Communication Skills 1 

We are going to start with a couple of mental games that we will play that have to do with how various statements can make us feel and respond. Read this first group of phrases and words and when you get to the end I want you close your eyes and sit for a moment and just become aware of how this set of statements has made you feel or what feelings you are responding with. Imagine that you are trying to learn a new technique and these are the statements that the instructor uses.

 Experiment 1:

NO, not like that! Wrong. Nope, not that way. Not enough focus. Why can’t you get this? That punch was sloppy! You are punching like a little kid! That was good, for a white belt. You are punching like a girl. Still not quite right. Most people get this quicker. Stop, do it again. Try to get it right this time. 

Ok, so how does that make you feel? How would that make a student feel?

There are three characteristics of these negative type statements. The first are ones like the “Nope” “Wrong” variety. Which is simply negative in focus to the feedback. The second is the “Why can’t you get this” “Most people get this quicker” which is characteristic of the instructor expressing his or her frustration with the process. The third type is the “That punch was sloppy” “You are punching like a little kid” type which is actually insulting and this has a subtype which is even worse in the “That was good, for a white belt” “You are punching like a girl” in that the instructor has also belittled others in the room. And this approach is going to be less effective overall and is going to make people feel bad about themselves and their efforts and can even make some feel bad about who they are.

Imagine that one student is insulted and told that he is punching like a girl. How is this going to make the female students down the line feel? These females student are getting a message that by their very nature they are inferior. There is nothing they can do about who they are and yet they are now getting the message from their teacher that there is something wrong with them or that they are not as able just because of a condition of birth. I have seen an instructor tell a young man that he was punching like a “fag” and I watched as another younger boy quietly teared up a couple of lines back*.

There are people out there who speak to their students this way. Many of them think that they are conducting themselves in a military training fashion and that they are toughening their students up. I find this approach completely unacceptable for many reasons. First there is never a situation where it is acceptable to support any bigotry to students*. It is also far less effective to communicate in negatives and slows the process. It is also going to damage the self image of the student on whom such statements are used and possibly the other students in the class. It will also teach some students how they will deal with their own students in the future and so it is passed along through generations of teachers. 

Experiment 2:

Nice try. Getting better every time. Good, now let’s try a little more focus. That was a bit better. It gets better every time so we keep doing it till we have it the way that we want. You’re doing fine. That was good so now let’s concentrate on one point in the process for a moment. 

How do you feel after having these things said to you? How are these students going to feel? I believe that these students are going to be more comfortable with the instructor and the process and have less inhibition based on a fear of failure. They will be more willing to try and to learn from their mistakes. Mistakes will simply be an accepted part of the process rather than something to be focused on and picked on.

The overall atmosphere of a class conducted with these types of statements instead of the negative statements is going to be more relaxed and positive. The learning experience is going to be more pleasant and because it is more relaxed and pleasant the learning is going to progress much more effectively. Students respond far better to this atmosphere and would rather study from this instructor. The type of language that we use directs the feelings and responses of others.

There is the factor of instructor attitude that also comes in here. Not just the impressions that the students have about the attitude of the instructor. The actual attitude of the instructor is better when he or she is using language that programs a better attitude into him or herself. Because of this better instructor attitude he or she is far less likely to feel frustration when a student is just not getting something. The type of language that we use directs the feeling and responses that we ourselves have to a situation.

If as an instructor you are feeling frustration with the teaching and learning process that is a natural part of what we do, you really need to examine this because it is not reasonable to feel this in a situation which you should know deals with these learning issues. Tell yourself that this is a learning situation and that there will be challenges presented. You have agreed to teach and to deal with these challenges. Accept that they are part of this process and work with them.

Present information, even information about a mistake, in a supportive manner. Try statements such as “good front kick, now let’s try to keep the supporting foot flat on the ground to better support the knee” which gives a positive statement and then suggests the area for improvement and explains why that should be done. Statements like “close, now let’s look at how to make it happen” can still be supportive when a technique has gone very wrong. It prepares the student to learn and validates the attempt giving the feeling that there is something upon which to build. Sometimes a student knows that he or she did the incorrect thing maybe even the wrong technique and all you can do it just color the fact so that the student can relax about it. A statement like “good side kick, now let’s try the front kick” when a student just absolutely blows it can color the whole thing in a better way.

Rather than focus on what not to do during a technique or combination focus on what should be done instead. The student then is always working toward improving with a goal rather than trying to avoid screwing up which actually cause the student to focus on the mistake increasing the chances of making it again. Most of the time we should simply address what should be done to make the technique correct and not what was done to make it incorrect. The choice here is to direct the attention to the improvement rather than the mistake.

Through our use of language and how we address mistakes and situations we establish an atmosphere for our class. If we are diligent in what words we choose and how we deliver our messages we can establish a relaxed supportive atmosphere where students are willing to try their best with little fear of failure. We can simply use supportive language and focus on what is to be done to improve, and we accomplish a radical change in class attitude, individual attitude and even our own attitude. Students learn faster and more effectively while instructors do not feel frustrated. The overall performance of the instructors, students, class and school is improved and everyone reaches a higher standard of performance. 

* This was a class that I was observing while visiting another school. I have for many years made it a practice to go and observe other people teaching. And I have on occasion been known to interrupt a class in progress to tell students that they are being endangered or being treated inappropriately and that they should find another instructor. 

** In the teaching of self defense I do employ a component of verbal assault at more advanced levels and students will say horrible things while attacking. These bigoted verbal assaults are being used in the context of training to desensitize students to a reality of assault. When they are being applied in this way they are not being used in a fashion that teaches that they are ok to use but in a fashion that teaches that they are not. I recommend that the instructor not be the training partner for these situations because these verbal components can spawn strong emotional reactions with which the instructor may have to help the student deal. 

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