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Helping Students Communicate Effectively

Intention and perceptionRecently, I witnessed a Twitter conversation that pretty clearly demonstrated that the participants weren’t understanding one another very well on a key point. They worked things out, and the discussion ended with no hard feelings, but for a while the atmosphere seemed pretty tense, at least to those of us watching the conversation unfold.

Who the participants were in this particular instance really doesn’t matter, but the incident got me thinking about both the importance of effective communication and some of the difficulties involved in achieving it. Both the attitude we bring to a conversation and the means by which it takes place are vitally important.

In the Twitter conversation mentioned above, the two principal participants were able to work things out in part because there’s already a relationship—one involving mutual liking and respect—between them. They were also willing to accept one another’s explanations of intent, which helped clear up some of the misunderstanding and smoothed ruffled feathers. Both also recognized, I think, some of the difficulties involved in carrying on their discussion in a medium in which posts are limited to 140 characters—a limitation which no doubt contributed to some of the misunderstanding.

What I’m now trying to determine is how best to incorporate ideas about the importance of attitude and medium for good communication into my writing-intensive course in Political Issues this fall. Effective politics requires good communication; conflict is often the result of misunderstanding and/or poor communication. How might I help students identify failures of communication when this is the case? (Not that all conflict necessarily involves misunderstanding. Sometimes there’s conflict because the parties understand one another all too well—as those familiar with the Babel fish will know.)

I’ll also want to work with students to identify what medium might be most effective for communicating the message they want to convey to their intended audience. Is an Op-Ed piece sufficient? A short blog post? Or would a longer piece (whether in print or online), drawing supporting evidence from a variety of  credible sources, be more appropriate?

Helping students identify communications failures and choose an appropriate medium for expressing their ideas may well turn out to be the easier parts of the task, though. The bigger challenge will be to help them develop the attitude of openness that can both aid effective communication and reduce the likelihood of conflict, even if disagreement remains.

In your own experience, what has worked best for helping students to develop open attitudes toward conversation partners and/or to choose the most effective means for expressing their own ideas? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by bonnie-brown]

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