navbar 4Resource papers in action research



This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick which three sets of important communication skills are described: expressive skills for stating a point of view non-defensively; listening skills for learning another's point of view; and process skills for managing the overall interaction

There is a French translation by Natalie Harmann.




Edgar Schein 1 visited Australia in 1980.  On one occasion he described the most important management skills as technical, interpersonal and emotional.

By emotional skills Schein meant the ability to make difficult decisions, to take responsibility, and the like.  A simpler equivalent term is courage, with elements of self-management.

Emotional skills, he said, were most important.  Without emotional skills the interpersonal skills cannot be used to most effect.  And without interpersonal skills the technical skills may be wasted.  Emotional skills are a necessary foundation for interpersonal skills, which in turn are needed to make the most of technical skills.

Schein was talking about managers.  I believe the same can be said for action researchers and evaluators.


Below 2 I set out the bare elements of good interpersonal skills.  I describe them in such a way that under some circumstances you can get by with only moderate levels of emotional skills.  You communicate as if you are self- confident.  You achieve this by using an explicit problem- solving approach in your communication.

The real gains are achieved, however, when you have the courage as well.  The usual forms of communication in our culture do not usually favour effective problem solving.  There are rules which discourage people from giving the information which is often important to developing a solution.

Especially important are rules which forbid exchanging information about motives and about negative feelings. 

To communicate well you often have to change the rules.  You have to renegotiate the unstated rules of communication.  To complicate matters, there are rules against renegotiating the rules.  There are rules against making the rules explicit.  3

That is where the courage comes in.  It is needed to challenge the taboos and renegotiate the rules.  With courage, though, it usually works.  The result, for both parties, is a clearing of the air and an improved relationship.  4

This is most apparent when you are involved in difficult communication.  When you are severely under threat, you will find the approach to be described below may work if you are a person of robust self-confidence, well practised in this approach.  Otherwise you will probably do as most people do: act impulsively, and perhaps regret it later.

To make matters worse, threat triggers a set of defensive strategies.  Emotional skills are required for people to accept that they may be part of the problem.  People are least able to understand their own contribution when they are most under threat.


The approach described in this document is built around specific ways of getting and giving information.  In other words, it comprises listening skills, and expressive skills.  In both, I define what information you can most usefully give and get.


The information chain

Imagine two people within a close relationship.  Of the two, consider who is most likely to have accurate information about each person's behaviour; each person's beliefs; each person's feelings.

We can see another person's behaviour more clearly than our own -- notice how surprised people are to see themselves on videotape for the first time.  Among other things, our eyes are better placed for observing others than for observing ourselves.  We tend also to judge ourselves more by our intentions than by our behaviour.

We cannot see each other's feelings directly; we deduce them from the behaviour we see.  We are able to sense our own feelings directly (though we may sometimes fail to do so).

Similarly, we can be aware of our own beliefs.  We must depend on other people's report to know their thoughts, or again deduce them from behaviour.

For two people A and B:

can most clearly perceive

can most clearly perceive

B's actions

A's actions

material outcomes for A

material outcomes for B

A's assumptions

B's assumptions

A's feelings

B's feelings

A's intentions towards B

B's intentions towards A

This is the information which may be relevant for action researchers and evaluators.  For instance, it may help to define roles or resolve a conflict or to provide important but threatening critique.

You will notice that each person has part of the relevant information.  Yet some issues become resolvable only when each person understands all this information.

The tasks of the effective communicator are twofold.  One is to give and get appropriate information.  The other is to guide herself and the other person through a process which is constructive for both.


The elements of the information chain are linked together.  Actions by one person typically produce material outcomes for the other.  In response to these outcomes, the second person develops thoughts about the first person, typically about her motives.  There is then some emotional response to this.  The second person forms an intention to act, arising partly from the emotional response.

action --> outcomes --> beliefs --> feelings --> intentions

Action then follows.  This starts an equivalent chain of information in the reverse direction.  Under some circumstances, common where there are relationship problems, the reverse chain gives rise to more of the actions which started the problem in the first instance.  Defensiveness begets defensiveness.

In many instances, particularly when there is a history of conflict or friction, all of the information above is relevant: behaviour, feelings and thoughts (including intentions).


The skills of communication

By way of example, suppose I wish to improve a relationship with a client.  I can now classify the skills I need into three varieties, each requiring emotional skills as a foundation.

  • Expressive skills to convey my information to others.  I can use expressive skills to give others information about their behaviour, and my beliefs and feelings (and perhaps intentions).  Emotional skills enable me to say those things which need to be said, but which are difficult to say.
  • Listening skills obtain information from others.  I can use them to get information about my behaviour, and their beliefs and feelings and intentions.  Emotional skills enable me to take on board even the more threatening aspects of what the other person is saying.  They also enable me to postpone my own concerns until I understand the other person's.
  • Skills for managing the overall process and identifying the needed information -- which information to give or get?  and mine or others'?  Emotional skills enable me to challenge a poor process, and renegotiate the rules of the interaction.

The three types of communication skill are described in a little more detail below.

It is hard using the written word to describe the aspects of communication other than the words.  The nonverbal aspects are, however, extremely important.  No matter what words we use, how those words are said may determine what the listener makes of them.  Attitudes in particular are likely to be judged more from nonverbal than from verbal behaviour.

These non-verbal aspects of communication will be addressed first.


Non-verbal expression

Factual information is often deduced from the words used.  As already said, attitudinal information is often assumed from the nonverbal aspects.  These include the characteristics of a person's speech such as tone of voice, pace, pauses, inflection, volume, timbre and the like.  They also include facial expression, direction of gaze, posture, gestures, and nearness.

Aware of it or not, we make a judgment about how genuine the other person is.  To a large extent we base our judgment on the amount of agreement between what their words say and what the rest of their body says.  The simplest way to handle the non- verbal aspects of expression, therefore, is to be honest and attentive.  For most of us, the nonverbal aspects will then look after themselves.  5

We are often unaware of our nonverbal behaviour.  We often process other people's nonverbals without conscious attention.  It may be difficult (an not always useful) to make this conscious.

In understanding other people's feelings, however, there are some overall patterns which can be used.  Large-silhouette postures, advancing gestures, threatening facial expression, loud volume, sustained eye contact together may indicate aggression.  Small-silhouette postures, retiring gestures, troubled or masked facial expression, low volume, and avoidance of eye contact together may indicate appeasement or withdrawal.

Non-defensive tone of voice, posture and gesture tend to be intermediate between the two patterns just listed:




small silhouette

normal posture


retiring gestures

gestures in place of body

advancing gestures

soft or tremulous
tone of voice

firm but pleasant
tone of voice

tone of voice

apprehensive expression

normal expression

angry expression

minimal eye contact

frequent eye contact

sustained eye contact

Overall patterns are important.  I wouldn't recommend that you take the individual elements too seriously.


Aggression and appeasement are both means of self-defence.  People very often react to defensiveness with defensiveness, producing a vicious cycle of escalating defensiveness.  Both aggression and appeasement therefore encourage defensiveness in the other person.

As implied above, changing your non-verbal behaviour by taking conscious control of it is very difficult.  Your behaviour is likely to become stilted.  The effects on the other person may be very different to what you intend.

However, you may become aware of some habitual postures or gestures that others interpret as defensive.  When you know about these behaviours you can then deliberately avoid them while still leaving most of your behaviour under unconscious control.

(Whether you intend these gestures as defensive is not the issue.  Whatever your intentions, certain nonverbal behaviour is likely to be interpreted as defensive.  If so, it is usually simpler to avoid it.)

Non-verbal aspects of communication are important in all three types of communication skill...


Expressive skills

These are the simplest skills.  You can use them to convey to another person the information to which you have access.  You do this in three stages...

  • first you get the other person's attention;
  • then you convey the information to her; 6
  • then you check her understanding.

You can put together the necessary information by asking yourself these questions...

  • What precisely does she do or say?
  • What are the material outcomes for me of this behaviour?
  • If relevant, what do I assume she is trying to accomplish with these actions?
  • If relevant, what do I then feel like doing in response (that is, what is my emotional response)?
  • If relevant, how do I intend to act in response?
  • If relevant, how do I actually react?

The other person is more likely to understand it if you convey it specifically, and not defensively.  It helps to avoid blaming, criticising, interpreting, or making demands on the other person.

It is also an advantage to convey as much as possible of this information by describing specific actions and things.  The other person can then most easily verify it.



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Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.08w last revised 20141130