"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.
What makes a good listener
People who focus on communicating their own "rightness" become isolated and ineffectual, according to a compilation of studies by Karen Osterman (1993).
Good listeners, according to Richard Gemmet:
- 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 nonverbal behavior
- 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
- don't insist on having the last word
To master the art of listening, Gemmet advises developing the attitude of wanting to listen, 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.
Example: Narrated Abdullah bin Masud: Once Allah's Messenger offered five Rakat in the Zuhr prayer. Somebody asked him whether there was some increase in As-Salat (the prayer). Allah's Messenger said, "What is that?" He said, "You have offered five Rakat." So Allah's Messenger performed two prostrations of Sahw after Taslim" (Bukhari).
Susan Glaser and Anthony Biglan (1977) suggest the following:
- ask open-ended questions
Example: On the authority of Abu Amr who said: I said: O Messenger of Allah, tell me something about Islam which I can ask of no one but you (Sound Vision's emphasis). He said: Say I believe in Allah-and thereafter be upright. (Muslim).
- ask focused questions that aren't too broad
Example: A man asked the Messenger of Allah: Do you think that if I perform the obligatory prayers, fast in Ramadan, treat as lawful that which is lawful and treat as forbidden that which is forbidden, and do nothing further, I shall enter Paradise? He said: Yes? (Muslim).
- ask for additional details, examples, impressions
Several types of feedback--praise, paraphrasing, perception-checking, describing behavior, 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 behaviors, as well as the reactions they caused.
They offer these guidelines:
- the receiver should be ready to receive feedback;
Example: A man said to the Prophet: Counsel me. He said: Do not become angry. The man repeated [his request] several times, and he said: Do not become angry. (Bukhari)
- comments should describe, rather than interpret:
Example: On the authority of Abu Dharr: Some of the companions of the Messenger of Allah said to the Prophet: O Messenger of Allah, the affluent have made off with the rewards: they pray as we pray, they fast as we fast, and they give away in charity the superfluity of their wealth.
He said: Has not Allah made things for you to give away in charity? Truly every Tasbiha is a charity, every Takbira is a charity, every Tahmida is a charity, and every Tahlila is a charity; to enjoin a good action is a charity, to forbid an evil action is a charity, and in the sexual act of each of you there is a charity.
They said: O Messenger of Allah, when one of us fulfills his sexual desire will he have some reward for that?
He said: Do you not think that were he to act upon it unlawfully he would be sinning? Likewise, if he has acted upon it lawfully he will have a reward. (Muslim)
- feedback should focus on recent events or actions that can be changed, but should not be used to try to force people to change.
Example: Narrated Abu Musa (Al-Ashari): We were in the company of Allah's Messenger (during Hajj). Whenever we went up a high place we used to say: La ilaha ill-Allah wAllahu Akbar (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah, and Allah is the Most Great), and our voices used to rise, so the Prophet said, "O People! Be merciful to yourselves (i.e. don't raise your voices), for you are not calling a deaf or an absent one, but One Who is with you, no doubt He is All-Hearer, Ever Near (to all things). (Bukhari).
One especially important kind of feedback for administrators is letting staff members know how well they are doing their jobs. Effective school leaders give plenty of timely positive feedback. They give negative feedback privately, without anger or personal attack, and they accept criticism without becoming defensive.
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.
Example: Narrated Jabir bin Abdullah: I came to the Prophet in order to consult him regarding my father's debt. When I knocked at the door he asked, "Who is that?" I replied, "I". He said, "I, I?" He repeated it as if he disliked it. (Bukhari)
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.
Useful behavior description, according to Jung and his associates, reports specific, observable actions without value judgments, and without making accusations or generalizations about motives, attitudes, or personality traits. "You've disagreed with almost everything he's said" is preferable to "You're being stubborn."
Example: Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet was neither a Sabbab (one who would abuse others) nor a Fahish (one who speaks bad words), nor a one who would curse (others), and if he wanted to admonish anyone of us, he used to say: "What is wrong with him, his forehead be dusted!" (Bukhari)
What's a non threatening method of requesting behavior 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: (1) the problem or situation, (2) your feelings about the issue, and (3) the reason for the concern.
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 refer directly to feelings ("I'm angry"), use similes, ("I feel like a fish out of water"), or describe what you'd like to do ("I'd like to leave the room now").
How can individuals improve the nonverbal 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 percent of a message is sent non-verbally, and only 7 percent through what is said.
Doreen S. Geddes (1995) offers the following pointers:
- "Body orientation." To indicate you like and respect people, face them when interacting.
Example: Narrated Samura bin Jundab: The Prophet used to face us on completion of the Salat (Bukhari).
- "Posture." Good posture is associated with confidence and enthusiasm. It indicates our degree of tenseness or relaxation. Observing the posture of others provides clues to their feelings.
- "Facial expression." Notice facial expressions. Some people mask emotions by not using facial expression; others exaggerate facial expression to belie their real feelings. If you sense contradictions in verbal and nonverbal messages, gently probe deeper.
Example: Narrated Ali: The Prophet gave me a silken dress as a gift and I wore it. When I saw the signs of anger on his face, I cut it into pieces and distributed it among my wives. (Bukhari).
- "Eye contact." Frequent eye contact communicates interest and confidence. Avoidance communicates the opposite
This has to be done respecting the rule of lowering the gaze with the opposite sex in Islam.
- "Use of space." The less distance, the more intimate and informal the relationship. Staying behind your desk when someone comes to visit gives the impression that you are unapproachable.
Example: On the authority of the son of Umar who said: The Messenger of Allah took me by the shoulder and said: Be in the world as though you were a stranger or a wayfarer.(Bukhari)
- "Personal appearance." People tend to show more respect and respond more positively to individuals who are well-dressed, but not overdressed.
Vision, humor, accessibility, team-building skills, and genuine praise all can help to create a positive emotional climate.
Allan Vann (1994) notes that "principals earn staff respect by articulating a clear vision of their school's mission, and working collegially to accomplish agreed-on goals and objectives." This process should begin before school starts, and be reinforced throughout the school year.
This means we should look at the long-term consequences of our communication. Losing our temper in a given situation may solve a situation temporarily, but in the long run, what does this do for our vision, to build a strong, loving family and a good relationship with our teenager, for instance.
Communication barriers can deplete team energy and isolate individuals who may then proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions.
Meetings and various inhouse communiques, combined with private discussions, can remove interpersonal barriers before they become larger problems.
Example: Aisha related that Rasulullah said: It is not permissible for a Muslim to keep away from his brother for more than three days, so that whenever they meet they turn away from each other. The better of them is he who is the first to give a greeting to the other. (Bukhari, Muslim).
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 at your school who are doing remarkable things.
It is important to be available and 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.
Example: Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet used to mix with us to the extent that he would say to a younger brother of mine, "O father of Umair! What did the Nughair (a kind of bird) do?" (Bukhari).
When individuals and institutions move toward site-based 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.
Example: Anas bin Malik related that Rasulullah said: By Him in Whose Hand is my soul, a man does not believe until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself (Bukhari).
Various researchers indicate humor is the seventh sense necessary for effective leadership.
Results of a study by Patricia Pierson and Paul Bredeson (1993) suggest that school principals use humor for four major purposes: (1) creating and improving school climate; (2) relating to teachers the principal's understanding of the complexities and demands of their professional work life; (3) breaking down the rigidity of bureaucratic structures by humanizing and personalizing interpersonal communications; and (4) when appropriate, delivering sanctions and other necessary unpleasantries.
From Abu Huraira who said: We said: O Messenger of Allah! You jest with us? He said: Yes, except that I do not say except what is true. (Tirmidhi)
Amundson, Kristen. "Speaking and Writing Skills for Educators." Arlington, Virginia: American Association of School Administrators, 1993. 20 pages.
Covey, Stephen R. "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." New York: Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Geddes, Doreen S. "Keys to Communication. A Handbook for School Success." In the Practicing Administrator's Leadership Series, edited by Jerry J. and Janice L. Herman. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 1995. 59 pages. ED 377 575.
Gemmet, Richard. "A Monograph on Interpersonal Communications." Redwood City, California: San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools, 1977. 48 pages. ED 153 323.
Glaser, Susan, and Anthony Biglan. "Increase Your Confidence and Skill in Interpersonal Situations: Instructional Manual." Eugene, Oregon: Authors, 1977.
Jung, Charles, and others. "Interpersonal Communications: Participant Materials and Leader's Manual." Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1973. 935 pages. ED 095 127.
Osterman, Karen F. "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, 1993. ED 363 973.
Pierson, Patricia R., and Paul V. Bredeson. "It's Not Just a Laughing Matter: School Principals' Use of Humor in Interpersonal Communications with Teachers." "Journal of School Leadership" 3, 5 (September 1993): 522-33. EJ 466 909.
Vann, Allan S. "That Vision Thing." "Principal" 74, 2 (November 1994): 25-26. EJ 492 877.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RR93002006. The ideas and opinions expressed in the Digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI, ED, or the Clearinghouse. This Digest is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.