Tongue Fu for Educators: 4 Ways to Communicate Constructively

Posted on Wed, Sep 03, 2014 @ 10:09 AM

effective communication for educatorsMost of us have seen the popular Verizon commercial featuring actor Paul Marcarelli, an affable “test man” who roams the most remote parts of America, repeating “Can you hear me now?” into his mobile phone. The message Verizon wishes to send, of course, is that unlike those who subscribe to other cellphone providers, Verizon users can rest assured knowing that they will never enter “dead zones” that interrupt their service.

Verizon subscriber or not, the truth of the matter is that many of us live in a “dead zone” when it comes to communicating effectively with one another. Why? Well, if you buy what Sam Horn suggests in his book, Tongue Fu! at School: 30 Ways to Get Along with Teachers, Principals, Students, and Parents, miscommunication happens because we often fail to redact simple words—and add other, more constructive ones—to our working list of vocabulary.

We recently picked up a copy of Horn’s book and wanted to share a few tips to help educators communicate more constructively.

Strike the Word “But” From Your Vocabulary
“But” may technically be a conjunction, but it does very little to connect us to those we are communicating with. Think about it for a second. When we respond to what someone has just said with “but,” we are actually undermining everything they just said. Consider the following examples:

  • “I hear what you’re saying, but…”
  • “You did a good job raising your class’s test scores, but…”
  • “I realize your students were looking forward to the field trip, but…”
  • “Yeah, we agreed to plant trees to have shade on the playground, but…”

Notice how the word “but” cancels out, or trivializes, everything that the other person said?  

Substitute “But With “And”
There’s a simple way to disagree with someone and legitimize their viewpoint at the same time: Substitute the word “but” with “and.” Here are a few examples of how to do this:

  • “I hear what you’re saying, and we tried starting PTA meetings at six and a lot of parent’s couldn’t make it. Do you have any suggestions on how we could shorten the meetings so we’re finished by eight?”
  • “You did a good job raising your class’s test scores, and we’ll do an even better job improving their math skills.”
  • “I realize your students were looking forward to the field trip and then the prices of the bus went up. Do you have any ideas on how we could raise the extra money so we can afford to go?”

In these three examples, you’ll notice how “and” acknowledges differing viewpoints, but still manages to sidestep conflict.

Get Rid of the Word “Should
It irks us when we’re told what we should have done. Why? Because “should” is indicative of the past—something we cannot change no matter how hard we try. When we are told what we should have done, we feel helpless, frozen, and cornered because we are being told to do something that we honestly can’t do!

This rule is especially helpful when communicating with students, particularly those who are resistant and determined. Generally speaking, these kinds of students will defy our well-intentioned advice because they are trying to maintain autonomy. Consider the following sentences in which “should” was used:

  • “You know, you should really put on your jacket.”
  • “You should take the SAT prep course is you want to go to college.”

Now consider a more constructive way to give advice: 

  • “If you want to apply to Tech, it’s in your best interest to take the SAT prep course.”
  • “You might want to put on your jacket. It’s cold outside.”
  • “You might want to get to bed by 10 so that you can stay awake in class.”

Using “it’s in your best interest” and “you might want to” enables you to give your two cents. It also makes your advice easier to swallow because you’re presenting a suggestion rather than a demand.

Replace “Should” With “In the Future” or “Next Time”
As an alternative to “should,” focus on how you can coach, not criticize. One way to do this is by using phrases like, “next time,” and “in the future”:

  • “I understand what happened. Maybe you and I can put our heads together and think about how to avoid this type of situation in the future.”
  • “I understand what you are saying and how this happened. Let’s try to learn something from this experience and focus on how we could handle this next time.”

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Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, educational leaders

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