created during the interchange. This aspect is influenced by such elements as the emotional impact generated by the process; the physical and/or personality attractiveness and/or confidence of the participants; and their mutual perceptions regarding the extent that their unique needs are being met (e.g., recognition, empathy, acceptance, support or approval).
This study took the form of a naturalistic inquiry, in which I, as a "participant observer" (Lancy, 1993), assessed how effective each person was in this communicative process during my interaction with each one. Because the phenomenon of communication is so often "glossed over and taken for granted" (Firth, 1995, p. 3), I desired to accumulate a substantial number of observations in order to examine "afresh" the process of "communication competence" (i.e., the ability of individuals to use means of communication effectively with regard for the needs and consideration of those involved, Dimbleby & Burton, 1985).
Subjects. I observed the communication behaviors of 426 individuals, each of whom I met in the course of my travel-itinerary during my sabbatical leave. I classified these individuals into 17 categories, according to the communicative situation in which each interaction occurred, as summarized in Table 1. The sample was representative of the working adult population from several geographical locations: five Canadian jurisdictions (i.e., Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Ontario, and Saskatchewan); ten American jurisdictions (i.e., Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia); and several international locations (i.e., Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Cameroon, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. I met the non-North American subjects at various locations in Canada and the U.S.). The subjects were also representative of: both genders, a cross section of socio-economic and educational backgrounds, both urban and rural settings, and a variety of cultural and ethnic environments.
Table 1 Classification of Observed Subjects According to the Communication Situation Category Percentage (n=420) Interviewees 14 Restaurant/food service employees 13 Ticket agents/transportation employees 9 Tour-guides/period-actors 8 Merchants/cashiers/clerks 8 Hotel/accommodation employees 6 Automobile service personnel 5 Religious leaders/ministers 5 Tour-vehicle operators 5 Conference small-group presenters 5 Department/program administrators 4 (educational institutions) Performers in formal fine-arts presentations (drama/music/dance) 4 Office secretaries 3 Partners in extended dialogue/discussion /dialogue 3 Conference plenary-session presenters 2 Airline flight-attendants 2 Institutional security-personnel/ushers 1
Procedure. Adopting a qualitative-research orientation to guide the data-collection (Best & Kahn, 1993), I assumed the role of participant observer to conduct my observations of the 426 subjects (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). I engaged in more than the 426 interpersonal interactions during my sabbatical leave, but I kept a brief written record of those particular events.
I globally analyzed each interpersonal interaction by addressing two essential questions, which in the majority of cases I answered upon reflection after the completion of the communication events. The questions were: (a) What communicative skills, attributes, or behaviors--positive or negative--(as described earlier) did the subject demonstrate? and (b) What emotional response, if any, did I personally experience during the exchange? The ultimate goal in addressing these two questions was to: (a) identify individuals who demonstrated excellence in communication; and (b) analyze their communication skills.
Although I could not prevent my background experience and past educational duties (in the fields of instructional development and supervision of teaching), from influencing my observations and assessments, I readily acknowledged this fact. I consciously referred back to these two guiding questions in the processing (i.e., the recall and recording) of my reflections on each interaction.
General findings. For approximately 85% to 90% of the 426 communicative events, I observed no interactive characteristics that I would describe as exceptional or outstanding, nor did I experience any emotional response that I could describe as extraordinary. The majority of the discourse interchanges were what I would classify as regular or routine interpersonal encounters, and I would assess the communication partners whom I observed in this group as competent in their communication interaction (Dimbleby & Burton, 1985). That is, they were basically understandable, civil, and efficient during the entire exchange--which lasted anywhere from seven seconds (e.g., my paying the attendant at the toll booth when entering the Pennsylvania Turnpike) to 2 1/2 hours (e.g., my semi-formal interview and conversation with a director of an instructional development program at a university in the eastern United States).
How did the members of this large group (whom I rated on the whole as exhibiting satisfactory or competent communication skills) relate to the "task/relational" framework presented earlier in this paper? In general, the subjects comprising this sub-group of competent communicators demonstrated facility in various combinations of the communication attributes--depending, of course, on the specific context of each situation. I found that the longer the duration of the communication interaction, then the more of the skills that I observed each member of this sub-group exhibiting.
For the latter sub-group, I was able to observe both their verbal and non-verbal communication--although, as is the case with most interpersonal interactions, both aspects occurred simultaneously and quickly. Yet, with respect to those subjects whom I also observed for only short time periods of less than one or two minutes (and whom I classified in the group of competent communicators), I rated them as satisfactory in: (a) the clarity of the message being relayed (or negotiated); (b) their general appearance (i.e., their facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and physical neatness); and (c) their overall manner and deportment (i.e., the degree of courtesy and quality of service they rendered). For the other subjects in this sub-group (whose communication behavior I observed for longer durations) I was able to expand my initial assessments of the three areas just described. Because I had more time to interact with and observe them, I was better able to examine a greater range of their "task" or technical skills, as well as their human-relations skills.
Specific findings. In order to provide data of a more specific nature regarding the communicative competence of those subjects whom I judged to be superior in their interpersonal interactions, I selected from each of the 17 categories shown in Table 1 a contrasting pair of subjects. Using my field-notes of the communication episodes, I chose from each sub-group one person whom I assessed as an excellent communicator, and one whom I evaluated to be the least competent. To determine these two exceptional communicators I returned to the two initial questions to analyze these individuals' respective performances and to examine any out-of-the-ordinary emotional response I experienced during these discourses. I also relied on my fifteen years' previous educational and evaluation experience as a supervisor of practicum programs, as a coordinator of second-language teaching, and as a school principal.
In the interest of space requirements, I report only three of the 17 pairs of subjects in this section, namely: two interviewees, two small-group presenters, and two food-service employees. I present a summary of the strengths of the high quality communicators and the weaknesses of the low performers. I selected these three pairs as being representative of the entire sample of 426 interpersonal interactions, and because they also demonstrated the distinction between communication skills rated as excellent and as poor. Furthermore, they represented the range of the lengths of the exchanges I experienced: from a two-hour interview to a two minute conversation with a food server.
The Interviewee Sub-Group
Highly-rated. The individual I ranked as a superior communicator in this category was an educational administrator who exhibited all of the positive qualities outlined earlier in this paper. As he answered my questions, and as we engaged in both formal and informal conversation about a range of educational issues (and a variety of family and personal matters) over a two-hour period, I observed that he consistently demonstrated both the task or technical skills (e.g., clarity, diction, timing, eye-contact, listening, reciprocating, and appropriate appearance) and the interpersonal characteristics (e.g., my immediate awareness of his credibility by his creation of a sense of equality, openness, interest in me, "the other", and supportiveness) all while maintaining a professional and respectful manner.
He conveyed these verbal and non-verbal messages by the quality of his voice (he was articulate yet conversational), his inviting facial expressions (relaxed and approachable yet dignified), his breadth of knowledge and expertise in the substantive areas, and his non-domineering approach, shown in part by his asking me to share my knowledge and feelings about some of the topics of the interview. His pleasantness was further demonstrated by his driving me to the airport to catch my plane after our interview.
Low-rated. Although the person I assessed as demonstrating the least effective communication skills in this sub-group could be categorized as competent, I still ranked his interactivity as the lowest of that sub-group. Although he demonstrated satisfactory performance in most of the technical skills (e.g., use of voice, pauses, knowledge, clarity, fluency, and body-language), the attributes that I judged to be weak or missing had to do with the human-relations element.
Although he answered my questions with precision and conciseness, I did not sense a genuine desire on his part to promote a spirit of openness or positiveness. I detected what I characterized as a certain coolness or aloofness in his manner. Evidence for this was his curt responses, his lack of eye contact, his rather distant attitude, and a relatively fixed facial expression. Also, he left the interview early because of what he stated was another meeting.
The Small-Group Presenters' Sub-Group
Highly-rated. The communicator (actually, the two members of a conference-team) that I selected as displaying superior communication abilities in the second sub-group were a college instructor and a university program administrator from Western Canada. I was a member of the audience at their one-hour presentation at a recent conference on teaching and learning in higher education (where they described their innovative course that incorporated interactive video-technology between two distant campus sites). I also shared a table with them at the conference banquet later that evening.
During their conference-presentation both speakers consistently demonstrated competent skills--both in the mechanical/technical aspects of oral communication, as well as in their ability to create a collegial yet inviting atmosphere for attendees to share their own thoughts on and responses to the presenters' ideas and findings.
I was first impressed by the extraordinary manner in which they demonstrated their expertise and knowledge; their timing and pacing of segments riveted our attention; and their ability to alternate appropriately between being "academic/serious" or "relaxed/light". Second, because of their demonstration of openness and the recognition of the equality of others' views and input--both during the question/answer portion of their session and while later conversing at the meal table--I assessed the effectiveness of their communication approach to be of superior quality.
Low-rated. As was the case for the interviewee sub-group, I found that my selection for the least competent communicator in this second category (here, another pair who presented a conference-session that I attended) displayed a moderate degree of competence in their interactive behavior. As with the example of the weak communicator in the interviewee sub-group, this pair also employed the basic skills (e.g., their technical delivery and interactive manner met acceptable standards--as described earlier in this paper).
However, what prompted me to assign the pair a lower ranking for their overall communication behavior was my perception that they seemed more interested in promoting the marketing of their recently-published book than in showing a sensitivity to the audience's input and feelings; or in demonstrating good listening; or in promoting group openness, empathy, and equality.
The Food-Service Employee Sub-Group
Because I did not have the time to observe--nor did the subjects in this subgroup have the opportunity to exhibit---many of the communication skills described in the first part of this report, I assessed their interpersonal interactions with me purely on the basis of three readily observable characteristics: (a) their overall physical appearance, (b) their general conversational manner/style, and (c) the quality of the service rendered. In these interchanges, I was paying for their services, and thus was expecting my money's worth.
Highly-rated. The subject I assessed as showing outstanding communication skills was a server who was not only attractive and neat in appearance, but she immediately exuded a friendly yet "professional" manner from the time I entered the eating establishment, until I left, three hours later. (I used a table at this restaurant to conduct three of my educator interviews.)
What was more significant, this employee displayed what I perceived as a genuine care for the customers--without being overbearing or becoming over-familiar. She at once made my guests and me feel comfortable and welcome at the restaurant, and throughout the morning she regularly and appropriately checked whether we required additional service.
In my judgment, her sense of timing, openness, and respectful verbal and non-verbal language was an asset to encouraging customers to return to the restaurant. (Also, the menu offered a variety of selections and the food and beverages were tasty.) Low-rated. The communicator from this sub-group whom I ranked as least competent was an employee who appeared to do the minimum in her server duties. She was not particularly welcoming in her initial greeting, and she seemed to lack knowledge about the selections, prices, and protocol of the establishment.
When asked if it was true that the restaurant was famous for its excellent milk-shakes, she replied that, indeed, it was. However, our order of milk-shakes was late in arriving, the servings were small but expensive, and their quality was poor. She offered no explanation for these discrepancies, she appeared reticent and lacking in confidence, she engaged in little eye-contact, and she appeared relieved to see us leave.
In general, I found that a very few (5% to 7%) of the subjects whom I observed in the 426 communicative events demonstrated minimal competency in their interactive discourse. Moreover, I judged 85% to 90% of the subjects to be competent, satisfactory, or acceptable in their communicative skills, and I placed approximately 5% to 7% of the entire sample in the exceptional or outstanding category.
The subjects' communicative behaviors that prompted me to assess their skills as superior reflected both the "content" (i.e., the technical) and the "process" (i.e., the human) domains. However, the pleasant human-relations or emotional dimension of this superior group seemed to dominate. These individuals engaged easily in interpersonal interactions and exhibited desirable personal qualities that, taken together, appealed to me as a communicative partner. This finding is consistent with previous communicative research that shows that people tend to like others who like them, who are seen as credible and competent, and who convey a pleasant and open manner (Sprague & Stuart, 1996).
Further, these outstanding communicators were highly competent in the mechanics and techniques of verbal and non/verbal communication described earlier in this paper. However, even though these technical skills were essential to effective communication, they were not sufficient to guarantee excellence. Expert communicators appear to possess a repertoire of all of these principles, although they may not always apply them all in any particular situation. In my observations, I rated highest those subjects who were not only skilled, technically, but whose interpersonal interactions prompted positive emotions in me and who created a pleasant rapport.
On the other hand, the subjects who displayed what I assessed as minimal communicative competence seemed to lack these humanistic skills to promote genuiness, positiveness, equality, or empathy in the situation--even though they may have demonstrated a satisfactory presentation in terms of communicative rhetoric, delivery, persuasiveness, and self-confidence.
Because I conducted this study through a qualitative perspective, my personal values, beliefs, and biases influenced the results. My educational and administrative background affected my observation and assessments of the subjects' communication skills. Furthermore, my actual involvement in all 426 situations as a consumer/client/customer or as an interviewer prompted me to view each interaction from a pragmatic perspective: I had paid for and wanted excellent service!
Are these findings valid and reliable? To what extent could other sabbaticants with a similar background to mine replicate these findings in their own samples of 400 communicative events in a corresponding North American context? or in other cultural contexts?
For me, however, as a neophyte sabbaticant exploring anew the process of communicative interchange, I gained a fresh appreciation for the persons in all walks of life who, for whatever reason, endeavor day-by-day to promote interpersonal relationships that are "... friendly, warm and open" (De Vito, 1988, p. 190).
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Edwin G. Ralph Education University of Saskatchewan Saskatoon, Canada S7N 0X1…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Insights on Effective Communication: Some "Sabbatical" Observations. Contributors: Ralph, Edwin G. - Author. Journal title: Education. Publication date: Fall 1998. Page number: 20. © 1999 Project Innovation. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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