Education Opinion

Good Communication: A Complex Path Toward Meaning

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 09, 2015 5 min read
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Communication leads to community,
that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. - Rollo May

Teachers and leaders both are expected to be masters of communication, carry the responsibility of communicating and making sure their listeners understand. The larger the audience, the greater the possibilities for misunderstandings. Communication is complicated. Very complicated. Any time two people share a conversation there are possibilities for complete understanding and for a plethora of misunderstandings. The range of possibilities multiplies with the number of listeners. So, when teachers are speaking to students, or when leaders are addressing a board meeting, speaking or writing to a school community, a faculty, an assembly of students, to blog followers, to book readers, or to twitter followers, meanings and interpretations can vary greatly.

Then, there is the responsibility of the listener. Teachers make room for asking students about their understandings. As students reveal their thinking, teachers can adjust and refocus in order to clarify what may have been the sticking point of students’ misunderstandings. But, leaders only have that opportunity when speaking to one person or small groups of people. Most often their audiences are large and the opportunity for clarity checking diminishes with audience size. These days, there is also less tolerance for public figures to readdress issues and offer explanations or clarifications. So, leaders are more obligated to get it out right the first time. Of course, communication is an exchange and, ultimately, meaning happens through the ears, eyes, experiences and filters of the listener.

The responsibility of the communicator is a large one. It is complicated by the fact that the listeners often either do not have the opportunity, or choose not to, express their understanding of what was being communicated and walk away with their own interpretation of not only what was being said, but of the speaker. Then, unfortunately, they share their perspectives with others who have similar experiences and filters so the interpretations are not challenges. The pursuit of the honest give and take required to build greater understanding is an ethereal thing; those willing to give this process time and attention are rare and treasured companions on a leader’s journey.

In a recent blog post, we quoted President Obama. He responded to a heckler who was in attending a White House event by saying to him, “Not in my house.” To us, it sounded like he was not recognizing that the White House belongs to the country, not to the occupant of the moment. We thought it was a valuable example of being caught off guard and responding in haste; a situation leaders and teachers can find themselves in often. In response we received this comment from one of our readers.

In some minority communities, the comment, “You’re in my house” is translated to mean “you are not showing me respect.” Usually it does not literally refer to the location the person occupies. There are several other variations of this phrase, e.g., “This [is] my house.., You[‘re] stepping on my house,” etc. I am not certain this is what President Obama meant, but assuming the rules of formal conversation were observed the reporter interrupting the President can be seen as a sign of disrespect; and therefore the above translation may apply. Just a little something to ponder.

And so, our reader offers us new possibilities for understanding. Had we heard it with his ears, our take away would have been different. Our frame of reference and life experiences had not given us this frame. Had we not written about it, we would still be holding our initial interpretation. Skillfully, he didn’t say we were wrong. He just gave us an insight we hadn’t had and asked us to consider it as true. Perfectly done. Now, we wonder. But, in our wondering we do know that a reader broadened our view and for that we are grateful. In the blogosphere, real communication can happen and real meaning can emerge. It just takes openness to another perspective.

Another reader expressed that the take away from our post was that we were using the opportunity to express our displeasure with the President and that we disrespected him by doing so. To that comment, we have a different reaction. We believe adamantly that to disagree is not the same as being disrespectful. In the same blog we spoke of his “Amazing Grace speech” and the compelling power of it. Leaders will make off the cuff remarks and flippant responses when in a comfort zone. It can happen to any of us, and misunderstandings can happen without even knowing it.

There are hundreds of communications exchanged every day in schools... students, parents, principals, faculty, custodians, food services, bus services, central office, the press, boards of education...and it goes on. Some of those communications are planned but most are spontaneous. Intent can be trumped by a word choice, meaning can be derailed so easily by the words themselves, by the manner in which the message is sent, and, always, by the ears of the listener.

Checking for understanding is quite often not possible but it remains significant. Think about the presidential candidates who are asked to clarify their remarks over and over. In person to person, and in small groups, it is a valuable practice to check for understanding. But, even then, the relationship between the speaker and the listener has to be a trusting one. If it is not, likely the listener will not be forthcoming if the message received is an unsettling one. In large groups or out in the wider community, the gaps between intent and understanding grow exponentially. Leaders have to hope that someone will speak up. We are so appreciative of our readers and their willingness to ask us to think with them. It informs and educates us all. More often than not, shared differences of opinions cause stronger relationships to be built; otherwise reactions and even anger and polarization can take root.

There is no way to avoid the pitfalls in the complex domain of communication. But, whether you are the POTUS, a school leader, a blogger or a reader, one thing is important to keep in mind. Relationships can be built or broken by a miscommunicated thought left unexplored. Understandings build relationships and trust. From there, communities grow and thrive. This is the work of school leaders and it is certainly worth the effort.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.