Reasons for communicating
- singing in a choir
- chatting when out on a date
- buying a train ticket over the telephone
- shouting encouragement at a football match
- telling a friend about your trip to the theatre
- counseling people with major illnesses
All of the above are examples of verbal communication. They all involve the use of language and speech. In addition, they are all carried out for a particular purpose (or purposes). However, there are some differences. Whilst messages such as, “I saw Les Miserables again last night” and “I want a return fare to Newcastle” clearly involve some sort of informing, the example of singing in a choir does not appear to involve sending the same type of message. Is telling someone that I have been to the theatre the same type of message as informing a patient that they have a serious illness? Clearly, there are many (different) reasons for communicating. Understanding this is important in order that we can begin to address the issue of what it means to have good communication skills.
Good communication skills for what?
If my goal is to improve my counseling skills so that I can better assist people who are afraid and anxious, then I will likely concentrate on improving a different set of skills than if my goal is to improve my ability to perform in a choir or to close a sale over the telephone.
The point is that there is no universal answer to the question, “How can I improve my communication skills?” One must first ask, “For what purpose?” Here are a few advertisement headlines I came across whilst researching this topic:
- How to Become Popular by Using Good Communication Skills
- How to Present Yourself as an Educated Person
- Maximize your Chances for Success with Good Communication Skills
- Good Communication Skills Key to Success
- Good Communication Skills in the Classroom
- How to Communicate Effectively
Most, if not all, of these focus on improving professional and personal impact. However, a speech therapist (speech pathologist; speech-language pathologist) is typically concerned with preventing or alleviating communication impairments, e.g.
- inability to understand what others say
- difficulty choosing the right words and forming sentences
- errors in pronouncing speech sounds
- incorrectly substituting one speech sound for another in words
- persistent hoarseness of voice
- unable to join in a conversation
- inability to infer someone’s meaning
Consequently, good communication skills in this context refers to a speaker’s ability to adequately conceptualize what they wish to communicate, to encode their ideas linguistically, construct an appropriate utterance and then formulate the correct speech sound pattern through the coordinated use of the vocal apparatus. In addition, when listening to the speech of others, a listener must have an intact hearing mechanism, be able to decode the heard utterance and then infer what it means. The person must also be able to do this collaboratively in several social contexts through conversation (see The Communication Chain).
Whose good communication skills?
People with communication disabilities
People may experience impairments in any of the areas cited above: conceptualizing, encoding/decoding, transmitting and receiving speech sounds, social interaction through conversation. This may be for a variety of reasons, e.g. failure to develop at an age-appropriate rate, a generalized learning difficulty, neurological disease, injury, misuse and abuse of the vocal apparatus. Consequently, many speech therapy exercises have been designed to improve specific areas of difficulty. Typically, these speech therapy activities (speech therapy programs) are aimed at improving communication skills in four areas:
- language (e.g. comprehension, expression and word-finding difficulties)
- speech (e.g. articulation disorders and phonological difficulties)
- fluency (e.g. stuttering and cluttering)
- voice (e.g. vocal nodules, vocal misuse and laryngitis)
These techniques for effective communication are, therefore, aimed at assisting the person who presents with some form of communication difficulty. However, we also need to consider the communication skills of those with whom they interact.
Those who interact with people with communication disabilities
Clearly both children and adults can experience communication difficulties. However, to focus this discussion, I shall restrict the following to a consideration of how adults interact with children who have communication disabilities.
A child’s contact with other people is of crucial importance in their development and learning. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that it is only because a child becomes engaged in increasingly complex activities with adults that they are able to fully develop communication skills (language acquisition). Consequently, there are certain things adults can do to facilitate the development of effective communication in young children. Some suggestions are listed below:
how to communicate effectively with children
- Speak in short, clear sentences. Ideally, words should be one to two syllables long, and sentence length should be around three to five words.
- Use a small core vocabulary that includes objects, actions, and people in the child’s environment.
- Repeat sentences to the child, varying the form only slightly. Example: See the dog? John, see dog?
- Speak slowly and clearly. Pause between clauses and after content words. Content words should also be stressed and meaning interpretation helped by exaggerated intonation.
- Talk about objects and activities in which the child shows an interest. Items should be discussed in a redundant manner. Example: See dog? Dog jump up. See dog’s tail? Wag tail.
- Discuss your actions with the child. My favorite example is a mother who prepared her salad on the floor so that her child with cerebral palsy could observe. As the mother cut and diced, she named the vegetables, let the child taste them, and described the process.
- Use a pleasant tone of voice. Speech and language should be associated with pleasurable experiences.
- Gesture or use simple signs when it helps message interpretation.
- Be sure to allow opportunities for the child to answer/respond, even if only in a limited way. Responding in turn is a valuable pragmatic skill. Don’t dominate the interaction.
- Occasionally imitate the child’s behavior, both vocal and non vocal. Such imitation conveys caring to the child and also teaches a valuable social skill.
- Get the child’s attention before any interaction. During an interaction, the child may need to be gently returned to the interaction.
- Display a genuine interest in child-based activities. This feeling can be fostered by caregivers who participate at the same physical level as the child.