Thinking Out Loud

Why We Need Interpersonal Communication Literacy

Note: This is a follow-up to an earlier Thinking Out Loud post, “Teaching Kids To Communicate. It is intended to be an op-ed piece. I feel very strongly about this topic, and I am eager to hear comments.

Teaching literacy skills is fundamental to our educational system. Literacy skills are traditionally defined as reading and writing. We now teach kids to have computer literacy as well, and to some extent we extend that to math and science, though using the word literacy is more loosely attached to each of these.

Communication skills are generally not discussed in terms of literacy, although they are acknowledged as important in curriculum and educational standards. Many states, including my state of Maine, have developed a set of educational standards that include communication skills. These standards, representing skills deemed essential, are part of what we call the Learning Results and serve as guides for educating our children in today’s world.

On close inspection we discover that communication skills as defined by these standards generally mean learning to write clearly and coherently and to present reports orally. Both are important. Arts educators have broadened the definition of communication to include other forms of expression, namely visual art, music, drama, and dance, which are equally important forms of communication.

However, there is still an essential missing ingredient: interpersonal communication. While many colleges have communication departments that offer courses in this area, the art and science of interpersonal communication is not a subject in our public education system, which does not seem to recognize the fundamental importance of this type of literacy. Why are interpersonal communication skills missing from the mix?

We are in, more or less, a constant state of interpersonal communication—relating person to person around the ordinary and complex human transactions in our daily lives. Talking and listening are so natural that we take them for granted. We learn to talk and listen by cultural osmosis—we simply absorb the language in our environment through a predisposition for language in our brains. However, we also know how profoundly complex the process really is.

Learning effective interpersonal communication skills is not about having a broad vocabulary or solid grasp of grammar. Both are helpful but not essential for achieving understanding between individuals. I grew up with people speaking what is commonly called broken English. That’s an old- fashioned term when English is a second language. In spite of this limitation, many people in this category are very effective communicators because interpersonal communication is a complex, multi-dimensional process involving words, feelings, gestures, images and much more.

I believe it is imperative that we take the issue of interpersonal communication more seriously as it is the life blood of human relationships. We are social, relational beings. We require effective interpersonal communication to transact the business of our daily lives at work and at home, to nurture our children, and to develop emotional intimacy in our most personal relationships. All these areas are vastly improved with more knowledge about ourselves and more skill in listening, observing, organizing thoughts, accounting for emotion, developing rapport, and using words effectively.

Should interpersonal communication be taught as a discreet subject or should it be infused into virtually every subject? What are the core competencies we would expect? How would we go about teaching something so ordinary? Many questions need exploring if we take this issue seriously. It is a false argument to question whether effective interpersonal communication is more important than effective written communication. But right now writing skills are getting far greater attention in our education system.

So let’s, yet again, broaden our definition of developing literacy and communication skills to include interpersonal communication. There really is no question about how important a matter this is.

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