Communication Competence Is a Must Today
This semester Olga Matyash, Adjunct Professor at Ivy Tech State College (Indiana, USA), has been a visiting scholar at HSE, teaching courses on interpersonal communication and public speaking at the HSE School of Integrated Communications (Faculty of Communications, Media and Design). Professor Matyash agreed to speak with the HSE news service to share the secrets of successful public speaking and shed light on the role of communication studies in our life.
— Could you say a few words about your Introduction to Interpersonal Communication course? Who is your target audience?
— I would say that any audience is a target audience for interpersonal communication because this is the type of education that all of us need. Basically, what is communication? It’s not simply exchange of information; it’s something that we do by using our language and non-verbal symbols and signs to construct our interactions, our relations with each other. Interpersonal communication focuses on person-to-person interactions versus, for example, mass communication or group communication.
This course helps us to develop various communication abilities: for example, we learn not only how to better express ourselves, our own ideas and meanings, but also how to understand others who may be strikingly different from us, and how to negotiate our differences.
— What are some of the skills required to succeed in interpersonal communication?
— A very important skill is listening. We all like to talk and we like to be understood. But do we understand others? Are we capable and good listeners? It’s a big question.
Another fundamental skill is metacommunication. We talk to each other and share not only the content or information on a particular topic when we start the conversation; we also share and negotiate our different feelings, attitudes, views and perspectives. This is what is called a ‘relational aspect’ of communication. Do I like you as my communication partner or am I forced to talk to you? Do we feel that our communication is productive and interesting for each other or is it confrontational? These are all metacommunicative aspects that people recognize through what they say and how they say it.
Feedback is another important communication skill. We become more effective and competent as communicators when we know how to provide or solicit feedback in conversations.
Good speakers can evaluate not only their own speeches but also the speeches of others, and they are better critical listeners as well. Those who know how to create a good speech eventually become not only stronger speakers and better and more effective listeners but they also become stronger in all respects as people, as citizens.
— You have said that communication is an ongoing part of our life. Don’t you think that people are failing to communicate with each other with the development of the internet and social media?
— No, I don’t. Today, we certainly have to develop specific skills in communication when we communicate online or long distance. We can’t see each other, and we can’t see how to react to each other’s messages. It is only then that we understand how much we rely on non-verbal dimension of communication. When we communicate online, we have to learn how to use better language in order to be better understood. The challenge is there – how to understand the other and how to make oneself understood by others – although the means may be different.
— Could you name some of the basic cornerstones of public speaking? What are the secrets to becoming a successful public speaker?
— First of all, this is a very practical course in which people learn how to deliver different types of speeches. But it’s not only practical, it’s also very important for a person’s social education, political and civic education, and general ability to become a stronger person in all respects.
In order to talk in front of other people you have to be able to follow at least three principles. One is ‘know your audience’. It’s the first principle for people who take this course. If you want to have an impact on your listeners – and the whole idea of public speaking is to influence your audience – you need to know who they are and what their perspectives are on the topic that you are sharing with them, whether it is a topic where you want to inform them about something or whether you want to persuade them to change their point of view.
Another important principle is ‘know your content’. If you want to be effective and you want to make a good impression as a credible speaker, you have to know a lot about the topic. You have to do your research.
The third principle would be effective delivery. You should be competent in delivering your speech. You need to have enough techniques in your repertoire to present this content in an interesting and engaging manner. You have to know how, for example, to get attention of your audience – how to use your voice and intonations, know how to make pauses, how to use modulation of your voice and not speak in a monotonous tone, how to move and control your body actions, and how to keep good eye contact with the audience -this is one of the skills that students have problems with at the beginning. To be an effective speaker you have to know all of these tricks.
I strongly believe that communication education should be a mandatory component of general education, whether in Eastern Europe, the West or oriental countries. We live in a world where everybody is connected to something and somebody else, and we need to develop this international capacity to negotiate and deal with our diversity.
Good speakers can evaluate not only their own speeches but also the speeches of others, and they are better critical listeners as well. Those who know how to create a good speech eventually become not only stronger speakers and better and more effective listeners but they also become stronger in all respects as people, as citizens. They are able to express their point of view, to argue for their point of view in a competent way, and to create a constructive dialogue with others. So it’s a very important basic skill in modern society.
— Many people are afraid of public speaking. They have some kind of fear or even phobia of presenting in public. Do you teach your students any techniques to overcome this fear?
— Yes, we do talk about it; it’s one of the topics in the course. It’s a huge problem that’s frequently experienced by many people who are just getting started with public speaking. The students know that the first and main approach to fighting fear and anxiety is practice. If you are well prepared, know your topic, have a good structure and practice enough in advance it all builds up your competence and your confidence. If you know your audience and what kind of questions to expect from listeners, it also builds upon your confidence.
What are we usually afraid of? We are usually afraid of something we don’t know. The unknown creates anxiety. If we reduce the level of uncertainty, turn the unknown into the known we feel more confident and the fear goes down.
— What are your impressions of HSE students? Are there any differences in teaching and study between Russia and the U.S.?
— It’s a very interesting question that may be treated as a research question at some point. I have a lot of reflections on this because I have worked in different social and cultural environments. It’s not only here in Moscow and at Ivy Tech, but at some other universities in the U.S. and Russia.
In general, I love working with Russian students. At the beginning of the course - and it doesn’t matter if it is a Russian student or an American student – they usually don’t know much about the content and what kind of experience they willgain. The starting point is more or less the same. By the middle of the course, they become more involved and they feel their power to understand. That shows. By the end of the course they really appreciate how practical this knowledge is, what they can do with the knowledge in their everyday situations, and how it makes them more powerful as communicators. It’s a very enriching type of knowledge, and learning happens with the same dynamic whether it is a US or Russian university.
I’m very impressed with how my Russian students did all the assignments. There were very interesting, insightful and reflective papers, comments, and discussions. It was a great pleasure working with my Moscow students from this university.
But the differences in terms of certain behaviours may be related to our cultural values and traditions. We even talked about some of them with my Russian students here when we were discussing different values in different cultures. We made some jokes, as Russian students seem to be very flexible with deadlines versus American students who are more disciplined in that sense. The US students know that if you don’t submit certain assignments by a certain deadline, then you have to blame yourself, and you just lose the points in your final grade. Russian students try to negotiate with you post factum and speak about how they can still submit an assignment even though they missed a deadline. In other words, I think that American students are used to dealing with the consequences of their time management.
However, analytically speaking, I’m very impressed with how my Russian students did all the assignments. There were very interesting, insightful and reflective papers, comments, and discussions. It was a great pleasure working with my Moscow students from this university.
— Could you say a few words about your cooperation with HSE? What are some of your plans and expectations for the future?
— There are ongoing plans and projects. I was teaching two courses this semester – one at the Bachelor’s level and the other at the Master’s level. I really enjoyed working with both groups.
I am also working on a different project, an international research conference called ‘Communication As a Discipline and As a Field: Sharing Experiences to Construct a Dialogue’, which will take place on July 9-11, 2015. We expect an interesting pool of participants from Moscow and other regions of Russia, and there will be participants from the U.S. and from the National Communication Association (most of them are my colleagues). We expect that it will be an interesting forum for scholars here in our country and American scholars to have a constructive dialogue about different perspectives of communications study, because in general, this is a new field and is developing as a discipline in its own way in different countries.
I do hope that this university, which is open to integrating the most advanced techniques and technologies to educate future professionals, will be able to create a broader communication curriculum.
I strongly believe that communication education should be a mandatory component of general education, whether in Eastern Europe, the West or oriental countries. We live in a world where everybody is connected to something and somebody else, and we need to develop this international capacity to negotiate and deal with our diversity. Communication competence is a must today as much as computer competence, literacy, and knowing a foreign language.
In the future, I hope I will continue teaching these types of courses and maybe expand them to include other communication-related subjects. In the US, there are a lot of communication courses that are taught in addition to interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, public speaking, and public relations. For example, there is organizational communication, health communication, crisis and emergency communication, environmental communication, and so on. So I do hope that this university, which is open to integrating the most advanced techniques and technologies to educate future professionals, will be able to create a broader communication curriculum.
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optional courses are offered by the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities for the 2014-2015 academic year. Registration is open until October 18. Electives can be taken free of charge – not only by HSE students and employees, but by anyone who is interested.