In Brief

This overview has a lot of information, and it’s all related! At the start, here it all is in a short form:

  • Beware of your assumptions, and be ready to change your mind.
  • Listen more than talk.
  • Listen carefully in order to help the team understand issues.
  • Think before speaking.
  • Prepare well by trying to make objective observations.
  • Effective communication is difficult: confront the difficulties with the team in mind!

The core of effective teamwork is effective communication! If a team is not working on its communication, it’s not working. You are part of that big picture.

The Big Picture: How All These Things are Connected

To educate children well takes parents, families, schools, and communities. Your interaction with members of any of these groups involves teamwork. You are part of a team, even when the team is just you and a single teacher. Often, though, the team will include several educators or several educators and a child’s parents. Your work on such teams supports instruction.

Although teachers and administrators direct your activities, teaching (or supporting teaching) is complex work. And the teamwork needed to support complex work requires “communication.” For instance, no one can predict how well a student will perform a particular skill. Is the skill likely to be too easy for the student? Is it likely to be too hard? Members of the team might have different opinions based on their knowledge of the student’s previous performance. But the unpredictability of the student’s actual performance and the various perspectives about it mean that team members must learn to communicate well if they are to make wise decisions about how to instruct the student.

The core of teamwork is “communication.”

Communication is talk (or writing). But all talk (or writing) is not effective. Effective communication accomplishes work in ways that produce desired results and build the capacity for future teamwork. That is, an effective communication makes it more likely that the next opportunity for team communication will also be effective. This is how effective communication builds an effective team.

This unit explains the features of effective communication for this purpose!

Another way to say the same things is to call effective communication a social process. It’s not just talk, but a web of meaningful and respectful talk that confronts difficult issues successfully and repeatedly—as a habit.

Obviously, learning how to communicate well for this purpose can transfer to communication in other parts of your life. All of us, in fact, can improve how we communicate.

Humans have minds of their own; we tend to think we know our own minds, and, for many of us, we assume that what we think is right. Why don’t others see things as we do? This common attitude gets in the way of communicating well. Although we come to an issue with underlying assumptions, such assumptions are not always right. Usually they are only part of the picture, and too often—as part of the bigger picture—they are wrong. Sometimes they are dramatically wrong. So it’s important to regard one’s own outlook on an issue as subject to change. It can be important to explain one’s outlook: or it can be important not to share it, at least not to share it prematurely. This is a difficult lesson for some of us.

So communication is not just talk; more often it’s listening. Communication is an interchange. For that interchange to do any good at all, all those involved need to have a turn at explaining how they see things. And everyone needs to talk about the differences in outlooks that appear during the interchange. It sounds simple, but it’s not. And it involves a lot of careful listening (often called “active listening”).

Careful listening means that you are thinking while listening—comparing, contrasting, puzzling out the problems that make up the issue being discussed. It also means that you use what you are thinking about to help the speaker explain his or her perspective more clearly. Your thinking about what the speaker is saying allows you to frame good questions—questions that help you get a better understanding of what the speaker is thinking. As it turns out, good communication is more about learning from others than about trying to teach others.

Why is this way of looking at communication important? As a team member, your role is not primarily to explain your own assumptions or even to explain what you believe you have observed. Instead, your primary role is to understand. You are always seeking to understand the perspectives of everyone on the team as a way to help the team identify shared understandings. What you think and say fits into the larger picture: the issue at hand, observations about the issue, what others think, and where they are coming from in what they think. Getting to a shared understanding is very hard work. Doing it well is less common than one would hope.

Being willing to change your initial outlook, listening carefully, and thinking before you speak are features of communication that provide room for another activity important to effective communication. What is that? Observing interactions carefully. The restraint involved—for example, in listening carefully, thinking before you speak, and changing your outlook—helps make communication more objective. And being more objective also means watching what goes on so you can describe it carefully to others. That is, part of preparing for an objective discussion is preparation to describe carefully (objectively) the parts of an issue that relate to what students (and adults) say and do (e.g., in class, in team meetings).