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4.3 Developing communication skills

If you do decide to study further, you will find that communicating (writing, speaking, listening, communicating online …) is an important aspect of all academic study, and it will be important to be aware of any skills you may need to develop and how to go about doing this.

Author Neil Thompson (1996) has pointed out that it is not just what people say that counts; it is how people say it too. Maybe you noted this in your examples?

So, if someone seems to talk rather quickly, this may be because they are excited, angry or worried. If someone speaks slowly, this may be because they are tired. Or it may indicate a lack of confidence in what they have to say. Similar comments may be made about the pitch of a voice. Thompson suggests that:

flat, unmodulated pitch can reflect a depressed mood, while high or fluctuating pitch can signal … anger, fear or excitement.

(Thompson, 1996, pp. 83–84)

Do you notice that Thompson says that the same pitch can signal both excitement and fear? This supports the idea presented last week about moving outside your comfort zone. Look back and remind yourself, if you have forgotten.

Thompson (1996) suggests that quiet speech can indicate a lack of confidence, fear or anxiety, whereas loud speech can suggest aggression or a lack of sensitivity. Loud speech may also be used by someone who is fearful or anxious, so we have to be careful not to make assumptions.

Once you start thinking about body language, you realise how complex it can be. For example, how much eye contact should we make? Too much eye contact can be seen as challenging or threatening and too little eye contact can be interpreted as indicating that someone is not trustworthy. It is important to note that these interpretations can vary from one culture to another, as some see it as polite to avoid eye contact as much as possible.

Let’s see what one student, Karen, has to say about her developing communication skills:

I think I have learned how to read body language when I am speaking to people – I’m more observant. People don’t always say how they are feeling, so if you can read their body language, it’s easier to pick up on things. I am probably more confident with my questioning. I am listening and taking in the messages I am receiving from people.

Activity 5 Reflecting on your communication skills

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes for this activity.

Think of a recent interaction you have had with someone. (This could be one of the situations you have identified in a previous activity, or another one.)

  • Write an account, giving as much detail as you can. At this stage of the activity, don’t worry too much about the communication aspects of your story.
  • Once you have finished writing, put it down for a few moments. This will give you time to think about what you have written.
  • Now return to the account you have written and identify any communication skills that you can see in your interaction with the other person.
  • Draw up a table like the one below, with three headings: ‘My communication skill’, ‘Confident/unconfident?’ and ‘Happens when?’
  • For each listed communication skill, decide whether it is a skill in which you are confident. Then say on what kind of occasions you notice yourself doing this. An example is given in Table 2.
Table 2 Example of a person’s verbal communication confidence following an interaction
My communication skill Confident/unconfident? Happens when?
Talking I tend to speak too quickly – so not very confident Usually when I think people do not agree with or like what I am saying


Our communication skills, or lack of them, can have more effect than we might think. The student quoted above, Karen, hadn’t felt confident about picking up people’s body language and this had inhibited her from asking questions when she really wanted to learn something. Improving one communication skill had the knock-on effect of improving another.