Teaching Interpersonal Skills To Students

Effective interpersonal skills are important for personal and professional reasons. They have relevance for students in terms of integrating into college life and as part of learning (e.g. group work, seminars, etc.). Furthermore, employers look for skills such as good communication and teamwork in graduates. However, interpersonal skills often are not formally taught.

This module is designed to provide a brief background to relevant interpersonal skills and exercises to help you develop these skills in your learners. The module highlights several key areas: effective communication, giving and receiving feedback, and working with others.

Students need to understand the concepts, to practice the skills, to reflect and to receive feedback. These skills may be taught in many different ways: case studies, group exercises, role-plays, work simulations or rehearsal.

Each section gives the presenter some Background Information on the area to be addressed as well as Suggestions for Integration of the material with the subject. There is also a Suggested Presentation if the teacher wants to present the material as a workshop. It includes suggested activities and procedures, materials necessary and time estimates. The module also contains a PowerPoint presentation with slides and notes, as well as exercises and handouts. The teacher may be selective – parts may be incorporated into course content when suitable and appropriate – or the material can be used as a stand-alone module – given in addition to regular courses. Either way, it will be most beneficial to students if it is customised to suit the subject discipline




Communication occurs only when a message is accurately received. Only when there is a predisposition, therefore, to observe, listen and try to understand can clear communication take place – and this implies a degree of trust and openness between participants (Jaques, 2000, p. 61).

1.1 Definition

Interpersonal skills are those necessary for relating and working with others – such as verbal and non-verbal communication, listening, giving and receiving feedback.

Howard Gardner described it as one of the multiple intelligences: interpersonal intelligence or the ability to be able to understand and work effectively with others.

Being able to understand and work with others in teams or groups is another important aspect of interpersonal skills. The focus is on facilitating teamwork, ensuring group effectiveness, decision making, running meetings and presenting work.

1.2 Benefits and Relevance

On a personal basis, since we all interact with other people, it is worth reviewing and improving our interpersonal effectiveness. Furthermore, many surveys of employers and graduates indicate that employers want their employees to have good social skills. The ability to communicate well with others and the ability to work well in a team are valuable skills.

In the helping professions good communication and interpersonal skills are crucial. Teachers in the professional disciplines might like to consult the training manuals by Philip Burnard listed in the References and Bibliography. These skills are also important in business and management where modern organizations increasingly use teamwork which requires being able to communicate and collaborate with others. They are also useful to develop in college where more cooperative learning is taking place, requiring interpersonal and small group skills. These are skills that can be taught thereby improving an individual’s performance, resilience and overall emotional literacy (Goleman, 1995).

Working in groups provides the opportunity to share ideas, hear other perspectives, to benefit from the experience and expertise of others and to receive help and support.

“Interpersonal skills help individuals initiate, build and maintain relationships in both personal and professional life” (De Janasz, 2002, p. 1).




2.1 Active Listening

“. . . the faculty of listening is one of the most salient ingredients for professional accomplishment and within our communities and homes it is the most fundamental and taken for granted activity upon which we are supposed to shape all our daily relationships” (Palmer, 1997, p. 1).

The cornerstone of effective communication is the ability to listen and to accomplish this in an active manner. Often communication fails because people have not actually heard to the message or have only listened to part of it. As a result, they may have assumed or misinterpreted what was actually said. In the professional arena, good listening skills are necessary in order to communicate that you want to help.

We may listen for comprehension, as in a lecture where we are attending to ideas, facts or themes. Sometimes we practice evaluative listening when we need to make a judgement, as in the recent discussions on the Nice Treaty. At other times we listen empathically, when someone is trying to be understood and heard while many times we are just practicing appreciative listening, for pleasure (Hayes, 1991).

In active listening the key is our intention – to understand someone, to learn something, to give help or comfort. Active listening involves our focused attention and we communicate this both verbally and non-verbally (see Section 2.2). It also involves the ability to take in the whole message, accepting what is said without judging, understanding not only the words spoken but also the feelings that underlie the word.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is purely physical whereas listening involves not only hearing sounds but also responding, i.e. higher level and interpersonal. Selective listening requires concentration and attention. For example, in a lecture there are many sounds one can hear thus it is necessary to tune them out and focus our attention.

Hayes (1991) breaks down the listening process into four skills areas: preparation, attending, following and reflecting. Preparation would include arranging appropriate time to listen, free of distractions. Attending focuses on non-verbal behaviours to demonstrate you are actively listening to the speaker: facing speaker squarely, open posture, maintaining eye contact. Following skills focus on what the speaker has to say, allowing them to tell their story – things such as minimal prompts, statements, questions, and attentive silences. The last area is reflecting skills which “provide the listener with the opportunity to check out her understanding and communicate this to the speaker and to help the speaker to clarify his own thoughts “ (Hayes, 1991, p. 28). Techniques for reflecting include paraphrasing and summarising.

Active listening shows you have understood the other person and acknowledged their feelings or concerns. Here are some strategies to enhance effective listening:

1. By not interrupting the speaker – give them space and time to say what they have to say.

2. Stop talking – you can’t listen if you are talking!

3. Focusing – actively attend to the other person’s words, ideas, and feelings. Ask for more detail or ask them to expand on certain things.

4. Get rid of distractions – avoid taking notes, watch your hands!

5. Use positive body language – eye contact, affirmative head nods, smiles, displaying interest, etc.

6. Use paraphrasing – means providing a concise response to the listeners’ words to reflect that you have understood their message using own words (rewording). For example, ‘So what you’re saying is …’
7. Use summarising – formulate a brief statement containing key words and/or feelings that person has said. For example, ‘I think you’re trying to tell me …’

8. Use inquiry – this aids active listening by asking appropriate questions and using open-ended questions. An open question is one which leads the speaker into exploration and elaboration. A focused question calls for a “Yes”, or “no” or other specific response. It facilitates clarification. Former useful especially professionally, for obtaining more information and allowing speaker to tell story. Most people tend to rely on closed or focused questions. Both essential to good communication.

9. Listen to how something is said – too often we concentrate on the content or what is being said whereas the emotions and reactions behind the content may be more important.

10. Disarming technique (Burns, 1989, p. 419): “Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you feel convinced that what they’re saying is totally wrong, unreasonable, irrational or unfair.” A particularly useful strategy when facing criticism or if you don’t agree.

In summary, listening is a matter of concentration – the more attention paid the better the listening. Listening skills involve being receptive to others, suspending your own ideas and being able to understand another person’s perspective.


2.2 Non-verbal Communication


“It isn’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it” (Anonymous).

Non-verbal communication is the way people reinforce or replace spoken communication through the use of body language or voice. A commonly accepted scenario is that communication between people is usually comprised of the words used (7%), the way words are used or stressed, e.g. tone, emotions (13%) and body language (80%). Therefore it is very important to pay attention to non-verbal signals, both from a listening perspective as it will offer further clues about the other person’s internal situation beyond the words they use; but also the non-verbal signals we are giving out when expressing ourselves.

Attending to non-verbal messages improves our ability to understand the meaning of others’ messages. However, it is important not to give meaning to an individual behaviour but rather “the art of effective listening to non-verbal messages is to recognize behaviours that may have potential message value and then to search for other behaviours that suggest a pattern” (Hayes, 1991, 57). For example, a sigh of exasperation from a flatmate may suggest he/she is angry but this assumption would need to be verified by other non-verbal signals or by verbal confirmation.

The key is to ensure congruence between thoughts or feelings and non-verbal messages; also that non-verbal messages are congruent with verbal messages.

What is body language?

• Facial Expressions
o Whole face – smiling, frowning, surprise
o Eye Contact
o Eyebrows – raised, upturned
o Mouth – lips pursed, down-turned

• Gestures & Movements
o Head – nodding, shaking, tilted
o Arms – crossed, open
o Hands – in pockets, covering mouth
o Fingers – laced, pointing, playing with hair, tapping
o Legs & feet – crossed, tapping

• Positioning & Orientation
o Where sitting or standing relative to others
o Space

• Physical Contact

• Posture/Stance

• Feedback sounds – agreement, impatience, surprise, grunts

• Tone

It is important to be aware of potential difficulties that might arise with non-verbal communication, for example:

 Over analysis!
 Certain signals or gestures might be acceptable in certain situations but not in others
 Be aware of cultural conventions
 Be sensitive and alert in new situations
 Certain signals can be misconstrued or misinterpreted by others

In some cultures it is customary to use personal touching whereas for other cultures this would be inappropriate. For example when greeting someone in Greece, it is normal to throw your arms around someone, put your hands on their shoulders, etc. Awareness and tolerance aid good non-verbal communication.

2.3 Self-expression

Listening is one part of the good communication loop; the other part consists of the ability to send verbal messages constructively. Difficulties in expressing ourselves often arise when emotions become involved (which is frequent!). These difficulties may occur in a work situation, a professional relationship, personal interactions, educational exchanges, meetings or group settings – basically anytime people get together to communicate.

There are several strategies for effectively expressing yourself and getting your message across to others (Burns, 1999; Ellis, 1994; Goleman, 1995):

Using “I” statements
For personal communication, especially in conflict or emotive situations, use of ‘I’ statements can be very effective. The strategy involves replacing ‘you’ messages with ‘I’ messages. You messages (e.g. “You are rude,” “You don’t like me anymore”) cause defensiveness and they demand a response. Replace the You with an I, trying to describe yourself. So “I feel upset” instead of “You are rude” or “I’m concerned we’re drifting apart”. ‘I’ messages do not involve judgement or blame.

Sending ‘I’ messages helps you to assume responsibility for what you say, thereby less likely to cause defensiveness as it is “from the heart not the head” (Nelson-Jones, 1996, p. 97).

The handout – Five Ways to Say ”I” (Ellis, 1994; See Interpersonal Skills – Exercises and Handouts) describes ways to include ‘I’ for more effective statements.

Notice non-verbal messages
Refer to Section 2.2 Non-verbal Communication. Ensure that the verbal message and the non-verbal message are congruent.

When questions are not always questions
Avoid using questions that are not really questions. For example, “Doesn’t it upset you?” probably means “It upsets me” (Ellis, 1994, pp.245-246). If you want to find out what another person is thinking or feeling, it is better to use open-ended questions (what, why, how) rather than questions that require limited responses such as yes or no. Open ended questions help facilitate elaboration and understanding. They are particularly useful in professional relationships when trying to elicit information from patients or clients. Closed questions help with clarification.

Describe your own feelings by name or action (e.g. I feel upset, I feel like crying). Describe others’ behaviours without evaluating or interpreting.

Barriers to sending messages
People often make excuses that inhibit good communication. These are often thoughts, concerns or attitudes we hold. For instance, perfectionism, fear of disapproval or rejection, hopelessness or low self-esteem (Burns, 1999) may stop someone from expressing them self. It is unlikely the concerns will go away unless they are addressed. A talk with an adviser, tutor or friend might help to solve a problem critical to academic or other success.

This technique is useful in difficult interactions (Burns, 1999). It involves finding something genuinely positive to say to the other person. For example, you may dislike a child’s behaviour but not the child:

You can dislike what a person is doing, you can disagree
with what they’re thinking, and you can be uncomfortable
with what they’re feeling. But you won’t gain anything if
you judge or condemn them as a person (Burns, 1999, p. 401).

This involves letting the other person know you respect them even if you are angry or disagree with them. The key is to work on the problem or disagreement and not to condemn the person.

Use positive language and compliments.
Sometimes a message can mean the same thing, but it can be framed in a positive way or a negative way. Here’s a simple example: The stairs are slippery, so the teacher cautions the child not to trip on the way down. However, same scene but this time the teacher tells the child to be careful when going down. Same message, one expressed in a positive manner and one in a negative way, perhaps with resulting consequences.

A college example would be when providing feedback on a presentation that was weak. A negative framing would be to tell the student it was weak but positive feedback would be to suggest the presentation could be done differently to get the message across, perhaps by improving the structure or content.

Another tendency when talking is to use qualifiers such as ‘but’. However, ‘buts’ act like erasers, eliminating what comes before. It would be better to use ‘and’ when trying to communicate in a positive way.

Ask for feedback
Ask how your messages are being received; this helps to make sure you are communicating what you think you are.


2.4 Giving and Receiving Feedback

The ability to provide constructive feedback and to use feedback received in a positive way is an important element of effective communication. Giving and receiving constructive feedback is useful in university for group learning environments and clinical placements; they are also essential skills for the workplace and relationships.

What is feedback?

Feedback helps people to learn more about themselves. This may help to confirm the way they perform or function, or it may help them improve if the feedback suggests change is necessary. This will only happen if the feedback is constructive. Providing feedback to a peer or colleague is the ability to provide someone else with a critique about his or her work or performance.

There are several guidelines to consider when giving constructive feedback (Brown, 1998; Hayes, 1991; Robbins & Hunsaker, 1996; Smith, 2001):

1. Positive – Feedback should be given to help the individual. Provide positive information and points for improvement. Offer positive before negative.

2. Directly expressed, specific and relevant – Feedback should be specific and concentrate on particular incidents and observable behaviour; it is not about the individual as a person. It should relate to specific things that have actually happened – performance, behaviour, and outcomes.

3. Descriptive and not judgemental – Say what your reaction is but don’t pass judgement; your reactions, perceptions and opinions should be presented as such, not as facts. Describe what you have seen or heard and its impact on you, for example, “When you said . . . I felt that . . .” and “When I read that statement my reaction was . . .”

4. Sensitive – Take account of the other person’s feelings and reactions; vary your style according to the needs of the individual and the situation.

5. Encouraging – Emphasise the positives as well as the negatives; give praise where it is due and be specific. If the information is negative, ensure the behaviour is under the control of the recipient, so they are able to change or improve.

6. Focus on behaviours – Concentrate on behaviour that the individual can change. Suggest alternative ways of behaving that allow them to consider how they might do things differently. Make sure the person has control over the behaviours.

7. Ensure understanding is two-way – Ask questions, check reactions, and ensure your comments have been received as you meant them. People cannot act on feedback if they don’t understand it.

8. Timely and in context – As soon as possible after the event. If you leave it too long, its usefulness will be lost.

9. Allow the recipient to accept or reject feedback – Give them time.

It is a good idea to write down what you plan to say first; it provides the chance to think about the feedback and to see if it follows the above guidelines. Also when offering feedback, consider suggestions you may have to help them and how open the person would be to these ideas.

When giving the feedback, be sure to use the effective communication skills of paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, summarising, focusing, not interrupting and open-ended questions.

Receiving and Acting on Feedback:

The above guidelines are also useful when asking for feedback (see Handout – Giving & Receiving Feedback in Interpersonal Skills – Exercises & Handouts). Ask for feedback on your behaviours, not about your personality.
Good feedback is meant to be of benefit. To use it constructively we need to:

• Be open and receptive
• Listen carefully to what is being said
• Consider the implications – examine the value of what has been said
• Be aware of immediate reactions – don’t react instantly
• Concentrate on the content – don’t ignore comments that don’t fit with our ideas
• Question if we don’t understand – ask for clarification
• Ask for help/suggestions/ideas, “What if I did it this way?”
• Identify key issues that require change

Welcome feedback on performance as a constructive way to help us develop and improve skills and performance. Feedback is based on the giver’s perception of our behaviour, and the impact it has on them. We may not always agree with the feedback we receive, but we should listen, clarify, evaluate and consider the alternatives.

Sometimes, receiving feedback may lead to reactions such as:

• Becoming defensive
• Ignoring it
• Getting angry
• Not understanding it
• Disagreeing with it
• Questioning it
• Feeling hurt
• Feeling upset

These negative reactions probably result from having received insensitive or negative feedback in the past. Also, we sometimes find it difficult to receive feedback that differs from our own perceptions.

Instead, try to focus on what the person providing feedback is trying to do and try to:

• Welcome it
• Find it useful
• Act on it


3. Working with others


“The ability to work effectively with a group of other people, either as leader or as member, is an important interpersonal skill” (Hayes, 1991, p. 208).

More and more academic courses are incorporating group or project work as part of their curriculum. This is because students benefit from learning from each other and to help prepare them for employment by developing skills of working with others. Sometimes students are not equipped or have not learned how to work in groups which can cause frustration and poor performance. Often the whole idea of working collaboratively in groups runs counter to long traditions of competition and individual work.

In order to maximise the benefits of group learning and to develop students’ group skills, it is helpful to teach students how to work in groups, how to communicate with others in small groups and generally how to manage differences or conflicts in groups.

Group skills are learned. It is important that students have knowledge about group dynamics and group skills but it is even more beneficial if learning is experiential, allowing students to practice and gain feedback from using the skills. Therefore, this section should be presented in conjunction with practical group work experience.

3.1 Benefits of Learning in Groups

Cooperative learning can lead to better results for students. It provides opportunities that are not always available to the individual learner. Some of the benefits are:

• Other members of the group may have knowledge, skills, abilities or experience which may help enrich a task or solve a difficulty
• A sense of responsibility to fellow students can provide good motivation; also sense of support and encouragement
• More complex problems can be solved by breaking them down into separate tasks for group members – for example, a reading list could be shared out and group members make their notes available to others
• Discussing a subject with others can often help understanding
• Opportunity to share ideas and differing perspectives thereby broadening student’s perspective

Learning in groups also develops necessary teamwork skills often required in professional work. This includes work done in groups and teams such as interpersonal, oral communication skills, self-appraisal as well as specific skills related to the task, i.e. time management or decision-making. “These personal and transferable skills are what employers say they want from graduates, and in some work areas, they can be more important than subject knowledge” (Jackson, 1999, p.2).

However, it is important to provide support and backup. For example, junior freshmen have reported being assigned to a group in a large lecture without any idea of who the other members were or how to contact them. Another group of students who were given a group assignment just divided the work and only met again the day before the project was due, thus defeating the benefits of group learning.

“Placing socially unskilled students in a learning group and telling them to cooperate will obviously not be successful” (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 118). A suggestion would be that in large classes, try to provide time in the lecture to break into groups and have the lecturers/tutors act as facilitators for groups whom request help. If you know the students, it may be possible to assign students to groups to distribute skills across groups. Appendix One at the end of this section offers further ideas for promoting cooperative learning.

3.2 How Groups Work

There is a vast literature on ‘group theory’ and ‘group dynamics’ and for further information please consult the bibliography. This is a simplified version to help teach the basics of group skills.

People have different ways of learning and approaching tasks, with differing reactions to working in groups. Therefore, it is important for students to reflect on how they work in groups as well as understanding the more general concepts of group theory and processes.

3.2.1 What is a Group?

“Whenever people gather together in an organisation to engage in mutual consideration of work problems, a group has formed and a meeting is taking place” (Turner, 1983, p. 97).

Membership in groups is inevitable. People gather all the time to consider a mutual problem, to come together for a particular reason or with a common aim (Maskill & Race, 1996). Groups usually entail task (the what) and process (the how) elements. The task element is to define the goal, to mobilise resources and skills and to make decisions to accomplish the task. This is sometimes referred to as the content aspect of the group experience. Process skills involve understanding the roles played by individuals in groups, to improve the communication between members in order to achieve best results, to understand the interactions and to handle conflict that may arise.

3.2.2 Types of Groups

There are various types of groups, depending on the purpose, context, pattern of communication and functions. “A group comes into being to satisfy the needs and wants of its members and unless compelled to do so members will only attend if their needs and expectations are met” (Benson, 2001).

In higher education, students will encounter formal groups in the format of small lectures, classes, seminars, tutorials, discussions, problem-based, projects, labs, and clubs or societies.

3.2.3 Group structure

Group members need to determine the goals for the group. Sometimes an individual’s needs may differ from the group goals which may give rise to conflict. Clearly defined, cooperative goals reduce this possibility.

A role is a set of expectations regarding behaviour about a particular person or position. In order for a group progress on its brief, individuals are usually assigned certain functions which over time develop into roles. Some common roles are chairperson or leader, secretary or note taker and spokesperson. The chairperson usually agrees an agenda, keeps the group to the agenda, controls and encourages discussion, and ensures smooth functioning of the group. The secretary is responsible for taking minutes or notes of group meetings, usually arranges the venue and circulates the action plan. Sometimes a coordinator is appointed to keep track of progress, making sure tasks are being accomplished between meetings.

Other roles and functions are not as obvious but are important for maintaining group harmony and effectiveness (Benson, 2001; Maskill & Race, 1996):

Task functions help the group complete its task and aims
 Information giver
 Information seeker
 Starter
 Direction giver
 Summariser
 Diagnoser
 Reality tester
 Evaluator

Maintenance functions aid emotional aspect of group
 Encourager of participation
 Harmoniser/Compromiser
 Tension Reliever
 Communication Helper
 Gatekeeper

Negative functions relate to personal needs and may hinder the group
 Aggression
 Seeking recognition
 Withdrawing
 Blocking
 Competing for attention

Different roles contribute to the benefits of group work. For instance, one person may be creative and full of ideas but not really able to concentrate long enough to carry it through, whereas someone else may be more practical and better at organising things, turning ideas into plans. Conflict between roles may hinder the group.

“Remember that you cannot always take on the role that you want. A group with more than one leader is as likely to fail in its task as one without a leader. By taking on a role that you do not think you can do well, you are more likely to benefit from the acquisition of new skills” (Jackson, 1999, p. 2).

Group norms have been defined as “the group’s common beliefs regarding group members’ appropriate behavior, attitudes, and perceptions; rules, implicit or explicit, that regulate the behavior of group members” (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 26). They may include things like courtesy and promptness. Norms usually result from the interaction of members and they help the group achieve its goals. A group’s norms can be either beneficial or harmful. For example, the norms of gangs would be positive for the gang but negative for its victims.

3.2.4 Group dynamics or process

Group dynamics is the term used to describe the way people behave in groups. Understanding group dynamics helps people make a group more effective. Too much attention to tasks and not enough to process can inhibit effectiveness.

People in groups interact in predictable ways. Human interaction in groups follows natural patterns – these can be constructive and/or destructive. Understanding and observing group dynamics allows us to use group strengths and confront and correct group weaknesses.

Group dynamics affects the quality of communication, decision-making, interaction, cooperation, negotiation and trust. Establishing shared ways of operating and shared responsibilities is part of the process.

The literature on group dynamics also suggests that working groups go through several stages of development that influences the behaviour of members (Jacques, 2000; Johnson & Johnson, 2000):

 Forming
 Storming
 Norming
 Performing
 Mourning

Forming is the beginning, when the members of the group are uncertain and there isn’t really a sense of “group.” The next stage is storming, where members struggle for position and the way the group will function is threshed out. The norming stage refers to the settling down period where individuals feel more comfortable, ground rules have been established and the group is becoming more cohesive. The accomplishment of tasks and the fulfilment of roles characterise the performing stage. The final stage of development, mourning, occurs as the group comes to an end. However, every group is unique but focusing energy allows the group to progress.

3.3 Effective Groups

Try to think of groups you have been a member of. What made them effective or not?

For groups to be effective they need to achieve a task, to build and maintain the group, and to develop individuals. This involves good communication as well as members taking responsibility for their own behaviour, observing ground rules, and confronting problems openly and constructively. Effective groups need to be ‘nurtured’.

3.3.1 Planning

The objectives of the group need to be established so everyone is on the same track. How will they be measured? It is essential that the group have a clear idea of the goal, preferably in a specific and relevant manner so that the group knows how to go about achieving the goals (see also section on goal setting in Learning Skills Module).

It helps to define exactly what the task is, for example ask questions like:

 What are we supposed to learn? What skills to develop?
 What are we supposed to produce?
 What criteria will be used to assess it?
 What are the deadlines? Guidelines?
 What do we want from the group project?

It may be necessary to break the group task into smaller sub tasks – set a date for completing each task and assign who is responsible for the sub task.

Part of good planning involves establishing the ground rules, agreeing roles and how decisions will be made (e.g. by consensus or compromise) to avoid future problems.

The group will want to establish what resources may be needed to accomplish the task. For example, finding someone who can provide direction, supervision and support.

It is also good practice for a group to decide how it will monitor progress – to ensure the group is accomplishing its task and that everyone is communicating. Discuss what is working and what is not working. If necessary, schedule in review sessions. For example, after a group session, members should consider how it went. If the group session didn’t go well, the members need to identify the reasons and try to resolve them. Common difficulties include being unclear about what the group is supposed to do, one group member dominating discussion, wandering off point, stuck to views instead of compromising. The group either brainstorms possible ways to overcome the difficulty or possibly seeks assistance from the teacher.

Part of the planning process would be for students to assess their own performance as a group member, thinking of ways they could improve sessions and their own group skills for the future.

3.3.2 Effective Communication

Group settings offer an ideal opportunity to use the effective interpersonal communication skills referred to in previous sections. “Communication is the basis for all human interaction and group functioning” (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 13).

Part of good group communication is ensuring that the quiet members are heard – make sure to ask their views and encourage them to speak. It is also important to control disruptive members – ignore their jokes, ask to let others have a say, ask those being negative for a positive comment.

Good communication includes being able to communicate feelings to other members of the group (e.g. if someone is not doing their work). It is usually better to speak directly to other people rather than about them:

NOT: “I think what John is saying . . .”
YES: “John, you seem to me to be saying . . .” (Burnard, 1992).

Remember, when sending messages ensure they are understood, try to use personal pronouns (I, my), be clear and specific and make sure that verbal and non-verbal messages are congruent.

3.3.3 Group Environment

Whenever possible it is best to structure an open and cooperative working environment (Smith, 2001). This means maintaining good working relationships, being open and supportive, sharing information and progress, and resolving conflicts or disagreements. This ensures members make the most of the learning opportunities from the group experience.

“A considerable body of research shows that when a situation within a group is cooperatively structured, relevant information is communicated openly, accurately, and honestly; in a competitively structured situation, communication is either lacking or misleading” (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 158).

3.3.4 Decision Making

Most goal-directed groups require decisions to be made. This is part of the overall problem-solving process of the group. There are several ways to make decisions, depending on the type, the time available, the resources, the setting, etc. Examples include:

• Majority vote
• Taking the average of the members,
• Letting a member with authority decide,
• Letting a member with most expertise decide
• Group consensus.

Decision-making can be a difficult area for a group as it involves power issues and offers potential conflict. Decisions by consensus allows all members to be involved in the process; however, it also takes more time. All members need to express their opinions and then agreement reached usually by compromise. Please refer to Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, Chapter 7 (Johnson & Johnson, 2000) for more details on decision-making and other aspects of group work. It is an excellent reference.

The problem solving process for learning groups usually takes the following format:

• Identify and define the problem or issue to be tackled
• Gather information
• Formulate and consider alternative solutions, looking at advantages and disadvantages of each
• Decide on a solution, by consensus if possible

3.4 Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts

Conflicts can arise for a variety of reasons and it is important to deal with these before they fester. They can deflect the group from its purpose and may cause the breakdown of working relationships. Sometimes students seem to think they have to be friends with group members; it is important for them to realise this isn’t necessary in order for the task to be achieved.

Conflicts also provide positive outcomes. It is how conflicts are managed which determine if the outcome is positive or negative. First the group must try to identify the cause of the problem, and then they can try to resolve it. Here are some suggestions for this process (Johnson & Johnson, 2000; Smith, 2001).

The group can:

 Give the issue some space and time
 Focus on the rational not the emotive
 Focus on the group not an individual (What can we do about it?)
 Focus on the problem not a person (How can we improve this work?)
 Focus on why the group was formed – its purpose and goals
 Seek common ground
 Use effective interpersonal communication, especially active listening
 If necessary seek arbitration or third party suggestion

Individuals can:
 Advocate their position but with an open mind
 Not take personally other members’ disagreements and rejection of their ideas
 Put themselves in other person’s shoes
 Follow rational argument and avoid premature evaluations
 Try to synthesize the best ideas from all viewpoints and perspectives

Remember that controversy can be productive – it can lead to creativity! However, effective groups need to manage conflicts of interests between members and find ways to resolve them.

3.4 Presenting Work

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Mark Twain

Usually work with others involves some form of presentation that may even be assessed. Also, many degree programmes require presentation of information or demonstration as part of a seminar or course. For many students this is a daunting prospect. This may be a result of limited experience or a fear of being the centre of attention or a worry that they may not give a perfect performance. However, giving presentations is a key employment related skill that needs to be learned. This section provides information on helping students to become more confident speakers. Effective speaking is a skill that can be taught and practised.

First it is necessary to identify the purpose for the presentation. The purpose may be to inform, to discuss, to demonstrate or to persuade. Presentations can vary in length and formality. Furthermore they may take a narrative, analytical or persuasive form. Try to give your students a clear idea about these aspects of their presentation, including the type of assessment and criteria if applicable.

Once the purpose or aim has been established, a good presentation can be divided into two components: 1) Planning/ preparation and 2) Delivery.

Planning and Preparation of presentation

The better the planning, the better the presentation! This also helps to reduce anxiety about presenting because preparation provides feelings of control and confidence. The following are some essential steps in this process.

1. Identify the audience, message and medium.

There are three key elements of spoken communication (Aziz, 2000): the audience, the message and the medium. It is essential that all three be taken into consideration when planning a presentation.

Knowing the audience for the presentation is a critical factor to success. The more known about the audience the more accurately the required information can be delivered. Two questions should be asked. First, who is the audience? Then, what do they want to hear? Is the audience fellow students, lecturers, professionals, others? Will they be familiar with the material to be presented? The answers to these questions will affect the language and complexity of information used. The key is to seek balance between giving clear explanations and avoiding ‘talking down’ to people.

Once the audience has been identified, the message to be conveyed must be decided. The focus is on the key points, as people will not remember much detail from a presentation. Finally, students should consider the medium or how it will be presented. Medium refers to the type of environment in which the presentation will be made. Will it be formal or informal and how many people can be expected. ”The big danger is to believe that a short, informal presentation means an easier presentation” (Aziz, 2000, p. 25). The approach to all presentations should be the same.

2. Gather information.

Once the purpose, the message and the audience have been identified, it is necessary to collect information to prepare the content of the presentation. It is a good idea for students to consult several types of sources (e.g. newspapers, journals, periodicals, government publications, Internet, reference books, etc.) for a higher quality presentation. The key is to find a balance between too much information and poor preparation. The latter may be due to a lack of or inaccurate information. The presentation should be clear, accurate and analytical. Remember it must be relevant to the audience. Good knowledge of the subject provides confidence for getting up and delivering the presentation.

3. Prepare the content and structure.

It is essential for a good presentation to have a logical structure that contains an introduction, the main body and a conclusion.

The introduction must catch the audience’s attention; especially important are the first 5 minutes. Some useful techniques for achieving this include:

• An overview of the presentation outlining the issues and objectives
• A statistic or shocking fact
• A quotation
• A question
• A humorous incident
• A headline

This is also the time to let the audience know the purpose, context and format of the presentation.

The middle or main portion of the presentation is where the argument or explanation is provided. This should consist of key points. A useful way to determine the best structure is to summarise notes gathered and focus on key points. Write them on cards or as a mind map (diagram) and then decide what order to present them in – should the most important go first or last, or should it be chronological? The ‘rule of three’ is a useful device. This involves building up a presentation across three points with the thrust on the last point (Aziz, 2000, p. 36). Another way to create emphasis for the content of a presentation is through the use of a list. However, it is important to avoid too much content. People tend to remember more when they are actively involved in the presentation – use visuals, ask questions, get the audience to think or reflect.

The closing or conclusion summarises the main points. It is useful to include a concluding statement, perhaps related to the objectives stated in the introduction.

It is a good idea to use speakers’ notes. One ways is to put everything down on note cards. Each card should contain one of the key ideas, followed by reminder words or examples. Notes help the speaker to remember information and to control nerves; however, they should not be read as a script. Notes can also be sheets of paper or the overhead slides.

4. Use of presentation aids.

Visual aids should be appropriate and suits the material or ideas to be presented as they can have a big impact on the audience. There is a wide range of presentation aids available, from whiteboards, flipcharts, OHP, data projection and graphics (PowerPoint) to video, displays or experiments. Remember to use only what is necessary to achieve the purpose.

Advise students of some useful tips for preparing visual aids:
• Use the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid!
• Avoid too much text on slides or overheads – No more than five lines per slide, no more than five words per line.
• Eliminate inefficient words such as a, an, the…
• Use visual symbols, such as  for increase. Imagery is powerful.
• Use colour.
• Use headings and bullet points.
• If using PowerPoint (or other graphics packages) to generate slides or visual aids, use a minimum 24-point font.
• Make sure to have a hard copy standby.
• If using more advanced technology ensure the equipment is available and know how to use it.

5. Rehearse!

It is important to rehearse a presentation as it provides useful information and helps to contain nerves. Rehearsing will give an indication of the length of the presentation, and provides the opportunity to reduce or increase the content. A good idea is to record the rehearsal and view it before the actual event.
Remember, the more realistic the situation in which the presentation is rehearsed, the more comfortable the individual will be when actually giving the presentation.

Delivery of presentation

Good preparation ensures delivery will go smoothly. However, there are several aspects to providing a good presentation.

1. Arrive early to check the room and to check any equipment. Make sure you have a watch or can see a clock to keep to the timetable.

2. Use the first few moments to settle in, ask the audience if they can hear you, stating who you are.

3. Be aware of verbal language. Presenters should:

• Pay attention to voice. Talk louder than normal and try to vary the pitch of your voice. Project your voice to the back of the room, not down at the table in front of you. Speak slowly enough for the audience to capture the meaning of what you are saying. Attend to the pace, tone emphasis and volume of speech. Avoid a monotonous tone.

• Word choice. An audience’s ability to understand is affected by the vocabulary we choose to use. Long words are harder to understand than short words. Eliminate words or phrases that may be inappropriate, insulting or stereotyping. Avoid the overuse of similar words.

4. Be aware of non-verbal language. Presenters should:

• Keep eye contact. This helps to engage the audience and encourages their attention. Try to look at all members, however if you are nervous a useful tactic is to pick only one or two and imagine you are only addressing them, rather than a roomful of people.

• Use hands in a variety of gestures. Do not fidget with notes, play with clothes, etc. Use your hands to describe and reinforce your verbal message. Avoid pointing at the audience.

• Be aware of posture. Stand straight, with chest up and shoulders relaxed. A little movement is helpful so long as you do so with clear purpose. This allows your voice to project. Anchor yourself spreading feet apart (1.5 feet). This ensures you stand still and forces shoulders back and reduces anxiety.

• Face the audience. Bear in mind that your facial expression should reinforce your message. Smile from time to time. The warmth that you will emit can affect the listeners’ level of interest or motivation. Be aware of how you hold your head as it can make you appear smug or shy. Avoid turning your back to the audience and looking at the screen.

• Clothes. Do not wear clothes that distract attention from what you are saying. Dress comfortably and appropriately.

5. Think positive! It is easy to make mistakes; in fact even seasoned presenters make mistakes. The key is to stay in control, so if you lose your place stop and take a moment to recollect or find your notes. Most audiences don’t mind, and you can even say something to the effect, ‘I seem to have lost my place, please bear with me for a few seconds…’.

6. Handling questions. If you are asked questions at the end but are not sure of the answer, say so. You are not expected to know everything. You can mention that you will attempt to find out for them or ask the audience if they know.

Dealing with nerves

The main reason many people shy away from speaking in public is fear – the fear of going blank or of forgetting what you had planned to say, the fear of sounding stupid or of boring the audience to death. For some people, it is the deep fear that they are being judged – not just what they are saying.

There is a big difference between being nervous before speaking and feeling terrified. A certain amount of anxiety and tension before addressing a group is natural and even energising. The key to success is to focus on the positive implications of giving a presentation rather than on the negative ones.

There are several ways students can conquer nerves.

1. Rehearse the presentation! This may help to reduce feelings of nervousness and increase feelings of control.

2. Anticipate potential problems. Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen and try to prepare for each potential disaster. For example:

• Handouts in case the OHP stops working
• Having your notes close to hand in case you suddenly forget what you are talking about
• A list of potentially awkward questions from the audience
• A glass of water in case your mouth goes dry
• Rehearse positive responses to potential problems

3. Advance preparation. Initial organisation of the material and your knowledge on the subject matter is important. The more you know about the subject to be presented, the more confident you will feel.

4. Use relaxation techniques. These will help you to settle down and get control. Try taking several deep breaths, tensing and relaxing muscles and visualise a pleasant scene. See also Stress Management module.

Some of the material in this section has been adapted from the Student Counselling Service Fact Sheet on Presentation Skills, compiled by Vicky Panoutsakopoulou and Catherine Bolger.




“Interpersonal skills are the sum total of your ability to interact effectively with other people” (Johnson, 2000, p. 7).

This module has emphasised the importance of interpersonal skills to all areas of one’s life. It has focused on the aspects of effective verbal and non-verbal communication, a core capability. It covered information on active listening, use of body language, ways to effectively express oneself and guidelines for giving and receiving constructive feedback. It also dealt with working with others and team development.

The module outlined ways for learning these skills including providing students with the opportunity to see the need and value for these skills, to understand their components and when to use them, to practice via exercises and examples. The key to is to keep practicing until the skills become automatic, and this will vary from person to person. Many students may already possess a good repertoire of interpersonal skills, whereas others may need to work harder. In summary good communication involves congruence between what is said and done, a willingness to listen as well as a level of openness and respect.



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