Conflict Transformation: Unit 8: What Is Effective Communication?

Conflict Transformation

Standards-Based Lesson Plans for Middle School Students



The most basic component of learning is communication. One needs to be able to listen deeply, question, understand, and respond. Good communication is also the cornerstone of conflict transformation. Direct speech and engaged listening can bridge a polarized conflict. Good communication brings down the walls set up between parties and allows the search for common ground and win-win solutions to begin.

In this unit students will analyze effective listening tools. They will reflect on their own experiences and practice listening inside and outside the classroom. In addition, students will consider their use of speech in conflicts. They will have an opportunity to compare the impact of "I-Messages" and "You-Messages" and formulate a procedure piece on the elements of good communication.

Background Reading For Teachers:


  • Students will identify the skills needed for effective communication.
  • Students will employ the use of empathic listening techniques.
  • Students will transform "You-Messages" into "I-Messages."

McRel Standards:

  • Language Arts
    Standard 1 (Level III. 14) Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
    Standard 8 (Level III. 2) Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
  • Life Skills, Working with Others
    Standard 2 (Level IV. 7) Uses conflict-resolution techniques
    Standard 4 (Level IV. 1, 6, 7, 10) Displays effective interpersonal communication skills


Procedure: 3 hours

What is effective communication? (hour 1)

  1. Split students into groups of four. One group will be A1, one B1, one A2, and the last, B2. Put A1 and B 1 groups at parallel corners of the classroom. Put A2 and B2 at the other parallel ends. Ask students not to look at the other groups' work.

    class diagram

  2. Give each group a packet of colored shapes (already cut out). Ask the A groups to build something with their shapes. Give the B groups a set of the same shapes, with different colors.
  3. When the A groups finish, ask A1 to instruct B1 to build the same shape and A2 to instruct B2 to build the same shape. The challenge is that neither can look at the other's work. The A groups have to direct the B groups' building orally and from afar.
  4. When they are finished examine the results and debrief the exercise.
    • What was the most challenging part of the exercise?
    • Where did mistakes occur?
    • What were the smoothest parts?
    • What did people do that helped make the communication clearer?
  5. Explain that often we think of communication like a package that one person sends to another. The contents of the package after it is sent should be exactly the same as the contents that the sender put in the package originally. However, communication is more like the above exercise (see "Misunderstandings", by Heidi Burgess, for more information). Discuss the similarities between the exercise and the process of communication:
    • A lot can be lost between the idea and the words that are used to communicate these ideas.
    • The listener has to imagine what the speaker is thinking. This is not always easy. The speaker might make assumptions about what the listener knows and omit important pieces of information. The speaker and listener may also imagine that they have things in common that they actually don't (i.e. the colors of the shapes). Many times two people might use the same word with very different definitions in mind.
  6. Now ask students to sit silently at their desks for 30 seconds with their conflict journals handy.
  7. After 30 seconds, ask students to write down what they heard.
  8. Now ask them to actively listen to the noises around them. Again sit in silence, this time for an entire minute and ask them to write down what they heard.
  9. Write listen and hear on the board and discuss the difference.
    • Do we collect and retain information differently when we focus on it?
    • How often do we really listen?
  10. Ask students to write about the following prompt for five minutes in their conflict journals.
    Prompt: Think about a time when someone really listened to you. What did they do? Describe what made their listening so memorable.
  11. Together brainstorm what good listening looks like. Then ask students to write down the following list of good listening techniques (available on the slide show of "Empathic Listening" by Richard Salem):
    • Try to understand the speaker's point of view.
    • Try to be nonjudgmental.
    • Let the speaker know that you hear and understand him or her (ask clarifying questions when helpful).
    • Create a trusting environment. Be respectful.
    • Be focused on the speaker.

    Now show the slideshow on Empathic Listening.

  12. Homework: Choose someone with whom you can practice listening. It can be a grandparent, a parent, a friend, or a bus driver. Don't tell them that you are practicing empathetic listening. Ask them a few questions to get started. If you don't have a topic, you can tell them you have a school assignment to ask people about a historical conflict that impacted their lives. Let them get warmed up. Practice your empathic listening skills and observe the speaker. Describe the results in your conflict journal.

What is effective communication? (hour 2)

  1. Break students into pairs. Each pair should have an "A" student and a "B" student. The A's will speak for three minutes about a topic. B's will experiment with being ineffective listeners. Then A's and B's will switch. A's will try being ineffective listeners and B's will speak.
  2. Debrief the results as a whole class. What do ineffective listeners do? Brainstorm a list:
    • Change the subject
    • Discount the speaker's feelings
    • Let the speaker "hook" you into an emotionally heated exchange or a debate
    • Interrupt
    • Give advice
    • Interrogate
  3. Now ask A's to speak about a different topic for three minutes. B's will try to use empathic listening techniques as effectively as possible. Then the two will switch.
  4. Debrief. What worked, what didn't?
  5. Pass out the Listening Test.
  6. Explain that you can only read the text once. After that, they will take a brief test.
  7. Read the text once, slowly and then give them the test. Once they have finished, debrief their answers.
  8. Next, read it a second time so that your students can follow along with the questions. Write the word assumption on the board and discuss.
    • Why are assumptions sometimes useful when we are listening?
    • How can they be harmful?
    • What kind of assumptions did you make in the listening test?
    • Often we make assumptions based on cultural norms. How might that affect communication between people from different cultures?
  9. Pass out the Optical Illusion handout. Ask students to look at Edgar John Rubin's image and to first write, then discuss what they see. Discuss how our prejudices and assumptions can affect the way we see and hear.
  10. Now ask students to look at the picture of Kanizsa's Triangle. Ask students to identify the number of triangles in the picture.
    Explanation: Actually none of the lines form a complete triangle. The circles and lines correspond so that triangles are hinted at, even though they are not actually outlined. Our minds like to make patterns out of chaos. We connect the dots on our own. We do this a lot when we are listening. Usually it's very helpful, but sometimes it means that we miss important details.
  11. Debrief the role of assumptions in communication.
  12. Homework: Pay attention to the way conversations unfold. Write down any assumptions you or your friends made in your conflict journal. How did you or they confuse the conversation?

What is effective communication? (hour 3)

Procedure Essay Rubric

  1. Have the sheet with Argument Scenarios cut into strips. Also write on the board:
    Issue: Tactic A: Tactic B: Success?
  2. Split students into pairs. Ask them to sit in their seats with their conflict journals ready. Call a pair to you, give them an argument scenario and ask them to improvise the argument in front of the class.
  3. When the skit stops, ask students to write in their journals the skit's issue, the two tactics (i.e. yelling, persuasion, flattery etc.) and the results (i.e. 0,0 = lose, lose, 1,0 = a win and a loss, 1,1 = win, win).
  4. After all of the pairs have improvised, discuss the tactics they used.
  5. Keep the students in pairs. Ask them to read "I-Messages and You-Messages" by Heidi Burgess and respond to it using the I-Message worksheet. At the end of the worksheet ask the pairs to return to their scenarios and to role play again (this time all pairs can role play at once) using I-Messages. Debrief when everyone is done.
  6. Show the "I-Messages and You-Messages" slideshow.
  7. Return to the I-Messages. In their journals, ask students to write the short-term goals of three "You Statements" and the long-term goals that might drive the speakers' emotional outbursts.
    For example:
    Statement: Short-term goal: Long-term goal:
    You're not listening to me. Expression of frustration and impatience. Wants attention. A constructive discussion where both parties speak and listen
  8. Debrief. Conclude that sometimes people want a long-term goal that is agreeably shared. However, a short-term goal of expressing one's displeasure at the way things are, can overpower the long-term goal if one can't communicate effectively. In the midst of bad communication, distance and friction grow between people and the long-term goal that both parties might want becomes less important than winning the argument.
  9. End with a council circle. Explain that the format will be slightly different. Only one person will speak at a time, then they will select another person who has not spoken, and ask them a question. Everyone else will listen.
    • Begin with a question: Tara [name of the student being asked], describe a time someone really listened to you?
    • Tara will answer, speaking directly to the questioner.
    • When she is finished she will select someone who has not spoken in the group to ask the same question, or an open-ended question of her choice. Continue this until everyone has had a chance to speak or pass.
  10. Homework: Write a procedure essay for good communication. Obviously there are no rigid rules in communication, that would be far too contrived! However, there are things that one can remember and practice in order to be an effective communicator. Examine the to help frame the assignment.