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How to rediscover the ‘lost art’ of communication in schools

putting conversation bubble together

Kanye West. Kim Kardashian. Justin Bieber.

You know who they are. If you watch the news at all, you’ve seen a report about something one of these or countless other A-list celebrities said on Twitter.

During the recent presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and president-elect Donald Trump made news with a spirited volley of tweets. Trump’s staffers even went so far as to revoke the billionaire candidate’s Twitter access during the final hours of his improbable run to the White House.

Having won the election, the president-elect is at it again—tweeting about everything from recent cabinet appointees to post-election protests to late-night sketch comedy shows.

Whether you use social media or not, it’s impossible to understate how much technology has changed how we communicate. Anybody with a smartphone can reach more people faster, and in more locations. The only limit—how fast our thumbs can type.

But, for all its advantages, Twitter and other forms of social and mass communication have also created their share of challenges. Ideas and information are routinely taken out of context. Rumor is often billed as fact. Users literally talk “@” instead of “with” each other.

These realities were on full display during this year’s presidential campaign. And they’ve become painfully obvious in other places too. Our schools are no exception.

Hardly a day goes by without a new headline.

Parents upset at lack of communication
Parents say superintendent not listening to concerns
Teachers frustrated by lack of input

The news is not surprising to business consultant Susan Steinbrecher. In the race to have our voices heard, Steinbrecher says Americans have forgotten how to have meaningful conversations—and to use actual words to get things done.

“Authentic, two-way communication is a lost art,” writes Steinbrecher for Inc magazine. “Our interactions have become relegated to short, digital bursts of texts, emails and tweets… This has led to a breakdown in interpersonal communication.”

Where a great number of schools and school districts excel at getting messages out, far fewer focus on the importance of inbound or two-way communication.

Steinbrecher suggests four ways to make communication more authentic and impactful. While these approaches were developed with the workplace in mind, they’re also helpful when thinking about how schools communicate.

Enhance your community’s self-regard

Does your community have a sense that you respect and value their support and opinions?

If not, you’re starting your conversations off on the wrong foot.

Steinbrecher recommends getting to know the people who you communicate with. In one-on-one conversations, this is easy. But you can’t have personal exchanges with every student and parent in your school system. Town halls and school surveys are useful exercises, especially when the goal is to gather information and ideas from a large group.

Showing respect for your school community by listening to their stories and concerns is often the first step to a productive dialogue.

Actively listen

There’s a huge difference between saying that you plan to listen, and actually listening.

Do you make changes based on the feedback you receive from your community online, in-person, or via social media? Do you make a concerted effort to show your community that you’ve taken their concerns into account? Are you doing something useful with all that information you are collecting?

If the answer is no, then you might have heard what your community had to say, but you’re not listening.

Respond with empathy

Empathizing and agreeing are not the same, says Steinbrecher:

“You don’t have to agree with a person to empathize with them—but you do need to listen, come to understand and respect their viewpoint, even if it is vastly different from your own.”

You’re not going to agree with every word your community says. And that’s a good thing. They aren’t going to agree with you either.

The real value of these interactions lies in the diversity of opinions. Use feedback to illuminate different sides of the debate, and use those perspectives to make better, more informed decisions.

In the end, always show empathy for different viewpoints. Explain how you arrived at your decision. A clear reason and explanation—one that takes other viewpoints into consideration—can go a long way toward allaying community concerns.

Keep the conversation going

Invite as much participation as you possibly can into your conversation, says Steinbrecher.

The best, most productive conversations are often the ones that never end. This is especially true when it comes to schools and communities.

When you launch a new initiative based on community feedback, what steps do you take to ensure it’s having the desired effect?

Constantly ask for feedback from your community and adapt your strategy accordingly.

What steps do you take in your schools to ensure community conversations are authentic and meaningful—and that they go both ways? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas about how to promote meaningful conversations with the members of your school community? Bookmark our Engagement section.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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