Julien C. Mirivel, Ryan Fuller, Amy Young, and Kristen Christman
“I’ve come to see how much people are genuinely hurting and how much joy it brings to someone just to be noticed at all,” one of our students wrote. “I will continue to work through the [positive communication] model,” she said, “because it has already changed my life and improved my most troubled relationships.”
One of our most significant challenges as business communication teachers is to help students develop their interpersonal communication skills. Addressing this gap is particularly important because a consistent finding across recent business communication research is that interpersonal skills and relatability are among the exemplary communication skills that employers highlight and seek among graduates (Coffelt & Smith, 2020). Building and maintaining connections derive from positive communication behaviors (desirable, exemplary) such as active listening (Hynes, 2012) and can lead to positive outcomes such as building trust and finding common ground (Coffelt & Smith, 2020). If you are like us, you’ve probably wondered: How can I develop such positive communication skills for my students to benefit them and their interpersonal relationships?
In this article, we share with you a tangible and concrete approach. We show how to integrate a practical model of positive communication into your courses and share strategies to add positive communication principles and scholarship to your pedagogical approach.
Positive Organizational Scholarship and Positive Communication
We situate our business communication courses in the body of scholarship known as Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). Instead of viewing organizations and people as sites of problems and conflicts, POS views organizations as places of possibilities, as spaces that create meaning, and as an environment in which people can flourish, feel energized, and be transformed. POS, as defined by Cameron and Caza (2004) is “the rigorous scientific inquiry into that which is positive, flourishing, and life-giving in organizations” (p. 731).
Within the POS movement, researchers and practitioners have developed a substantive body of literature to explain the nature of positive leadership (Cameron, 2012), the importance of high-quality connections (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2012), how to create deep change in organizations (Quinn, 2010), and ways of fostering compassionate workplaces (see Lilius, Worline, Dutton, Kanov, Maitlis, 2011). Across the spectrum of the research, scholars agree that good, healthy, productive communication is critical for fostering positive workplaces and that students enrolled in business or professional communication courses need to learn how to communicate positively. The challenge is to find a concise, comprehensive model that can guide students toward better practice and offer specific behaviors that will naturally make a difference in their lives. Our proposal is to draw on Mirivel’s (2014, 2017, 2019; Mirivel & Fuller, 2017) Practical Model of Positive Communication (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Mirivel’s Practical Model of Positive Communication
Note: The figure demonstrates seven positive communication behaviors (greeting, asking, complimenting, disclosing, encouraging, listening, inspiring) and the functions of those behaviors (in order: creating contact, discovering the unknown, affecting the sense of self, deepening relationships, giving support, transcending differences, and influencing others also to model the behaviors)
Mirivel (2014) introduced a model of positive communication that is grounded in seven central communicative behaviors and principles. By definition, positive communication includes all of the “communicative processes and forms which we would be proud to model and teach to children” (Socha & Pitts, 2012, p. 324). Positive communication is affirming and constructive and includes behaviors that “reflect our best, that produces personal and relational happiness and satisfaction, as well as those that challenge our self to move in the direction of others and to act ethically” (Mirivel, 2014, p. 7).
The model is both descriptive and normative. It is designed first to synthesize the nature of positive communication – behaviors that research shows are critical in personal and professional relationships – and to highlight core principles of human communication. More importantly, the model provides a framework to guide communicative practice and serves as a compass for making communicative decisions. The behaviors are 1) greeting, 2) asking, 3) complimenting, 4), disclosing, 5) encouraging, and 6) listening. Each behavior leads to a principle, and when all are practiced together they contribute to something greater than the sum of parts, i.e., they inspire and influence others, and create a virtuous cycle that reinforces and spreads the positive behaviors because of a norm of reciprocity in human communication.
The first principle suggests that when we greet, we create human connection. Greetings help us to acknowledge others, open a sequence of communication between two or more people, and serve to both affirm and identify the nature of our relationship with others and our status (e.g., Firth, 1972). Communication, viewed as a constitutive process (Craig, 1999), reminds us that through communication, we can create connections: Am I moving in the direction of others? Am I welcoming and warm? Do I have the courage to start the interaction rather than wait?
With the second principle, Mirivel (2014) argues that as communicators we can place ourselves in a position to discover others. It’s about learning how to shift the script of our interactions. There are many ways to do so, including making a simple shift from using closed-ended (yes-no) questions to open questions, or developing the competency to use appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 2017).
The third principle reflects an inherent truth: what we say and do affects people. Our verbal behaviors affect who people are in the moment as well as who they become. Mirivel (2014) builds on this understanding to suggest that we can communicate to strengthen people’s sense of self. This identity affirmation can be done powerfully and simply through the act of complimenting. As communicators, we can ask: (a) Do I tend to criticize others or do I compliment them? (b) How much of my own discourse is about building people up? (c) Can I deliver effective feedback that will help people grow instead of hurt them?
The fourth principle focuses on the importance of personal disclosure and how to deepen both personal and professional relationships. Disclosure, for example, can help us create what some scholars call high-quality connections at work (HQC) (Stephens, Heaphy, and Dutton, 2012). Embedded in this section of the model are the strengths to be more vulnerable, transparent, and honest in our communication – all skills that can prepare our students to lead positively.
The fifth principle states that encouraging gives social support. Communication is an act of giving. To encourage is to “inspire with spirit, to foster hope, to stimulate, to support, or to instill courage and confidence” (Pitsounis & Dixon, 1988, p. 509). As communicators, we can use communication as a gift, help others actualize, and transform ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.
The sixth principle suggests that listening deeply to others can transcend the perceived differences that exist between us and other people. Listening is the quintessential skill for leaders and practitioners (Kluger & Zaidel, 2013; Lloyd, Boer, & Voelpel, 2017); leaders who are perceived as good listeners positively impact their followers’ job satisfaction and reduce turnover intentions (Bregenzer et al., 2020). Deep listening requires openness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1961). On the one hand, leaders striving for excellence need to practice the elements of dialogic communication (Cissna & Anderson, 1998). On the other, they need to master the skills of opening up difficult conversations, understanding different perspectives, and slowing down the process of communication.
The final principle suggests that when communicators choose to practice positive communication, they place themselves in a position to inspire and influence others. They do so by modeling positive leadership and embodying its core values. At the same time, the individual can then create a ripple effect in their own lives, in their relationships, and in their communities.
Drawing on Mirivel’s Practical Model of Positive Communication, we now illustrate how to integrate the model into business communication coursework. First, we provide examples of how to model the behaviors as an instructor, both in and out of the classroom. Second, we provide clear exercises and activities for class.
Modeling Positive Communication in the Classroom
Our experience and lots of research support that positive communication behaviors create a sense of immediacy between teacher and learner. For example, a recent systematic review of the literature found that teacher immediacy (the perceived personal closeness between teachers and students based on verbal and non-verbal behaviors) can significantly influence student motivation to learn (Liu, 2021). Drawing on the model, we share six simple, intentional, approaches to practicing positive communication in your teaching (face-to-face or virtual).
1. Create Opportunities for Greetings
Researchers have shown that students who are greeted by their teachers perform more effectively on examinations and even it affects their learning (Bernstein-Yamashiro, 2004). Instructors, thus, need to pay special attention to the opening moments of teaching and learning.
- Are you greeting students warmly at the opening of class?
- Do you lead a bit of small talk with each student in between classes?
- Do you reach out to students individually in your online courses?
Moving in the directions of students will go a long way. You can also try this. Teach students a new greeting sequence in a different language at the start of each class. Practice with the students in many languages, thereby giving students the ability to start intercultural communication in a person’s native tongue.
2. Practice Asking Open-Ended Questions
We are often unaware that many of the questions that we ask our students are closed-ended. For example, after introducing an assignment, we might ask “Do you have any questions?” Or, in the middle of presentations, when we are getting confused looks, we may ask “Is this clear?” or “Are you following me?” While well-intentioned, these types of questions do not invite dialogue or discussion. They may lead to socially desirable responses.
- Consider asking What/Why/How questions to check understanding. You can try this in different forms where students provide an oral or written response. For example, you may ask students such as: What did you find interesting? Why? What was confusing? How can I help you?
Another way of modeling the effectiveness and use of open-ended questions is to guide the course with big questions. As Bain (2004) revealed from his study of the best college teachers, questions trigger deeper learning and help students become fully engaged with the material:
- Ask yourself, “What big questions will my course help students answer?” (p. 50) and use those questions to drive your syllabi, lectures, and discussions.
3. Compliment Students on their Strengths
As communicators, getting feedback is central to knowing what works and what to keep doing. Compliments are a form of feedback that contributes to the well-being of both the recipient and giver, but we often underestimate the positive impact of genuine compliments and sometimes withhold them because of that underestimation (Zhao & Epley, 2021). When complimenting, follow the good practices of feedback and be specific, actionable, and sincere (genuine, not intended for flattery or ingratiation).
- Look for opportunities to provide affirming feedback to students, such as in-class discussions, assignments, or interactions. Patricia Harms and Deborah Roebuck (2010) developed the BET model (which stands for Behavior, Effect, Thank You) when delivering positive feedback for a job well done. First, you identify concrete, specific behaviors. Next, you address the effect or consequences of the behavior, and then thank the recipient. For example: When you greeted me this morning, you looked me in the eyes and asked me how I was doing. You listened and asked really good questions. I felt seen, heard, and energized. Thank you!
- If you have team assignments or peer review of works, you can also train students to give BET feedback.
4. Share Meaningful Self-Disclosure
In our experience, students are curious about their instructors. They want to know more about the people they are learning from, and sharing with them helps to humanize you (see Myers & Claus, 2012). To deepen your relationships with students, consider the following self-disclosure activities:
- What can you share (hobbies, outside interests) that makes you more relatable to your students?
- Can you disclose your own struggles, challenges, or experiences which are relevant to assignments or course content?
- What can you share about your own career path to help them?
- Consider this in-class activity focused on disclosure: “Thinking about the last week, what is a highlight, what is a hardship, and who is your hero?” To model the activity, you could answer the questions first.
5. Give Encouragement During Difficult Times and Assignments
By extension, students also need feedback to develop, grow, and break through slumps and overcome difficult and stressful times (Wong et al., 2019). You may include some of the following ways to encourage:
- During stressful times during the semester (midterms, finals), send notes of encouragement to students to let them know that you are thinking about them.
- Some learning requires students to work toward a particular competency that requires practice over time. In such cases, this requires coaching-type feedback that lays out what’s ineffective and how to improve. Feedback interventions can impact rapport with students and their motivation to learn (Kerssen-Griep & Witt, 2012), so coaching can be especially important to maintain rapport and deliver developmental feedback. Harms and Roebuck (2010) offer the BEAR (Behavior, Effect, Alternative, Result) model of feedback. We add E (encourage) to their model to provide encouragement that will lead to improvements. The model starts with concrete behaviors, followed by the consequences of the behavior. To address the behavior, you offer alternatives to the behavior that will lead to the desired result. Offering realistic alternatives and reflecting on the results shows them that it is within their power to improve and grow. You complete the feedback with encouragement (I know you can do this; keep trying; keep practicing).
6. Demonstrate Listening
Much instruction centers on what Jeanine Turner (2022) calls entitled presence. In this model, listeners (in this case students) are a captive audience, and roles between speaker and listener are not interchangeable. Unfortunately, this model perpetuates differences between speaker and listener. Students need both the experience of being heard and listened to and the ability to create an environment for deeper listening. One way of accomplishing this goal is to use liberating structures. Developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless (2013), liberating structures are simple techniques that will enhance the process of communication, increase relational intimacy, and build trust. Most of the techniques (there are about 30 of them) are designed to slow down the process of communication, create moments of deeper listening, and facilitate the accomplishment of tasks. We suggest three to start (all available at https://www.liberatingstructures.com/ls/).
- Structure class activities and discussion using the 1-2-4-all liberating structure. This activity, which can be used for any discussion and starts with individual reflection (1), then pairs (2), then a group of four (4), and finally the larger group (all). Everyone has an opportunity to participate and be listened to.
- Use Heard, Seen, and Respected to build empathy and the experience of shared commonality. HSF focuses on stories of NOT being heard, seen, or respected, where participants take turns telling stories and listening (without trying to fix, and can only ask questions: “what else?” “tell me more”).
- Illustrate how to use WINFY – What I Need From You – a framework designed for handling difficult conversations. Participants use this activity to articulate their top 1 to 2 needs from each party (or group), make the requests, deliberate on the response, and then address the requests with only “Yes”, “No”, “I will try”, or “Whatever”). Whatever means the request was too ambiguous.
The best way to teach communication skills is to model those skills daily. When you communicate positively in and out of the classroom, you are creating a ripple effect not just in your own approach to teaching and learning, but for your students, and the interactions they will have with others. To support their personal development, students also need a variety of practical exercises and activities that will make visible the value of positive communication (used successfully in face-to-face and virtual environments). In the next section, we share four exercises you can try in your teaching.
Positive Communication Assignments
In The Art of Positive Communication: Theory and Practice, Mirivel (2014) offers core practical activities for each part of the model, often including a reflection exercise, a practical activity for students to experiment with, and a research assignment to analyze real data. We introduce here four additional assignments we have found especially useful in supporting our students’ learning.
Exercise 1: Walk and Talk
Mirivel (2014) argues authentic and genuine disclosure deepens our relationships with others. But for disclosure to take place in this way, physical presence and shared time is necessary. This exercise asks students to complete two tasks. The first task is to read an op-ed article by Frank Bruni (2015) titled “The myth of quality time,” in which he makes visible how spending time with others leads us to experience more meaningful connections. In the second task, students ask someone in their social or professional circle to join them on a morning or evening walk. They can walk together at a local or state park or in their neighborhood. The requirement is that they walk together for at least 45 minutes. After the walk, students write a reflection paper drawing on both the article and the experience with the walk: What did they talk about? What did they share with one another? And finally, did the exercise deepen the connection they have with the other person? If so, in what ways? Although students may initially express concern about finding a walking companion to commit for the duration, they have reacted positively to the assignment. They note how the assignment allows them to learn about others and about themselves.
Exercise 2: The Reflected Best Self
The Reflected Best Self exercise was designed for participants “to develop a sense of their ‘personal best’ in order to increase their future potential” (Roberts, Spreitzer, Dutton, Quinn, Heaphy, & Barker, 2005). The assignment, which can be adapted in many ways for students, creates a process by which they can learn more about themselves and tap into instances in which they function at their best. The first step is for students to contact 6-10 people in their social and professional network and to ask for specific feedback about their core strengths. Students use a template to email their contacts and ask them: “What do you think are my key strengths?” “In what ways do you think I add the most value?” and “When have you seen me at my best?” The second step is to analyze those stories for common themes. Third, while using stories and examples provided, the student develops a self-portrait that reflects who they are at their best. Finally, students write a report sharing the results or present them in a public talk. The exercise is really eye-opening for students, as they increase their self-understanding. They recognize their positive contributions to others and create an ideal self to strive toward, to help them in good and tough times.
Exercise 3: Alignment Conversation and Reflection
In this exercise, students apply asking and listening skills to increase their understanding and connection with others of differing views. The exercise involves engaging in a conversation with someone they know who has a difference of opinion or perspective on a topic. Students are instructed to use only open-ended questions and to listen with empathy. The purpose is not to change the person’s opinion, but to simply learn more about their perspective and why it matters to them. After the conversation, students reflect and write about the quality of the interaction and connection to the other person. They are also instructed to reflect on changes they noticed about the other person and their own thoughts and emotions that occurred during the conversation. These written reflections are shared with the class. Students examine the collection of reflections during the next class period, first in small groups and then as an entire class. Using a positive deviance approach (Mertens, Recker, Kohlborn, & Kummer, 2016), which focuses on how uncommon behaviors lead to better relational outcomes, students identify when and how asking and listening builds deeper understandings, connections, and positive regard, even with those of differing perspectives. They report feeling more adept at asking questions and listening to those who have differing views and being able to hold different perspectives.
Exercise 4: Teaching Positive Communication
In this assignment, students work as a group with real-world clients to develop a workshop focused on positive communication. Leading up the client project, students learn about the emerging field of positive communication – the underlying theories and research behind it and engage in several activities in Mirivel’s (2014) book. To help create their workshop, they also learn about designing communication training – including the needs of adult learners, emphasis on doing, and skill attainment (not mastery) (Beebe, Mottet, & Roach, 2012). Students are encouraged to follow a five-step process in their workshop: tell, show, invite, encourage, and correct. After learning their community partner’s needs, student teams conduct further research, develop objectives, design and deliver the workshop. Workshops are evaluated both based on their delivery (including modeling positive communication behaviors such as listening, asking, encouraging) as well as content (appropriateness, application, and connections to the positive communication model). Students and clients both report a deeper appreciation of positive communication behaviors and the ability to use the behaviors.
A Note about Limitations
A positive communication approach does not ask students to suppress or avoid negative feelings (see toxic positivity, c.f., Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020). Through the ups and downs of being human, this approach gives us the tools to build and sustain relationships. Nevertheless, we recognize the limitations of a positive approach. For example, what happens when the other person does not move toward us when we reach out? What happens when we make mistakes or don’t live up to the positive approach? What if it feels forced and inauthentic? These questions (and others) are rooted in myths that good communicators are born, and with good communication skills we will be effective 100% of the time. Even great communication scholars started as students at one point (Mirivel, 2017). Similar to cultivating a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008), we underscore that you can: learn the skills through practice and reflection; adapt the behaviors to your personal style; experience setbacks, and when you do that you should try again. We sometimes use a baseball analogy (a sport where failure happens a lot). When it comes to batting average (one important metric in baseball), for example, the very best in baseball are differentiated by about 10% better outcomes from those who are average. We ask our students to imagine being 10% more effective compared to now over their lifetime, through hundreds of thousands of communication episodes, how much potentially more satisfied they would be, the relationships they would have, the better their personal well-being, the lower stress they would have, and the greater their positive impact. You may not make a difference every time, but in the long run, you’re better off.
Mirivel’s Practical Model of Positive Communication provides a useful, theoretically-grounded, and heuristic framework for teaching business communication. It emphasizes core behaviors and principles that can help students develop their communication competency and the necessary skills they will need to serve as positive leaders (Cameron, 2012). In a recent study on leadership, Biganeh and Young (2021) found that the “model of positive communication behavior provides a comprehensive structure to organize training,” and curricula, and “has wide-reaching applicability in a diverse workforce” (p. 13). In our experience, the model not only illustrates the power of positive communication but as our student pointed out, it can be life-changing.
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Julien C. Mirivel, Ph.D., is a Professor of Applied Communication at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. He is “among the founding scholars in the emerging field of positive communication” and an award-winning teacher and scholar.
Ryan Fuller, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business at Sacramento State University.
Amy Young, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Young teaches positive business communications at Ross and provides students with tangible communicative strategies to build and expand human capabilities and wellbeing within the organizational context.
Kristen Christman, Ph.D., is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her areas of interest include communication studies, communication and community, positive communication, and lifespan communication.