Unit 4: Week 1: Communication Skills

Unit 4: Week 1: Communication Skills

Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to truly listen to someone?
  • What do I feel like when I am not being listened to in a conversation?
  • How do both the words I choose and the way I say them impact how well I communicate with others?
  • What can I do to ensure my language is professional?
  • How can I communicate better with someone from a different cultural background? Whether we speak the same or different languages?

Big Ideas

Being on the Help Desk is not just about knowing how to fix a computer or troubleshoot a problem. A lot of the position relies on communicating well with people.

We communicate with people every day, but sometimes those communications aren’t as effective as we want. When you communicate with someone who is frustrated or upset because something isn’t working, that person’s level of anxiety requires you to be more responsive in the way you listen to and communicate back to that person.

You can practice listening, speaking, and writing to make your communication clearer and more professional. You can use common phrases or sentence starters, voice components (like tone, pace, and others), and conversation strategies to be more professional in your communication, even if the person you are speaking with may not have strong English language skills.

When using written communications, like email or responding to an online trouble ticket, you can use simple strategies and even some technology helpers, like grammar and spell check, to ensure your written communications are clear, effective, and professional.

Connection to Student Lives

Have you ever had to call for help with a product? Or perhaps someone you know has? How well did it go? There are Help Desks for a lot of products and services, not just computer help. When things go wrong, many people call for help. Have you ever had a negative Help Desk experience? Compare that to when you work with someone on a Help Desk that is really helpful. If you haven’t had these experiences, talk with your friends or family members who have had them. People often call a Help Desk because they are frustrated, and Help Desk personnel with poor communication skills can make them more frustrated.

Framing Problem

What’s the best way to communicate with people who contact the Help Desk? Whether they do that by phone, email, or another means, how should Help Desk personnel react? What do you need to know to support that person beyond fixing their problem, so they feel calm and are successful?

Cornerstone Assessment

Students will create some communication guidelines and tips for use by Help Desk personnel. These may include tips for verbal as well as written communication.

HDI Standards

  • 5.11.1 Explain the principles of active listening
  • 5.11.2 Explain the benefits of active listening
  • 5.11.3 Define paraphrasing
  • 5.11.4 Identify barriers of active listening
  • 5.12.1 List strategies for establishing effective relationships with stakeholders
  • 5.12.2 Define a filter
  • 5.12.3 List the steps of the communication process
  • 5.12.8 Describe how to effectively communicate cross-culturally
  • 5.12.9 Define the voice elements of tone
  • 5.14.3 List the benefits of using proper documentation
  • 5.14.4 List behaviors to avoid when documenting incidents
  • 5.14.5 Explain how to use professionalism in written communication
  • 5.14.6 Explain how to use literacy in written communication
  • 5.14.7 Describe the qualities of positive language
  • 5.14.8 Describe the qualities of negative language
  • 5.14.9 Describe best practices for e-mail
  • and volume
  • inflection
  • intensity
  • pace
  • spelling and capturing complete thoughts
  • such as proper grammar


  • How to establish and maintain effective relationships with stakeholders by building rapport, practicing empathy, maintaining a service attitude, displaying a confident attitude, and other strategies
  • What filters are and how they affect communication
  • The six steps of the communication process: Idea/Concept, Encoding, Transmission, Receiving, Decoding, Interpretation
  • The principles and benefits of active listening
  • What paraphrasing is and how to paraphrase what they have heard
  • Barriers to active listening
  • The definitions of the voice elements of tone, inflection, pace, intensity, and volume
  • The qualities of both positive and negative language
  • Best practices for email
  • The benefits of proper documentation and behaviors to avoid when documenting incidents
  • How professionalism can be expressed in written communication
  • Strategies to use literacy in written communication
  • What cross-cultural communication is and strategies to effectively communicate cross-culturally


  • List strategies for establishing effective relationships with stakeholders.
  • Define a filter.
  • List the steps of the communication process.
  • Explain the principles of active listening.
  • Explain the benefits of active listening.
  • Define paraphrasing.
  • Identify barriers of active listening.
  • Define the voice elements of tone, inflection, pace, intensity, and volume.
  • Describe the qualities of positive language.
  • Describe the qualities of negative language.
  • Describe best practices for email.
  • List the benefits of using proper documentation, such as proper grammar, spelling and capturing complete thoughts.
  • List behaviors to avoid when documenting incidents.
  • Explain how to use professionalism in written communication.
  • Explain how to use literacy in written communication.
  • Describe how to effectively communicate cross-culturally.

Supporting Vocabulary

  • Acronym
  • Active listening
  • Confident attitude
  • Courtesy phrases
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Decoding
  • Emoticon
  • Empathy
  • Encoding
  • Filler words
  • Filter
  • Formal language
  • Formal name
  • Idea/Concept
  • Inflection
  • Intensity
  • Interpretation
  • Negative inference words
  • Pace
  • Paraphrase
  • Positive vs. Negative language
  • Rapport
  • Receiving
  • Service attitude
  • Slang or regional phrases
  • Standard english language
  • Tone
  • Transmission
  • Volume

Weekly Map


Introduction to problem: Communications guidelines for Help Desk personnel


Exploration of the Communication Process and Active Listening role play


Team meetings to develop project plan and goals


Review content resources with whole group


Whole- and small-group exploration and role play of Active Listening and Voice Components


Contribute to team project


Review content resources with whole group


Whole- and small-group exploration of Word Choice and Written Communication


Contribute to team project


Review content resources with whole group


Whole- and small-group exploration and role play of Cross-Cultural Communication


Contribute to team project


Teams share and synthesize communications guidelines with the whole group

Lesson Ideas

One of the best ways to better understand and ultimately develop communications skills is to practice them through role play. Use one or more of the following resources to model effective communications skills with students and then have them practice different aspects of communication. Role play can occur in pairs or in more of a “fishbowl” setting in which some students role play and others observe and then reflect.

Communication Essentials and Active Listening 

This Active Listening handout from Connect Science provides information and encourages teachers to model active listening skills for their students. Teachers can model general active listening skills or customize them to a Help Desk setting.

Active Listening. Hear What People are Saying from MindTools combines background about active listening with videos and a helpful infographic.

Active Listening from Penn State includes some guidelines for active listening and a link to the video How to Improve Your Listening Skills from Litmos Heroes that explains four key strategies to be a better listener.

The Utah Education Network (UEN) provides links to materials for Active/Reflective Listening Skills. Of these, two that may be the most relevant include: 1) a Reflective Listening Quiz that students can use for a self-reflection of their own listening habits, and 2) the Art of Listening Guide that contains numerous exercises to practice active listening.

Active Listening Skills, Examples and Exercises is a somewhat lengthy article by Dom Barnard for VirtualSpeech, yet it contains good information about both the benefits of and barriers to active listening, verbal and non-verbal signs of active listening, examples and tips. Well worth the time it takes to review.


The Power of Active Listening. A lesson from StoryCorps that includes a video for practice and a partner activity.

You can develop Clear Communication Skills, according to Voice & Speech, by avoiding a fast rate of speaking, mumbling, a quiet voice, and strong accents.

Voice Components

I never said she stole my money.” is a sentence often used to show the impact of voice components. It’s actually been used in brain research to try to better understand how we interpret language. This is an easy and engaging activity to use with students to explore how we say something impacts what people hear and interpret.

How to Use Vocal Pace Tone and Pitch on the Phone by Christine Knott for call centre helper is a brief overview of these major vocal components with some helpful tips.

Skills You Need provides this short article about Five Telephone Communication Skills Tips for Customer Service with links to additional information on related conversations skills.

Effective Word Choices and Written Communication

Noredink includes a curriculum with writing practice self-assessments and tests.

Customer Sure provides examples of these Five Simple Tips for Improving Tone of Voice in Customer Service with examples for written communication, but they could apply to spoken interactions, as well.

Writing Skills. Getting Your Written Message Across Clearly from MindTools includes tips and a short video to help improve the professionalism of written communication.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has compiled this short handout about Word Choice with some examples of unclear word types and suggestions for replacing wordiness and clichés. The last half of the handout focuses on academic writing.

Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

Tri-lingual Amanda Fong from Help Scout shares 8 Tips for How to Approach Cross-Cultural Customer Support with samples and improved options, primarily using examples in email.

PSL Corp provides these 10 Tips for Improving Your Intercultural Communication Skills that would benefit most students faced with cross-cultural communication.

Potential Resources

HDI-Customer Service Representative Competencies

Communication Essentials

To establish and maintain effective relationships with stakeholders:

  • Manage their expectations
  • Build rapport with effective communication skills
  • Practice empathy
  • Provide consistent service
  • Understand how the systems or technology impacts the school system
  • Publicize the service and support center’s accomplishments
  • Maintain a service attitude
  • Meet the customer’s psychological needs first, and then their school system needs
  • Take ownership
  • Display a confident attitude

A filter is an internal bias or personal viewpoint based on one’s experiences, values, culture, education level, language difference, or geography. Filters often lead to miscommunication and can affect communication negatively.

The communication process consists of six steps:

  1. Idea/Concept— feelings, emotions, or a motivation to act
  2. Encoding—the selection of the appropriate words to best express a given thought or concept
  3. Transmission—the brain sends a signal to the vocal cords and the mouth to speak
  4. Receiving—sound waves are received as electrical impulses by the receiver
  5. Decoding—the brain processes the message
  6. Interpretation—the most critical step in the process, this is when the person receiving the message puts meaning behind it

To minimize and reduce miscommunication:

  • Improve your efficiency by becoming more aware of how the brain composes and sends messages and how we receive and digest messages from others
  • Be aware of personal biases and filters that could affect the way you formulate or interpret a message; and make a conscious choice to mitigate the effect of such biases
  • Understand the other components of successful communication such as: being sensitive to other cultures, digesting the full message (not pieces of information), active listening skills when appropriate, and word choice

Active Listening

The principles of active listening include:

  • Be emotionally and physically prepared to listen
  • Do not interrupt
  • Pause before replying
  • Minimize distractions
  • Document and reference notes
  • Acknowledge and focus on the speaker with verbal prompts (e., yes, uh-huh)
  • Paraphrase for clarification
  • Repeat for verification
  • Listen for ideas and images, not just words

Benefits of active listening include:

  • More effective analysis of issues
  • More effective response and resolution
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Established credibility for service and support professionals
  • Reduced stress for service and support professionals and the customer

Paraphrasing means to repeat what the customer said in your own words in order to:

  • Understand what the customer is saying from their point of view and check for clarity
  • Give the customer the chance to agree or disagree with your understanding
  • Show the customer that you are listening and that you understand

The following can be barriers to active listening:

  • Pace and rate of speech that is too rapid
  • Previous poor experience with the service and support center or customer
  • Background, education, and training
  • Accent
  • Language
  • Asking the wrong questions
  • Using inappropriate terminology
  • Background noise
  • Conversing about outside distractions such as weather or current events

Voice Components

  • Tone is a pitch in language to distinguish meaning
  • Inflection is the wave-like movement of vocal tones and pitches, used to convey interest in a conversation
  • Pace of speech is how fast or how slowly you talk
  • Intensity is the strength of emotion that is projected along with the words you are saying, used to convey your level of concern
  • Volume is the degree of loudness in your voice and can be used to instill confidence

Effective Word Choices

Positive language has the following qualities:

  • Tells the listener what can be done
  • Suggests alternatives and choices available
  • Sounds helpful and encouraging
  • Stresses positive actions and positive consequences

Negative language has the following qualities:

  • Tells the listener what cannot be done
  • Has a subtle tone of blame
  • Includes words like can’t, won’t, unable to, you must, you said, you did, etc.
  • Has the potential to lead to conflict

Best practices for e-mail may include:

  • Understand your audience and tailor the message
  • Personalize the conversation
  • Label your message with a subject line that speaks to the message’s content
  • Structure your message so that it is easy and quick to read and understand
  • Proofread your message before sending
  • Use plain text and avoid fancy fonts, colors, and RTF or HTML formatting
  • Include the original message/request with replies to provide context
  • Use appropriate punctuation and capitalization
  • Avoid abbreviations and emoticons
  • Attach relevant visuals, charts, and diagrams where possible to further illustrate your points
  • Provide a link to more detail instructions, processes, etc.

Written Communications

Using proper grammar and spelling when documenting requests or incidents:

  • Reflects well on the organization and support professionals
  • Contributes to the capturing and reuse of knowledge in knowledge article
  • Demonstrates professionalism
  • Provides clarity in the event other support professionals need to work on the request or incident
  • Reduces misunderstandings and distractions

When documenting incidents, record the facts without adding personal opinions that do not add value. Write as if the customer will read what you’ve written.

When documenting incidents, avoid:

  • Using acronyms
  • Using emoticons, such as 🙂
  • Using slang or regional phrases
  • Documenting negative references about customers

Professionalism is expressed in a friendly, but formal writing style.

  • Always use the customer’s formal name in the greeting
  • Always end each message with a closing
  • Use formal language—not slang, abbreviations, or acronyms
  • Reduce the use of negative inference words such as: no, can’t, won’t, don’t, unfortunately
  • Avoid filler word—like, basically, essentially, but, however, etc.
  • Use courtesy phrases—thank you, may I, please, it’s my pleasure, etc.

Literacy is a matter of grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and vocabulary.

  • Use clear, simple words and use a common language
  • Always check messages for grammar, spelling, and accuracy
  • Avoid large words—short words are often more precise
  • Be concise—use as few words as possible to accurately convey your meaning in a complete thought

Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

To effectively communicate cross-culturally:

  • Listen actively for what is and is not being stated
  • Use standard English language and short sentences. If a translator application is used for electronic communication, the result will be more accurate.
  • Let the customer know if you are having difficulty understanding them
  • If communicating via telephone, moderate the pace of the conversation to accommodate the customer
  • If communicating via telephone, switch to writing
  • If using e-mail, web chat, or within an online community support, use standard English—no slang, acronyms, or abbreviations
  • Encourage the customer to ask for clarification throughout the conversation
  • Kindly ask the customer to rephrase his/ her question/response and paraphrase back to the customer to confirm understanding


Effective Cross Cultural Communication 101 (4:06). A short video with five tips for improving cross-cultural or intercultural communication.

Grammarly is a free browser plug-in that reviews your writing and suggests improvements, even in online forms., formerly Read-able, is an online tool that will evaluate the readability of your writing, whether it’s a website or text you enter directly into the site.

Cliche Finder is a simple online tool that can help students analyze their own writing for their use of cliches.

Word processing tools, whether standalone or online, usually include grammar and spelling tools that can improve your writing. Did you ever notice those squiggly lines in a Word document or Google Doc? They’re telling you to check on what you’ve written. Sometimes the automated suggestions aren’t appropriate, but generally they are worth investigating as they can help improve your spelling and grammar.