Refine Communication for Mutual Clarity and Understanding

I was in New Mexico facilitating a workshop for a group of Navajo educators. During the lunch break, one of the teachers, Miss Augusta, offered me feedback. “Your words make us very tired, I just wanted to let you know.” I thanked her and she gave me a hug. Her feedback was an invitation to cultivate self-awareness and think about the impact of my words on others. She inspired me to listen to myself and to think about how others hear me. Thank you, Miss Augusta, for your wisdom and guidance.

Refine communication for mutual clarity and understanding, one of the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leaders, has many facets including listening, speaking, writing messages, and attending to non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. The definition of refine is to remove impurities or unwanted elements and improve something by making small changes to be more subtle and accurate. What a great way to think about communicating with intentionality. Let’s explore three levels of this commitment: me and my identity, me with another, and me in a group.

Me and My Identity: What do I think and feel about communication?

I was born in New York City and so were my parents. My parents talked a lot, fast, and loud. During family meals one person finished another’s sentence or simply interrupted to talk over someone else. For my family, it wasn’t about being rude — it just was. Without realizing it, I learned that fast, loud, and interrupting others was okay. This was the beginning of my identity as a communicator. I value staying open to learn and allowing lived experiences to serve as my guide to my evolving identity around communication. For example:

· From Miss Augusta, I learned about altering the pace of my speech and trying to clarify my meaning with fewer words. When I say a lot, there’s less space for the voices of others. Too many words muddies my message.

· My husband’s listening style is the opposite of my family of origin. He pays close attention when I tell him a story or ask for his help. He never interrupts which always makes me feel seen and heard. He’s comfortable with silences. Now I’m more patient as a listener, and I choose to listen in ways that let others feel seen and heard. I appreciate silences as spaces to think.

As an Optimistic Leader, how I think and feel about communication and how I want to show up with others and as a model for children continues to evolve. Two other commitments serve me well to refine communication: activate curiosity and cultivate self-awareness.

Me with Another: How do I respect what the other person might think and feel about communication?

When I communicate with another, it’s not about me, it has to be about we in order to get at mutual understanding. With grace, Miss Augusta helped me understand that I was not respecting the communication style of the educators in the workshop. She didn’t suggest that I was disrespectful. Rather, she conveyed that my communication style wasn’t effective. Here are a few examples of how I keep learning about refining communication: me with another.

· As a young teacher, I received feedback from a supervisor: joking with children can sometimes be disrespectful because as literal thinkers, children take your words at face value. I was confused, and a little defensive, so she offered me an example. Monique, a third grader, asked to use the bathroom. “Sure,” I replied in a lighthearted tone. “Hurry up. You have two minutes.” The bathroom was way down the hall. Running back to the classroom, Monique, with pants barely zipped, tripped and fell. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt and another teacher helped her up. However, what a lesson for me. Hearing only my words, Monique was eager to please. While humor was my way to lighten things up, I didn’t consider Monique’s perspective as an eight-year old. My humor created a misunderstanding as well as a safety risk.

· A common expression these days is just shoot me an email. Texts and emails are a constant reminder about refining communication: me with another. While we may be more connected with digital communication, my experience keeps teaching me about how much room there is for endless misunderstanding. On the receiving end, I misread emotional cues and make assumptions. On the sending end, no matter how careful I think I am, feedback lets me know that I often miss the mark. I practice intentionality first by:

…avoiding the word shoot when writing a text or email. That word suggests hurried and aggressive. That’s not the tone I’m looking for.

…considering who my recipient is and adjusting the note based on their preferred style. For example, starting with a gentle “hello, how are you?” or perhaps a clear yet friendly direct question. When I have a negative response to a message I receive, I save a draft and ask someone for help before sending so that I don’t perpetuate the negativity but strive for resolution and mutual understanding.

When I think about the impact I want to have in my interactions with adults and children, I have to consider the perspective of the other person. I continue to learn that refining communication requires curiosity and self-awareness to nurture relationships with others.

Me in a Group: How do I influence others to think and feel about communication?

As a child, my group was my family and the communication style was influenced by my parents. In a meeting, one group member can influence the way others communicate. The person can dominate the conversation, leaving little or no space for others to participate. A few others can be annoyed and remain silent but their body language and facial expressions affect the mood of others, either preventing them speaking at all or making the entire conversation about fixing a perceived “problem.” Here are a few examples of how I continue to learn about refining communication: me in a group.

· Some people are internal thinkers and processors. I do my best thinking out loud. Every group is made up of both, and typically the “out-louds” speak first. Yes, that’s me when I’m in habit mode rather than intentional mode. Joyce Dudley Hamilton, a very wise mentor, taught me so much about communicating in a group. She said: if you speak first, you forfeit the benefit of weaving the ideas of others. A group benefits from the integration of ideas — getting to a place of deeper learning — going beyond stacking ideas to integrating them. With her guidance, I learned that I could jot down my idea on paper and then quiet my mind enough to actively listen to others, jotting their ideas as well. If I waited to speak until others have spoken, and use my notes, I could support the group by finding common themes and combining ideas.*

· I’ve learned that when I’m anxious, insecure, defensive, or disappointed — feeling vulnerable in a group setting — my tone of voice gets sharp, almost edgy. Others hear it as aggressive and angry. The first time I was made aware of this was after a workshop. A few participants went to the organizer to complain about my session. They reported that I was angry, turned off several participants, and that my tone was insulting to one person in particular. At first I was defensive because I wasn’t angry, I was just feeling insecure — that I wasn’t connecting well with the participants and trying too hard to make the session work. My defensiveness quickly turn to distress when I realized that I couldn’t apologize to the participants and that there had been such a terrible misunderstanding. As some of you might imagine, I obsessed over this one for a long time. After a while I channeled my distress into self-awareness and curiosity so that I can check my tone often to be sure I’m coming across the way I want to. If I feel myself getting nervous, my first action is usually to invite the group to have a conversation and take the focus off of me. Then, I’ll work to soften my face and figure out what’s going on. And, if I have a question for the group about how they are doing, I’ll activate curiosity and ask!

Refine Communication for Mutual Clarity and Understanding: What are we modeling for children?

As Optimistic Leaders, how we communicate with children and with adults when we’re around children is constantly teaching them about communication. How we communicate in meetings affects the climate of an organization and that mood, positive or negative, affects children. In a classroom or family childcare home, the teacher influences how children interact with each other. Effective communication leads to positive relationships and interactions. I invite you to practice the commitment of refine communication for mutual clarity and understanding so that we can be models for children.

Equity for children begins with equity for all of the adults in their lives. All aspects of children’s development — intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral — are shaped by the relationships they have with the adults in their lives. We also know that young children thrive in an environment of trusting relationships with the adults who care for and educate them. Therefore, children deserve the adults in their lives to be Optimistic Leaders.

To be Optimistic Leaders for children, we must commit to be our best selves for children. And, just as importantly, we must commit to be our best selves with the other adults in the child’s ecosystem — their families, other teachers, kitchen managers and van drivers, administrators and community partners. Collectively, we are models for children. Together we shape the emotional climate that affects children’s well-being and learning. When we work together and share common practices, we can provide children with the strong nurturing relationships for learning they need to thrive. Practicing the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leaders individually and collectively sets us on a path to equity for all children.

* Thank you Joyce for helping me develop two facilitation strategies: carousel and weave and link.

© Leading for Children, 2020.

Judy is the Executive Director of Leading for Children, a national nonprofit that empowers early childhood professionals to be leaders and learners.