Communication Skills


“We all use language to communicate, to express ourselves, to get our ideas across, and to connect with the person to whom we are speaking. When a relationship is working, the act of communicating seems to flow relatively effortlessly. When a relationship is deteriorating, the act of communicating can be as frustrating as climbing a hill of sand.”

– Chip Rose, attorney and mediator



On a daily basis we work with people who have different opinions, values, beliefs, and needs than our own. Our ability to exchange ideas with others, understand others’ perspectives, solve problems and successfully utilize the steps and processes presented in this training will depend significantly on how effectively we are able to communicate with others.

The act of communicating involves verbal, nonverbal, and paraverbal components. The verbal component refers to the content of our message‚ the choice and arrangement of our words. The nonverbal component refers to the message we send through our body language. The paraverbal component refers to how we say what we say – the tone, pacing and volume of our voices.

In order to communicate effectively, we must use all three components to do two things:

1. Send clear, concise messages.

2. Hear and correctly understand messages someone is sending to us.


Communication Involves Three Components:

1. Verbal Messages – the words we choose

2. Paraverbal Messages – how we say the words

3. Nonverbal Messages – our body language

These Three Components Are Used To:

1. Send Clear, Concise Messages

2. Receive and Correctly Understand Messages Sent to Us.


Verbal Messages

Our use of language has tremendous power in the type of atmosphere that is created at the problem-solving table. Words that are critical, blaming, judgmental or accusatory tend to create a resistant and defensive mindset that is not conducive to productive problem solving. On the other hand, we can choose words that normalize the issues and problems and reduce resistance. Phrases such as “in some districts, people may . . .”, “it is not uncommon for . . .” and “for some folks in similar situations” are examples of this.


Sending effective messages requires that we state our point of view as briefly and succinctly as possible. Listening to a rambling, unorganized speaker is tedious and discouraging – why continue to listen when there is no interchange? Lengthy dissertations and circuitous explanations are confusing to the listener and the message loses its concreteness, relevance, and impact. This is your opportunity to help the listener understand YOUR perspective and point of view. Choose your words with the intent of making your message as clear as possible, avoiding jargon and unnecessary, tangential information.

Effective Verbal Messages:

1. Are brief, succinct, and organized

2. Are free of jargon

3. Do not create resistance in the listener

Nonverbal Messages

The power of nonverbal communication cannot be underestimated. In his book, Silent Messages, Professor Albert Mehrabian says the messages we send through our posture, gestures, facial expression, and spatial distance account for 55% of what is perceived and understood by others. In fact, through our body language we are always communicating, whether we want to or not!

You cannot not communicate.

Nonverbal messages are the primary way that we communicate emotions:

Facial Expression: The face is perhaps the most important conveyor of emotional information. A face can light up with enthusiasm, energy, and approval, express confusion or boredom, and scowl with displeasure. The eyes are particularly expressive in telegraphing joy, sadness, anger, or confusion.


Postures and Gestures: Our body postures can create a feeling of warm openness or cold rejection. For example, when someone faces us, sitting quietly with hands loosely folded in the lap, a feeling of anticipation and interest is created. A posture of arms crossed on the chest portrays a feeling of inflexibility. The action of gathering up one’s materials and reaching for a purse signals a desire to end the conversation.


Nonverbal Messages:

1. Account for about 55% of what is perceived and understood by others.

2. Are conveyed through our facial expressions as well as our postures and gestures.

Paraverbal Messages

Paraverbal communication refers to the messages that we transmit through the tone, pitch, and pacing of our voices. It is how we say something, not what we say. Professor Mehrabian states that the paraverbal message accounts for approximately 38% of what is communicated to someone. A sentence can convey entirely different meanings depending on the emphasis on words and the tone of voice. For example, the statement, “I didn’t say you were stupid” has six different meanings, depending on which word is emphasized.


Some points to remember about our paraverbal communication:

When we are angry or excited, our speech tends to become more rapid and higher pitched.

When we are bored or feeling down, our speech tends to slow and take on a monotone quality.

When we are feeling defensive, our speech is often abrupt.

Paraverbal Messages:

1. Account for about 38% of what is perceived and understood by others.

2. Include the tone, pitch, and pacing of our voice

The Importance of Consistency

In all of our communications we want to strive to send consistent verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal messages. When our messages are inconsistent, the listener may become confused. Inconsistency can also create a lack of trust and undermine the chance to build a good working relationship.

When a person sends a message with conflicting verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal information, the nonverbal information tends to be believed. Consider the example of someone, through a clenched jaw, hard eyes, and steely voice, telling you they’re not mad. Which are you likely to believe? What you see or what you hear?



The key to receiving messages effectively is listening. Listening is a combination of hearing what another person says and psychological involvement with the person who is talking. Listening requires more than hearing words. It requires a desire to understand another human being, an attitude of respect and acceptance, and a willingness to open one’s mind to try and see things from another’s point of view.

Listening requires a high level of concentration and energy. It demands that we set aside our own thoughts and agendas, put ourselves in another’s shoes and try to see the world through that person’s eyes. True listening requires that we suspend judgment, evaluation, and approval in an attempt to understand another is frame of reference, emotions, and attitudes. Listening to understand is, indeed, a difficult task!

Often, people worry that if they listen attentively and patiently to a person who is saying something they disagree with, they are inadvertently sending a message of agreement.

When we listen effectively we gain information that is valuable to understanding the problem as the other person sees it. We gain a greater understanding of the other person’s perception. After all, the truth is subjective and a matter of perception. When we have a deeper understanding of another’s perception, whether we agree with it or not, we hold the key to understanding that person’s motivation, attitude, and behavior. We have a deeper understanding of the problem and the potential paths for reaching agreement.



1. Requires concentration and energy

2. Involves a psychological connection with the speaker

3. Includes a desire and willingness to try and see things from another’s perspective

4. Requires that we suspend judgment and evaluation

“Listening in dialogue is listening more to meaning than to words . . .In true listening, we reach behind the words, see through them, to find the person who is being revealed. Listening is a search to find the treasure of the true person as revealed verbally and nonverbally. There is the semantic problem, of course. The words bear a different connotation for you than they do for me. Consequently, I can never tell you what you said, but only what I heard. I will have to rephrase what you have said, and check it out with you to make sure that what left your mind and heart arrived in my mind and heart intact and without distortion.”

– John Powell, theologian

Learning to be an effective listener is a difficult task for many people. However, the specific skills of effective listening behavior can be learned. It is our ultimate goal to integrate these skills into a sensitive and unified way of listening.

Key Listening Skills:


Giving full physical attention to the speaker;

Being aware of the speaker’s nonverbal messages;


Paying attention to the words and feelings that are being expressed;

Using reflective listening tools such as paraphrasing, reflecting, summarizing, and questioning to increase understanding of the message and help the speaker tell his story.

Giving Full Physical Attention To The Speaker

Attending is the art and skill of giving full, physical attention to another person. In his book, People Skills, Robert Bolton, Ph.D., refers to it as “listening with the whole body”.

Effective attending is a careful balance of alertness and relaxation that includes appropriate body movement, eye contact, and “posture of involvement”. Fully attending says to the speaker, “What you are saying is very important. I am totally present and intent on understanding you”. We create a posture of involvement by:

Leaning gently towards the speaker;

Facing the other person squarely;

Maintaining an open posture with arms and legs uncrossed;

Maintaining an appropriate distance between us and the speaker;

Moving our bodies in response to the speaker, i.e., appropriate head nodding, facial expressions.


As psychiatrist Franklin Ernst, Jr. writes in his book, Who’s Listening?“.

“To listen is to move. To listen is to be moved by the talker – physically and psychologically . . . The non-moving, unblinking person can reliably be estimated to be a non-listener . . . When other visible moving has ceased and the eyeblink rate has fallen to less than once in six seconds, listening, for practical purposes, has stopped.”

Being Aware of the Speakerís Nonverbal Messages

When we pay attention to a speaker’s body language we gain insight into how that person is feeling as well as the intensity of the feeling. Through careful attention to body language and paraverbal messages, we are able to develop hunches about what the speaker (or listener) is communicating. We can then, through our reflective listening skills, check the accuracy of those hunches by expressing in our own words, our impression of what is being communicated.


Paying Attention to the Words and Feelings

In order to understand the total meaning of a message, we must be able to gain understanding about both the feelingand the content of the message. We are often more comfortable dealing with the content rather than the feelings (i.e., the relationship), particularly when the feelings are intense. Our tendency is to try and ignore the emotional aspect of the message/conflict and move directly to the substance of the issues.


This can lead to an escalation of intense emotions. It may be necessary to deal directly with the relationship problem by openly acknowledging and naming the feelings and having an honest discussion about them prior to moving into the substantive issues. If we leave the emotional aspect unaddressed, we risk missing important information about the problem as well as derailing the communication process.

Reflective Listening Skills

Reflective listening or responding is the process of restating, in our words, the feeling and/or content that is being expressed and is part of the verbal component of sending and receiving messages. By reflecting back to the speaker what we believe we understand, we validate that person by giving them the experience of being heard and acknowledged. We also provide an opportunity for the speaker to give us feedback about the accuracy of our perceptions, thereby increasing the effectiveness of our overall communication.

Paraphrasing – This is a concise statement of the content of the speaker’s message. A paraphrase should be brief, succinct, and focus on the facts or ideas of the message rather than the feeling. The paraphrase should be in the listener’s own words rather than “parroting back”, using the speaker’s words.

“You believe that Jane needs an instructional assistant because she isn’t capable of working independently.”

“You would like Bob to remain in first grade because you think the activities would be more developmentally appropriate.”

“You do not want Beth to receive special education services because you think it would be humiliating for her to leave the classroom at any time.”

“You want to evaluate my child because you think he may have an emotional disability.

Reflecting Feeling – The listener concentrates on the feeling words and asks herself, “How would I be feeling if I was having that experience?” She then restates or paraphrases the feeling of what she has heard in a manner that conveys understanding.

“You are very worried about the impact that an evaluation might have on Lisa’s self esteem”.

“You are frustrated because dealing with Ben has taken up so much of your time, you feel like you’ve ignored your other students.”

“You feel extremely angry about the lack of communication you have had in regards to Joe’s failing grades.”

“You’re upset because you haven’t been able to get in touch with me when I’m at work.”

Summarizing – The listener pulls together the main ideas and feelings of the speaker to show understanding. This skill is used after a considerable amount of information sharing has gone on and shows that the listener grasps the total meaning of the message. It also helps the speaker gain an integrated picture of what she has been saying.

“You’re frustrated and angry that the assessment has taken so long and confused about why the referral wasn’t made earlier since that is what you thought had happened. You are also willing to consider additional evaluation if you can choose the provider and the school district will pay for it”.

“You’re worried that my son won’t make adequate progress in reading if he doesn’t receive special services. And you feel that he needs to be getting those services in the resource room for at least 30 minutes each day because the reading groups in the classroom are bigger and wouldn’t provide the type of instruction you think he needs.”

Additional Verbal Communication Tools

A number of other verbal tools encourage communication and facilitate the goal of gaining a more thorough understanding of another’s perspective:

Questioning – the listener asks open ended questions (questions which can’t be answered with a “yes” or a “no”) to get information and clarification. This helps focus the speaker on the topic, encourages the speaker to talk, and provides the speaker the opportunity to give feedback.

“Can you tell us more about Johnny’s experience when he’s in the regular classroom?”

“How was it for Susie when she rode the special ed. bus for those two weeks?”

“Tell us more about the afterschool tutoring sessions.”

“What kinds of skills do you think are important for Jim to learn in a social skills class?”

“Could you explain why you think itís difficult for Ben to be on the playground for an hour?”

“I’m confused – are you worried that the testing may mean time out of the classroom for Jim or is there something else?”

Verbal Communication Tools

1. Paraphrasing – a brief, succinct statement reflecting the content of the speakerís message.

2. Reflecting Feeling – a statement, in a way that conveys understanding, of the feeling that the listener has heard.

3. Summarizing – a statement of the main ideas and feelings to show understanding.

4. Questioning – asking open questions to gain information, encourage the speaker to tell her story, and gain clarification.

Barriers to Effective Communication

“A barrier to communication is something that keeps meanings from meeting. Meaning barriers exist between all people, making communication much more difficult than most people seem to realize. It is false to assume that if one can talk he can communicate. Because so much of our education misleads people into thinking that communication is easier than it is, they become discouraged and give up when they run into difficulty. Because they do not understand the nature of the problem, they do not know what to do. The wonder is not that communicating is as difficult as it is, but that it occurs as much as it does.”

– Reuel Howe, theologian and educator

When people are under stress, they are more apt to inject communication barriers into their conversation. These barriers can exist in any of the three components of communication (verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal). According to Thomas Gordon, author of the Parent Effectiveness Training program, people use communication barriers 90% of the time in conflict situations. For this reason, it is worthwhile to describe some of the common responses that will, inevitably, have a negative effect on communications:

Verbal Communication Barriers

1. Attacking (interrogating, criticizing, blaming, shaming)

“If you were doing your job and supervising Susie in the lunch line we probably wouldn’t be in this situation, would we?”

“Have you followed through with the counseling we asked you to do? Have you gotten Ben to the doctor’s for his medical checkup? Did you call and arrange for a Big Brother? Have you found out if you’re eligible for food stamps?”

“From what I can see, you don’t have the training to teach a child with ADHD. Obviously if you did you would be using different strategies that wouldn’t make her feel like she’s a bad person.”

2. “You Messages” (moralizing, preaching, advising, diagnosing)

“You don’t seem to understand how important it is for your child to get this help. Don’t you see that he’s well on his way to becoming a sociopath?”

“You obviously don’t realize that if you were following the same steps we do at home you wouldn’t be having this problem. You don’t seem to care about whatís going on in this child’s life outside of school.”

3. Showing Power (ordering, threatening, commanding, directing)

“If you don’t voluntarily agree to this evaluation we can take you to due process. Go ahead and file a complaint if you want to.”

“I’m going to write a letter of complaint to the superintendent and have this in your file if you don’t stop humiliating my son in front of his classmates. I know my rights.”

4. Other Verbal Barriers: shouting, name calling, refusing to speak.

Nonverbal Communication Barriers

1. Flashing or rolling eyes

2. Quick or slow movements

3. Arms crossed, legs crossed

4. Gestures made with exasperation

5. Slouching, hunching over

6. Poor personal care

7. Doodling

8. Staring at people or avoiding eye contact

9. Excessive fidgeting with materials


All of these examples of barriers thwart communication, mutual understanding, respect, problem solving, and identifying solutions that will meet everyone’s needs. They put a serious strain on relationships that ultimately need to be collaborative in order to most effectively meet the needs of our children. Use of these “communication errors” results in increased emotional distancing between the parties, escalation in the intensity of the conflict and a negative environment for everyone involved.

Effective Communication . . .

It is two way.

It involves active listening.

It reflects the accountability of speaker and listener.

It utilizes feedback.

It is free of stress.

It is clear.


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