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Article of Interest - Parenting

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Sending Clear Signals
Dan Coulter, August 17, 2006
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org

 
My son is a careful driver. He uses his turn signals and appreciates other drivers who do the same -- especially when he sees folks who donít. I appreciate products I have to assemble that come with clear instructions -- because Iíve wrestled with some that didnít. I also appreciate callers who leave clear answering machine messages -- because Iíve had voicemail where callers rattled off a phone number so fast I couldnít understand it. I didnít feel kindly as I replayed the message again and again trying to catch the call-back number.

I believe most of these communications transgressions arenít intentional. I think most happen when someone is in a hurry or distracted and absent-mindedly assumes that someone else knows what he thinks or intends.

Communicating poorly seems so obviously wrong and annoying when someone does it to us -- and so innocent when we do it to others.

Like my son, Iím in the habit of using my turn signals, but there have been plenty of times when I could have communicated my thoughts more clearly.

Itís easy to assume that youíre communicating effectively when youíre not. Say youíre talking to a coworker about something your boss did, then you change the subject and start talking about a customer. After a while you get another sudden thought about your boss and say, ďHe really should have told us before he switched the schedule.Ē Your coworker is confused because he thinks youíre still talking about the customer. He didnít follow your mental process as it switched back to the earlier conversation.

Sometimes the problem is familiarity. I remember my wife complaining that she couldnít understand the instructions from workers at the department of motor vehicles where we used to live. After giving the same directions to people in line thousands of times, the workers rushed through them and ran their words together.

In one of my corporate jobs, our department bought a computer-controlled multi-media presentation system. The day we were scheduled to learn to use it, the trainer called in sick and they sent a sales person to fill in. As a teacher, he was a disaster. He ran through the instructions so fast that none of us could keep up. Then he got impatient because we werenít absorbing his information barrage. He knew the complex system inside and out, so its operation was obvious to him. He thought we just werenít listening hard enough.

As parents and teachers, we need to be careful not to make these mistakes with our kids and students. Iíve spent more than two decades in communications-related jobs, and I learned early that success isnít measured by what you do or say, but by what your audience absorbs.

With a new school year starting, parents can clearly communicate to kids that you have high expectations and that youíre available to help them succeed. You can follow this up by helping your student get into the habit of having homework done before bedtime, setting out clothes, organizing backpacks and gym bags, and making other preparations. Of course, your focus should always be on helping your child take on these responsibilities himself. You also want to communicate to teachers that you take an active part in your childís education and that you need to hear promptly if there are any problems that your child needs to address -- or any opportunities that might enhance his school year.

Teachers need to communicate their expectations to students and be clear about the kind of work and quality of work it will take to excel. It also helps to let students know how to ask for help if theyíre having trouble with the coursework -- especially in ways that wonít embarrass them in front of other students. Always posting assignments in the same place, handing out written instructions and posting assignments on a school website are good options to ensure students know what work to do and by what deadline. By providing clear expectations and instructions, youíre serving as an excellent role model for them to follow when itís their turn to communicate.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of communicating, here are some ďbest practiceĒ tips Iíve picked up over the years that can help get a message across whether youíre trying to connect with one person or a thousand.

THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. What does the person youíre talking to know about what youíre going to say? Is he familiar with it, or is the subject new to him? This will help you choose your words.

START WITH A HEADLINE. Headlines are designed to tell readers as much as possible about a story in the fewest possible words. Starting with a headline helps your listeners mentally prepare to absorb what youíre going to say. For example, your headline might be: ďMom and Son Make List to Shop for School Supplies.Ē Next you translate your headline into real language and say to your son, ďWe need to go shopping for school supplies today. Letís make a list of what youíll need.Ē This communicates your plans for the day much more clearly than musing aloud, ďYou can probably use last yearís binders, but we need to get you some paper refills...Ē

USE INVERTED PYRAMID STYLE. This is a technique journalism students learn early. Basically, it means you put the most important information at the top of your story and the least important information at the bottom. That way, if someone only reads a part of the story -- or if an editor cuts off part of your article, the readers still get the information they need most. When youíre giving instructions, whoever youíre talking to gets the same benefit if the first words out of your mouth cover the key points you want to make.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, you may want to build suspense and then surprise your listeners for effect. But in most cases, your audience will appreciate your giving them the big picture and then filling in the details.

TREAT YOUR AUDIENCE AS CUSTOMERS. Thinking of your audience as customers can help you keep them interested by meeting their needs. Consider what they want -- and use it. Trying to convince teenagers to use good grooming? Appealing to their need to impress the opposite sex is usually a good tactic.

BREAK OUT OF YOUR RUT. If you routinely give the same instructions or information, itís hard to maintain your enthusiasm. Look for new words, or new methods, to deliver the goods. Finding fresh ways to communicate helps keep you energized and makes your audience more receptive.

BE CONCISE. Itís easy to lose an audience. Saying what you have to say in as few words as possible can help you stay within listenersí attention spans and help them remember what youíve said.

SEEK FEEDBACK. Watching faces while you talk or asking your audience for questions can help you make sure youíre not wasting their time -- or yours.

ENCOURGE NOTE TAKING. If your message or instructions are long or complicated, taking notes can help your audience lock what they hear or see into their memories. People have better recall after they take notes, even if they never look back at what theyíve written.

To sum up, the next time youíre about to communicate, put yourself in the position of the person or group that youíre trying to reach and think,
- What do I really need to get across?
- How would I like to get this information?
- How can I be interesting, clear and concise?

As for turn signals, try thinking about how well drivers are communicating every time you see them using or neglecting their turn indicators.

Effective communications are always worth an extra thought.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the video, "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills" and other educational products. You can read more of his articles on his website at: www.coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

    

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