Skills Related to Effective Interpersonal Communication

by Rick Van Acker

To the fullest extent possible, the task of the teacher is to provide the student with a level of support and guidance that will allow the student to solve the social problem (crisis) with a minimum of loss of control and/or dignity. This is not an easy task and, clearly, it is one for which few teachers have been provided direction or support. A number of interpersonal communication skills are needed to assist teachers as they attempt to interact with students in a crisis.

Non-verbal communication

The literature suggests that the majority (as much as 76%) of the message we give to another person during conversations is carried by non-verbal or para-verbal communication. Thus, we must be very careful and strategic in our use of non-verbal communication. The tone, volume, rhythm or cadence of our voice is critical. Blending and pacing are also important aspects of this skill.

Verbal messages

Teachers' messages must convey empathy (the ability to communicate care and concern along with an understanding of the child's problem; that is, the ability to place oneself in a position to view the problem from the student's perspective) and genuiness (being honest, yet caring in discussions with the child). One of the most important skills a teacher can display when attempting to verbally de-escalate a potential crisis situation is the ability to listen actively. This requires the teacher to listen to what the child is saying, as well as what the child is not saying. Attention to the child's non-verbal behavior also is important.

The feedback loop

This strategy allows the teacher to provide important information related to the student's behavior and the honest impact this behavior has had on you. Often students are unaware of their behavior and they seldom realize the full impact of their behavior on others. In this intervention you describe the nature of the behavior that you observed (specific detail). You then indicate the way that behavior honestly impacted you. Then you ask if that was the intention of the behavior. This intervention calls upon the relationship you have developed with the student. Often students will not respond favorably, but will later reflect on the interaction. You may couple this feedback with the delivery of another consequence . Be sure to employ this feedback loop to desired behavior as well as undesired behavior.

"I" statements.

A teacher should avoid messages that blame others or put students on the defensive. "I" statements allow the teacher to disclose their own feelings, attitudes, and desires related to the student's observable behavior. The importance is to communicate how you feel. For example, "Juan, I'm feeling very uncomfortable with this discussion."


The teacher can acknowledge that you heard and understand the student's point of view without the need to evaluate and/or agree with it- simply indicate that you received the message.

Summary statements or paraphrasing

Often you can help the student understand that you are listening by providing short summaries of what you have heard him/her say. This also allows the student to correct any misunderstandings that may arise.


The ability to use silence effectively is often helpful. You need not fill every "empty" moment with words. At times, silence is your ally. It allows students to reflect and their discomfort with silence may result in their willingness to share critical information.


Often students entering a crisis situation are unable to think and/or communicate clearly. Questions allow you to help clarify a given situation for both the child and yourself. Use questions to help the student focus and structure the conversation. Open-ended questions are more useful than those that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Questions should be aimed at gaining additional information and upon the feelings generated.

"How do you feel when . . . ?"

"You sound angry. Did . . . embarrass you?"

Mild confrontation

Responding to discrepancies in what has been said or to discrepancies between the messages provided verbally and those provided non-verbally.

"Marion, you say that you're not angry, yet your yelling and your fists are clenched. Can you help me understand this?"

Differences of opinion

Often more ground can be covered during a confrontation if you offer a statement acknowledging a difference of opinion, without attempting to resolve it. Attempt to stay with issues that are resolvable and/or which you both agree. Indicate acceptance of those portions of the "argument" that are agreeable and indicate that you may have to "agree to disagree" on other issues.

"It's okay if you don't agree. . . , but I'm glad we agree upon . . . "

"I have a problem . . ." technique.

An effective approach in some conflictual situations is to approach the student with the opportunity to help you with a problem. This is especially effective if you have a meaningful therapeutic relationship developed with the student.

"I need your help, see we don't seem to be hearing each other . . .. Could you help me with this?"


Often sharing a relevant story of your own experiences in similar situations can prove helpful in opening meaningful dialog. This needs to be employed carefully and sparingly.

Additive empathy

Statements that allow the student to connect what they say with what you think they mean or what they say with how they seem to feel can help students recognize their own feelings and emotions and to explore possible options.

"You say you are mad, but as I listen to your voice and watch how you look down, I wonder if maybe you're not also a little sad?"

Rick Van Acker, Ed. D., is an Associate Professor of Education and Special Education Chairperson the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material is part of his handouts from the T/TAC-EV Conference, Challenging Behaviors: Making Our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.