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Communication Skills are Key

To successfully implement inquiry teaching, docents must master the skills of communication. They must be particularly sensitive to how their words will be received and understood, and acutely aware of the intentions and meanings of words used by their visitors.

Though the goal of an inquiry lesson is determined in advance by the docent and/or the education staff, the strategy for achieving that goal is based largely on a back-and-forth style of communication. The docent asks a question to initiate thought and conversation. Visitors respond, presenting the docent with verbal cues that must be understood and appropriately used to move the lesson forward.

If effective communication is to occur, techniques must be employed to ensure that a minimum of misunderstanding and confusion and a maximum of understanding will take place. Language is an abstract set of symbols whose meanings are in some measure unique to the individual expressing the symbol. Docents must recognize that the words they use, and the words visitors use, have meanings that may be “individualized,” or unique to the individual who is speaking.

Since lessons during a tour tend to be incremental, even words that were understood in one context may be misused when applied to the next. Consider a toddler standing on a street corner with his father. The child points to something moving down the street, and his father says, “Car, Billy, car.” The child says “car” and receives a smile and positive reinforcement. Then, when something else moves down the street the child responds with “car” but receives the comment, “No, Billy, that’s a truck.”

The usefulness of words for communicating depends upon the extent to which they symbolize approximately the same thing for the persons with whom the docent is communicating. When teaching inquiry lessons, docents use words to ask questions about objects or life forms with which visitors are unfamiliar. Then, docents expect visitors to respond to those questions using words they may rarely employ. This presents many opportunities for miscommunication. Such opportunities are compounded the further the conversation moves from simple description. For instance, think of the controversies and differences of opinion that surround the meaning of such philosophical words as “fairness,” or “patriotism,” or “justice,” or “happiness.”

Adding to the complexity of communication and comprehension is the need to discriminate between words that communicate information and words that communicate feelings. Among the trickier aspects of distinguishing between statements conveying information, or objective description, and those conveying feelings, or personal judgments, is that the two can appear very similar in their construction.

Consider the following two sentences.

“A lizard is a reptile.”

“A lizard is creepy.”

The construction of the two statements is nearly identical. Both are stated in the declarative form we commonly use for conveying information. However, while the first sentence does just that, the second sentence masquerades as a report of fact, but is actually the expression of a feeling or judgment.

Since the inquiry process involves the docent becoming a facilitator to aid visitors as they generate and test ideas and interpretations, it is not a process whereby the docent tells visitors what is right or wrong, but challenges visitors to discover such meaning for themselves. To do so, it is essential that the docent develop sensitivity to the nuances of effective communication.

S.I. Hayakawa, who was a professor of linguistics and a United States Senator, broke words down into three types of communication. His categories are very useful for those of us who teach with institutional collections. Hayakawa’s three categories are “report words,” “inferential words,” and “judgmental words.” Knowing how to distinguish among the three, and when and how to use them, can be of great assistance when teaching.

Report Words

Report words are used to describe what a person has seen, heard, or felt. They are accurate descriptions of a personal observation or measurement. They are verifiable. They exclude, as far as possible, inferences and judgments.

For instance, a report statement might be that “this painting is a landscape that is expressed mostly in blues and greens” not “this painting is a beautifully rendered landscape that uses an expressive array of cool colors.” Even the novice can verify that the painting is a landscape and that the colors are mostly blues and greens. One cannot necessarily verify that a painting is “beautifully” rendered (which is a judgment) or that the colors are expressive or cool (which infers that the listener knows how the colors are expressive or why they are considered to be cool). Indeed, the word “cool” itself could be subject to multiple interpretations depending upon the listener’s age, background, education, and experience discussing works of art.

Another report statement might be that “this historic home is much larger and has more conveniences than most houses of its time period” but not that “this home is a grand and glorious example of the best produced during this time period.” For, what is grand or glorious to one person may seem antiquated or even intimidating to another. And, if you have little awareness of what else was produced during the time period, you will have few resources with which to understand how this house is among “the best.”

Inferential Words

Inferences are statements about the unknown made on the basis of the known. In other words, perhaps you know what you mean, but others may not. For instance, stating that “this painting shows the obvious influence that photography was having upon artists at this time” is an inferential statement. It infers that listeners have knowledge about the evolution of painting and about photography’s influence upon it. This is knowledge your visitors may or may not possess, and a concept with which they may or may not agree.

If, however, you stated that “the artist has captured people who are only partially within the frame of the picture, not unlike how you might see the scene if you were looking through the viewfinder of a camera,” the inference is translated into report language and is more comprehensible. Then, such an inference about the influence of photography upon this work can be understood and evaluated.

Inferential words can be highly ambiguous or have personalized meaning for the person speaking that are not appropriately understood by the listener. Consider the differences among understandings that might occur when hearing a statement such as, “The invention of the internal combustion engine changed the face of the planet.” Or, the misunderstandings that could arise when hearing a statement such as, “Life was slower during the 19th century.”

Judgmental Words

Statements expressing approval or disapproval of occurrences, objects, persons, or other living things are judgments. Such statements as:

“Tobacco transformed rural Southern life for the better.” “The finest piece of pottery in our collection is this bowl.” or, “The Japanese people are very polite.”

These statements offer judgments because they attribute a positive value to something without relating the reasons or behaviors on which those attributes were based. Likewise, such negatively valued statements as, “These people were primitive” or “Prairie dogs are a scourge” are equally obscure.

Judgments transfer either positive or negative pre-judgments (or prejudices) to those who we are hoping will draw their own conclusions. Thus, the use of judgmental language is counterproductive. It often inhibits understanding and leaves open the possibility that visitor responses will be constructed to be consistent with the docent’s attitudes.

Language Use and Inquiry

While all conversations will not remain within the realm of report words, it is useful to construct questions and break down responses into report words whenever possible. This is especially true for the younger or less experienced visitors. Requesting that visitors make observations or comparisons will usually keep the discussion in report language. If asked, “how is the manta ray different from other sea creatures we’ve looked at?” visitors will automatically speak using report words that reference size, shape, color, texture, movement, etc. Should a visitor respond using judgmental words, such as “the manta ray is more frightening than the other fish,” the docent can move the conversation from judgment into report words by following that statement with the question, “what about the manta ray’s appearance seems frightening to you?”

Whenever possible, docents should refrain from using inferences as they disenfranchise visitors. By their very nature, inferential words emphasize the gulf between those who know and those who do not. When visitors respond to questions with inferential words of their own, they should be asked to clarify using report words. For instance, should a visitor state that “the Plains Indians depended upon the buffalo,” the docent simply needs to follow up by asking, “in what ways did they depend upon the buffalo?” Then, the visitor will usually shift into report language, saying such things as “they used buffalo skins for tepees and clothing, and they ate the meat for food.”

While docents will not want to transfer judgments to their visitors, and should avoid saying such things as “this painting is among our finest” or “here is one of the fiercest animals in our collection,” a docent may intentionally employ a question that involves judgmental words. In such instances, it is important to shift back to report words as soon as possible to ensure clarity and comprehension. Should a docent ask, “What about our garden tour did you enjoy the most?” the appropriate follow-up question after a visitor responds is “What specifically about that plant/ landscape did you like?”

Promoting Clarity and Comprehension

When we communicate with each other, and especially when we teach, it is useful to remember that our common words may not evoke the same images or thoughts in someone else’s mind as they do in ours’. Knowing this, we can help improve communication by being as specific as possible in the way we use words and respond to the words used by others.

Assuming that other people know what you are talking about, or that you know what someone else is talking about are two common causes of communications failure. For this reason, docents should invite their audiences to ask questions when they are confused, uncertain, or need clarification. And, docents should follow up visitors’ responses to questions or tasks with questions that help to break down communication into report words, which are the most easily understood by others.

To promote clarity and comprehension, try paraphrasing— restating in your own way—what a visitor’s remark conveys to you. You will learn if that jibes with the visitor’s intended meaning.

Effective paraphrasing takes more practice than it might seem. Consider the following verbal interchange. Linda: “Betty should never have become a teacher.” Fred: “You mean teaching isn’t the right job for her?” Linda: “Exactly, teaching is not the right job for her.”

Instead of simply rewording Linda’s remarks, Fred might have asked himself, “What does Linda’s statement mean to me? What is an example of the meaning of her statement? If he had thought about meaning, the interchange might have sounded like this:

Linda: “Betty should never have become a teacher.” Fred: “You mean she is too strict or controlling to be a good teacher?” Linda: “Oh, no. I meant that she has such expensive taste that she can’t ever earn enough money as a teacher.” Fred: “Oh, I see. You think she should have gone into a profession that would have paid better. Linda: “Exactly! Teaching is not the right job for Betty.”

Since the purpose of teaching, like that of communication, is the transference of information, ideas, and meanings, it is essential that docents and others who teach use language appropriately and with intention. While having in-depth knowledge about your institution’s collection may be admirable, it will not make you a good teacher. Knowing “tons of information about your collection” is just not enough. An effective docent will be effective because she is in command of strong communication skills and because she has an ability to reach her audience.

Choosing words appropriately and with intention is only one Of several aspects of effective communication. Another very important component is communicating in a manner consistent with the age and experience level of your audience. For instance, most children under the age of ten have little understanding of historic time. Even though dates and the sequencing of events may seem of utmost importance to studying art works, historic objects, and scientific discoveries, such things wiU not translate to these younger students. I remember thinking that I could get a young group of students to become aware that some dates are important and are worthy of remembering. To make the point, I asked one second grade child,

“When is your birthday?”

“August 12,” the young fellow answered.

“And, what year?” I continued.

“Every year!” the child responded.

His answer was appropriate; it was my question that was not.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Communication Skills are Key,” The Docent Educator 12.2 (Winter 2002-03): 2-5.


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