If you’re in the field of teaching, you’re in communications. If you’re in business, it’s about communication. Ditto if you’re a parent.
In fact, EVERYTHING is about communication.
Unless you’re a hermit, you can count on human interaction being part of your everyday life. Whether you’re making a business transaction or having a friendly conversation, if you want success you need effective communication skills.
Let’s break down some important aspects.
There is nothing that will give you more transparent information than observing a person’s body language. And it’s the simplest one to get good at. All you have to do is start paying attention; practice will get you good real fast.
Sometimes what a person says is not what they mean. This doesn’t mean that people are liars, most of the time it’s coming from a good place. Many of my piano students are genuinely concerned that if they say what’s on their mind they’ll offend me or hurt my feelings. Or for whatever reason, they feel embarrassed and don’t want to be judged. “I practiced EVERY day (I barely practiced but I don’t want you to be mad at me).”
So when a student tells you yes but is shaking her head side to side, that’s a sign you need to dig further. Then again, when she’s looking at her feet or not making eye contact with you it might just mean she’s shy!
Body language is also the easiest way to gauge a student’s interest (yawning!).
There have been many times a student’s attention has waned during the lesson (eyes staring outside, disengaged posture, etc.). Where in the past I would continue talking obliviously, or even thought it was rude, now I see it as a telltale sign to change things up. Of course, sometimes they’re just plain tired or it’s late in the day (common sense).
In terms of using body gestures, I’ve learned that you can get a point across or help them dig deeper with something as simple as a head nod, head tilt, raising an eyebrow or just giving a suspicious look. 80% of the time I’ve just blankly stared at a student and they interpret it as, “keep thinking” or “you haven’t done everything you can yet.” The beauty of this is that the student can take your one gesture to mean many different things and find their own correct solution.
I sometimes also go the other extreme and totally exaggerate my movements, which can be fun…
But in order to get fairly good at reading a person’s body language, and also communicating your own, you have to have other processes on autopilot. So if you still have to think about what you need to do in that moment then you won’t have enough mental resources for observation in the first place.
Oh, and one other thing: don’t forget to smile =].
Be cognizant of the language that you’re using. As a teacher, it’s especially important that I use the right words.
What does that mean? Well, what is the purpose of your words? Do your students really understand you?
If the majority of your students are young (mine) this means “dumbing” down your content. I’m not saying that to insult their intelligence, they just haven’t gained an expansive vocabulary or an understanding that encompasses the complex ideas and concepts you may be trying to explain.
In fact, even when I was in college there were many times when the professors would say things that went completely over my head. And when I looked around at my classmates I could tell they all shared my confusion.
Don’t make the mistake and assume they understand everything you’re saying. And don’t blame it on them if they don’t either!
So keep in mind that the more complex the topic, the simpler your explanation needs to be. If you think about life, the most complicated problems often have very simple solutions.
Use not only simpler language but also economic language (the least amount of words to get the point across). This is to make sure they don’t get bored (attention span) and that there’s more time to play piano (action/hands-on).
But it’s also a paradox. Sometimes you’ll want to expand on ideas by using examples from your own life or sharing a personal story. In this case make the descriptions as colorful as possible. Use metaphors and vivid language to keep the student engaged.
In my personal life I don’t tend to use a lot of academic language. With people I hang out with I’m comfortable being my typical California self. And with some students this approach works great because an informal atmosphere is what they best respond to.
But I also see the bigger picture with my older students, particularly those in high school. They’re not going to be studying piano forever (I wish) and the majority of them, if not all, will be going to college. If there’s one important skill I developed during my collegiate experience, it’s being able to clearly articulate my ideas. So with these students I try to create structural guidelines in conversation and help them develop the language they’re going to need in their pursuit of higher education.
Because I’m a teacher I feel comfortable switching back and forth between formal and informal language. If that’s not you then just do what comes naturally. Don’t force it.
One last helpful tidbit: Affirmative, positive language is better than the opposite. Example: “Try to remember” vs. “Don’t forget”
DELIVERY > CONTENT
A picture may be worth a thousand words but in this case, content matters less than delivery. What’s more important is HOW you paint, not WHAT you’re painting.
Think about your typical trip to the grocery store. When’s the last time a clerk looked at you with wide, bright eyes, a toothy smile and sincerely asked how your day was? Most of the time they’re just mechanically going through the motions. They’re saying, “how are you?” but what you really hear is, “I hate my job.”
When you listen to a song on the radio, the words aren’t that particularly poetic (grade-school language if we’re being honest). It’s usually the “swag” behind it, how the artist is expressing themselves.
When you hear different motivational speakers, it’s not the words they’re using that really get the point across. Listen to the inflection of their voice and the wide range of “dynamics” that they’re using.
Think about the tone of your own voice. What is the energy that’s coming across? Are you being loud enough to be heard? Are you being monotone?
Also keep in mind you don’t have to be loud to get the point across. Intensity can be conveyed with a whisper.
Although I’m discussing empathy last on this list, it’s by far THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE. The reason? If you don’t have empathy, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the other forms of communication I’ve laid out.
To quote the great, late Zig Ziglar, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
For a student to even want to listen to you, they must know you care. This means prioritizing their feelings over yours. It’s about understanding where they’re coming from: what shapes their ideas and beliefs, what their living situation and daily life is like.
Always be aware of how they’re feeling at that moment and adjust accordingly. Put yourself in their shoes.
Remember that no one’s perfect. I get into a slump from time to time but as a professional it’s my job to bring my best to each lesson because whatever I feel, my students will feel as well.
Kids are very intuitive, much more than most adults give them credit for and they’ll know when you’re fakin’ the funk. It’s not about putting on a mask or a fake smile, it’s about giving them value and letting them know that, no matter how you’re feeling that day, you appreciate your time with them.
Ziglar also said that the act of selling could pretty much be summed up as a transference of feeling. And so, it’s the same with teaching and communication.
Give them your best and they will give you theirs in return.
IT CAN BE LEARNED
The takeaway is that anyone can become an effective communicator. If it’s something you think you have to be born with, think again. It just takes practice and humility.
If you care about having a fulfilling life, you need to be good at communicating. Life is not only about achieving your goals and dreams, it’s about people. It’s about making connections, forging relationships and enjoying each other’s company.
The journey is only a lonely one if you make it that way.