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Communication: The Process, Barriers,
And Improving Effectiveness

Fred C. Lunenburg
Sam Houston State University



Communication is the process of transmitting information and common
understanding from one person to another. In this article, I discuss the
communication process, barriers to communication, and improving communication

The study oI communication is important, because every administrative Iunction
and activity involves some Iorm oI direct or indirect communication. Whether planning
and organizing or leading and monitoring, school administrators communicate with and
through other people. This implies that every person`s communication skills aIIect both
personal and organizational eIIectiveness (Brun, 2010; Summers, 2010). It seems
reasonable to conclude that one oI the most inhibiting Iorces to organizational
eIIectiveness is a lack oI eIIective communication (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2010). Moreover,
good communication skills are very important to ones success as a school administrator.
A recent study indicated that recruiters rated communication skills as 90 most important
characteristic oI an ideal job candidate (Yate, 2009).
In this article, I will help you to better understand how school administrators can
improve their communication skills. To begin, I deIine what is meant by communication
and then discuss the process by which it occurs. Following this, I examine barriers to
communication and ways to improve communication eIIectiveness.

Defining Communication and Describing the Process

Communica9ion can be deIined as the process oI transmitting inIormation and
common understanding Irom one person to another (Keyton, 2011). The word
communication is derived Irom the Latin word, communis, which means common. The
deIinition underscores the Iact that unless a common understanding results Irom the
exchange oI inIormation, there is no communication. Figure 1 reIlects the deIinition and
identiIies the important elements oI the communication process (Cheney, 2011)

Figur0 1. The communication process.

Two common elements in every communication exchange are the sender and the
receiver. The s0nd0r initiates the communication. In a school, the sender is a person who
has a need or desire to convey an idea or concept to others. The r0c0iv0r is the individual
to whom the message is sent. The sender 0ncod0s the idea by selecting words, symbols,
or gestures with which to compose a message. The m0ssag0 is the outcome oI the
encoding, which takes the Iorm oI verbal, nonverbal, or written language. The message is
sent through a m0dium or channel, which is the carrier oI the communication. The
medium can be a Iace-to-Iace conversation, telephone call, e-mail, or written report. The
receiver d0cod0s the received message into meaningIul inIormation. Nois0 is anything
that distorts the message. DiIIerent perceptions oI the message, language barriers,
interruptions, emotions, and attitudes are examples oI noise. Finally, 100dback occurs
when the receiver responds to the sender's message and returns the message to the sender.
Feedback allows the sender to determine whether the message has been received and
The elements in the communication process determine the quality oI
communication. A problem in any one oI these elements can reduce communication
eIIectiveness (Keyton, 2011). For example, inIormation must be encoded into a message
that can be understood as the sender intended. Selection oI the particular medium Ior
transmitting the message can be critical, because there are many choices.
For written media, a school administrator or other organization member may
choose Irom memos, letters, reports, bulletin boards, handbooks, newsletters, and the
like. For verbal media, choices include Iace-to-Iace conversations, telephone, computer,




public address systems, closed-circuit television, tape-recorded messages, sound/slide
shows, e-mail, and so on. Nonverbal gestures, Iacial expressions, body position, and even
clothing can transmit messages. People decode inIormation selectively. Individuals are
more likely to perceive inIormation Iavorably when it conIorms to their own belieIs,
values, and needs (Keyton, 2010). When Ieedback does not occur, the communication
process is reIerred to as one-way communication. Two-way communication occurs with
Ieedback and is more desirable.
The key Ior being successIul in the contemporary school is the ability oI the
school administrator to work with other school stakeholders (Iaculty, support staII,
community members, parents, central oIIice); and develop a shared sense oI what the
school/school district is attempting to accomplish where it wants to go, a shared sense
oI commitments that people have to make in order to advance the school/school district
toward a shared vision and clarity oI goals. As school administrators are able to build a
shared mission, vision, values, and goals, the school/school district will become more
eIIective. Building a relationship between school administrators and other school
stakeholders requires eIIective communication.
For example, research indicates that principals spend 70 to 80 oI their time in
interpersonal communication with various stakeholders (Green, 2010; Lunenburg & Irby,
2006; Matthews & Crow, 2010; Sergiovanni, 2009; Tareilo, 2011; Ubben, Hughes, &
Norris, 2011). EIIective principals know how to communicate, and they understand the
importance oI ongoing communication, both Iormal and inIormal: Iaculty and department
meetings; individual conversations with parents, teachers, and students; and telephone
calls and e-mail messages with various stakeholder groups.
The one constant in the liIe oI a principal is a lot oI interruptions they happen
daily, with a number oI one- and three-minute conversations in the course oI the day.
This type oI communication in the work oI the principal has to be done one on one - one
phone call to one person at a time, one parent at a time, one teacher at a time, one student
at a time; and a principal needs to make time Ior these conversations. For example, a
principal may be talking with a parent with a very serious problem. She may be talking
with a community member. She may be talking with the police about something that
went on during the school day. The principal must be able to turn herselI on and oII in
many diIIerent roles in any given day.

Barriers to Effective Communication
A school administrator has no greater responsibility than to develop eIIective
communication (Pauley, 2010). Why then does communication break down? On the
surIace, the answer is relatively simple. I have identiIied the elements oI communication
as the sender, the encoding, the message, the medium, the decoding, the receiver, and the
Ieedback. II noise exists in these elements in any way, complete clarity oI meaning and
understanding does not occur. The author, George Bernard Shaw wrote, The greatest
problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished (Shaw, 2011).
Four types oI barriers (called 'noise, see Figure 1) are process barriers, physical barriers,
semantic barriers, and psychosocial barriers (Eisenberg, 2010).

Process Barriers

Every step in the communication process is necessary Ior eIIective and good
communication.. Blocked steps become barriers. Consider the Iollowing situations:

Sender -,rrier. A new administrator with an innovative idea Iails to speak up at a
meeting, chaired by the superintendent, Ior Iear oI criticism.
Encoding -,rrier. A Spanish-speaking staII member cannot get an English-
speaking administrator to understand a grievance about working conditions.
Medium -,rrier. A very upset staII member sends an emotionally charged letter
to the leader instead oI transmitting her Ieelings Iace-to-Iace.
Decoding -,rrier. An older principal is not sure what a young department head
means when he reIers to a teacher as "spaced out."
Receiver -,rrier. A school administrator who is preoccupied with the preparation
oI the annual budget asks a staII member to repeat a statement, because she was
not listening attentively to the conversation.
Feed-,ck -,rrier. During a meeting, the Iailure oI school administrators to ask
any questions causes the superintendent to wonder iI any real understanding has
taken place.

Because communication is a complex, give-and-take process, breakdowns anywhere in
the cycle can block the transIer oI understanding.

Physical Barriers

Any number oI physical distractions can interIere with the eIIectiveness oI
communication, including a telephone call, drop-in visitors, distances between people,
walls, and static on the radio. People oIten take physical barriers Ior granted, but
sometimes they can be removed. For example, an inconveniently positioned wall can be
removed. Interruptions such as telephone calls and drop-in visitors can be removed by
issuing instructions to a secretary. An appropriate choice oI media can overcome distance
barriers between people.

Semantic Barriers

The words we choose, how we use them, and the meaning we attach to them
cause many communication barriers. The problem is semantic, or the meaning oI the
words we use. The same word may mean diIIerent things to diIIerent people. Words and
phrases such as 011ici0ncy, incr0as0d produc9ivi9y, manag0m0n9 pr0roga9iv0s, and fus9
caus0 may mean one thing to a school administrator, and something entirely diIIerent to a
staII member.
Technology also plays a part in semantic barriers to communication. Today's
complex school systems are highly specialized. Schools have staII and technical experts
developing and using specialized terminologyjargon that only other similar staII and
technical experts can understand. And iI people don't understand the words, they cannot
understand the message.
Psychosocial Barriers

Three important concepts are associated with psychological and social barriers:
Iields oI experience, Iiltering, and psychological distance (Antos, 2011)). Fi0ds o1
0p0ri0nc0 include people's backgrounds, perceptions, values, biases, needs, and
expectations. Senders can encode and receivers decode messages only in the context oI
their Iields oI experience. When the sender's Iield oI experience overlaps very little with
the receiver's, communication becomes diIIicult. Fi90ring means that more oIten than not
we see and hear what we are emotionally tuned in to see and hear. Filtering is caused by
our own needs and interests, which guide our listening. Psychosocial barriers oIten
involve a psycoogica dis9anc0 between people that is similar to actual physical
distance. For example, the school administrator talks down to a staII member, who
resents this attitude, and this resentment separates them, thereby blocking opportunity Ior
eIIective communication.
SuccessIul communication by school administrators is the essence oI a productive
school organization. However, as discussed previously, communications do break down.
Several communication theorists (Abrell, 2004; Auer, 2011; Larson, 2011; Shettleworth,
2010; Weiss, 2011) have Iocused on the major areas where Iailures in communication
most Irequently occur. The Iollowing are the major areas where communication
breakdowns most Irequently occur in schools:

Sincerity. Nearly all communication theorists assert that sincerity is the
Ioundation on which all true communication rests. Without sincerityhonesty,
straightIorwardness, and authenticityall attempts at communication are destined to Iail.
Emp,thy. Research shows that lack oI empathy is one oI the major obstacles to
eIIective communication. Empathy is the ability to put one's selI into another's shoes. The
empathetic person is able to see the world through the eyes oI the other person.
Self-perception. How we see ourselves aIIects our ability to communicate
eIIectively. A healthy but realistic selI-perception is a necessary ingredient in
communicating with others.
Role perception. Unless people know what their role is, the importance oI their
role, and what is expected oI them, they will not know what to communicate, when to
communicate, or to whom to communicate.
Efforts to distort the mess,ge. PitIalls in communication oIten occur in our
eIIortsboth consciously and unconsciouslyto distort messages.
Im,ges. Another obstacle to successIul communication is the sender's image oI
the receiver and vice versa. For example, on the one hand, school administrators are
sometimes viewed as not too well inIormed about teaching, seen as out oI touch with the
classroom, and looked on as paper shuIIlers. On the other hand, some school
administrators view teachers as lazy, inconsiderate oI administrative problems, and
unrealistic about the strengths and weaknesses oI their students. Such views lead to a
"we-they" attitude.
Jehicle for mess,ge. The vehicle by which we choose to send messages is
important in successIul communication. In most cases, the vehicle to be used is deIined
by the situation.
A-ility to communic,te. Some oI the ways we communicate raise barriers by
inhibiting discussion or causing others to Ieel inIerior, angry, hostile, dependent,
compliant, or subservient.
Listening ,-ility. Frequently, people Iail to appreciate the importance oI listening,
do not care enough to become actively involved with what others are saying, and are not
suIIiciently motivated to develop the skills necessary to acquire the art oI listening.
Culture. Our cultural heritage, biases, and prejudices oIten serve as barriers to
communication. The Iact that we are AIrican-American or white, young or old, male or
Iemale have all proved to be obstacles in communicating eIIectively.
1r,dition. Past practice in a school helps determine how, when, and what we send
and receive. For example, a school administrator who has an authoritative style may Iind
that his staII will not share inIormation readily. II a new administrator with a
collaborative style replaces the authoritarian one, the new administrator may Iind that it
takes a while Ior his colleagues to speak out on important issues.
Conditioning. The manner in which communication is conditioned by the
environment inIluences the accuracy oI messages sent and received. II we work Ior
administrators who set a climate in which we are encouraged to share inIormation, we
soon become conditioned to communicate accordingly.
Aoise. A major barrier to communication is what communication experts call
noise. Noise consists oI the external Iactors in the channels and the internal perceptions
and experiences within the source and the receiver that aIIect communication.
Feed-,ck. Faculty and staII tell their leaders that they want Ieedback. However,
Ieedback improperly given can impede communication rather than improve it.
Administrators and Iollowers both need more training in how to use Ieedback more

Improving Communication Effectiveness

EIIective communication is a two-way process that requires eIIort and skill by
both sender and receiver. Administrators will at times assume each oI these roles in the
communication process. In this section, I discuss guidelines Ior improving
communication eIIectiveness, including senders` and receivers` responsibilities, and

Sender's Responsibilities

Several communication theorists (Cheney, 2011; Keyton, 2011; Tourish, 2010)
have gleaned ten commandments oI good communication, which are particularly
applicable to the sender. These commandments, together with a basic understanding oI
the communication process itselI, should provide a good Ioundation Ior developing and
maintaining an eIIective set oI interpersonal communication skills, which school
administrators can use when communicating with various school stakeholders.

1. School ,dministr,tors need to cl,rify their ide,s -efore communic,ting. The
more systematically administrators analyze the problem or idea to be communicated, the
clearer it becomes. This is the Iirst step toward eIIective communication. Many
communications Iail because oI inadequate planning. Good planning must consider the
goals, attitudes, and needs oI those who will receive the communication and those who
will be aIIected by it.
2. Administr,tors need to ex,mine the true purpose of e,ch communic,tion. BeIore
administrators communicate, they must ask themselves what they really want to
accomplish with their messageobtain inIormation, initiate action, or change another
person's attitude? Administrators need to identiIy their most important goal and then
adapt their language, tone, and total approach to serve that speciIic objective.
Administrators should not try to accomplish too much with each communication. The
sharper the Iocus oI their message, the greater its chances oI success.
3. Administr,tors need to consider the tot,l physic,l ,nd hum,n setting. Meaning
and intent are conveyed by more than words alone. Many other Iactors inIluence the
overall impact oI a communication, and administrators must be sensitive to the total
setting in which they communicate: the circumstances under which an announcement or
decision is made; the physical settingwhether the communication is made in private or
otherwise; the social climate that pervades work relationships within the school or
department and sets the tone oI its communications; custom and practicethe degree to
which the communication conIorms to, or departs Irom, the expectations oI the audience.
Be constantly aware oI the total setting in which you communicate. Like all living things,
communication must be capable oI adapting to its environment.
4. Administr,tors need to consult with others, when ,ppropri,te, in pl,nning
communic,tions. Frequently, it is desirable or necessary to seek the participation oI
others in planning a communication or in developing the Iacts on which to base the
communication. Such consultation oIten lends additional insight and objectivity to the
message. Moreover, those who have helped plan the communication will give it their
active support.
5. Administr,tors need to -e mindful, while communic,ting, of the overtones ,s
well ,s the -,sic content of the mess,ge. The administrator`s tone oI voice, expression,
and apparent receptiveness to the responses oI others all have tremendous impact on
those the administrator wishes to reach. Frequently overlooked, these subtleties oI
communication oIten aIIect a listener's reaction to a message even more than its basic
content. Similarly, the administrator`s choice oI languageparticularly her awareness oI
the Iine shades oI meaning and emotion in the words usedpredetermine in large part
the reactions oI the listeners.
6. Administr,tors need to t,ke the opportunity, when it ,rises, to convey something
of help or v,lue to the receiver. Consideration oI the other person's interests and needs
trying to look at things Irom the other person's point oI viewIrequently points up
opportunities to convey something oI immediate beneIit or long-range value to the other
person. StaII members are most responsive to administrators whose messages take staII
interests into account.
7. Administr,tors need to follow up their communic,tion. An administrator`s best
eIIorts at communication may be wasted, and she may never know whether she has
succeeded in expressing her true meaning and intent iI she does not Iollow up to see how
well she has put her message across. An administrator can do this by asking questions, by
encouraging the receiver to express his or her reactions, by Iollow-up contacts, and by
subsequent review oI perIormance. An administrator needs to make certain that every
important communication has Ieedback so that complete understanding and appropriate
action result.
8. Administr,tors need to communic,te for tomorrow ,s well ,s tod,y. Although
communications may be aimed primarily at meeting the demands oI an immediate
situation, they must be planned with the past in mind iI they are to maintain consistency
in the receiver's view. Most important, however, communications must be consistent with
long-range interests and goals. For example, it is not easy to communicate Irankly on
such matters as poor perIormance or the shortcomings oI a loyal staII member, but
postponing disagreeable communications makes these matters more diIIicult in the long
run and is actually unIair to your staII and your school organization.
9. Administr,tors need to -e sure th,t their ,ctions support their communic,tions.
In the Iinal analysis, the most persuasive kind oI communication is not what
administrators say, but what they do. When leaders` actions or attitudes contradict their
words, others tend to discount what they have said. For every administrator, this means
that good supervisory practicessuch as clear assignment oI responsibility and authority,
Iair rewards Ior eIIort, and sound policy enIorcementserve to communicate more than
all the giIts oI oratory.
10. Administr,tors need to seek, not only to -e understood, -ut to underst,nd--e ,
good listener. When an administrator starts talking, he oIten ceases to listen, at least in
that larger sense oI being attuned to the other person's unspoken reactions and attitudes.
Even more serious is the occasional inattentiveness a leader may be guilty oI when others
are attempting to communicate with him. Listening is one oI the most important, most
diIIicult, and most neglected skills in communication. It demands that the administrator
concentrate not only on the explicit meanings another person is expressing, but also on
the implicit meanings, unspoken words, and undertones that may be Iar more signiIicant.
Thus, an administrator must learn to listen with the inner ear iI he is to know the inner

Receiver's Responsibilities

Communication depends on the ability not only to send but also to receive
messages. So the ability to listen eIIectively greatly enhances the communication process.
But many oI us are not good listeners. EIIective listening skills can be developed,
however. Summarized Iollowing are ten rules Ior good listening (Kneen, 2011)):

1. Stop t,lking. You cannot listen iI you are talking. For example, Polonius in
am09 said: "Give every man thine ear, but Iew thy voice."
2. Put the t,lker ,t e,se. Help a person Ieel Iree to talk. This is oIten called a
permissive environment.
3. Show , t,lker th,t you w,nt to listen. Look and act interested. Do not read your
mail while someone talks. Listen to understand rather than to oppose.
4. Remove distr,ctions. Don't doodle, tap, or shuIIle papers. Will it be quieter iI you
shut the door?
5. Emp,thize with t,lkers. Try to help yourselI see the other person's point oI view.
6. Be p,tient. Allow plenty oI time. Do not interrupt a talker. Don't start Ior the door
or walk away.
7. Hold your temper. An angry person takes the wrong meaning Irom words.
8. Co e,sy on ,rgument ,nd criticism. These put people on the deIensive, and they
may clam up or become angry. Do not argue: Even iI you win, you lose.
9. Ask questions. This encourages a talker and shows that you are listening. It helps
to develop points Iurther.
10. Stop t,lking. This is Iirst and last, because all other guides depend on it. You
cannot do an eIIective listening job while you are talking.

Nature gave people two ears but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that they
should listen more than they talk. Listening requires two ears, one Ior meaning and one
Ior Ieeling. Leaders who do not listen have less inIormation Ior making sound decisions.

Active Listening

c9iv0 is90ning is a term popularized by the work oI Carl Rogers and Richard
Farson (n.d.) and advocated by counselors and therapists (Brownell, 2009; Burstein,
2010). The concept recognizes that a sender's message contains both verbal and
nonverbal content as well as a Ieeling component. The receiver should be aware oI both
components in order to comprehend the total meaning oI the message. For instance, when
a staII member says to her supervisor, "Next time you ask me to prepare a report, please
give me some advance notice." The content conveys that the staII member needs time,
but the Ieeling component may indicate resentment Ior being pressured to meet a
deadline with such short notice. The supervisor, thereIore, must recognize this Ieeling to
understand the staII member's message. There are Iive guidelines that can help school
administrators to become more active listeners (Rogers & Farson, n.d.).

1. Listen for mess,ge content. The receiver must try to hear exactly what the sender
is saying in the message.
2. Listen for feelings. The receiver must try to identiIy how the sender Ieels in terms
oI the message content. This can be done by asking: "What is he trying to say?"
3. Respond to feelings. The receiver must let the sender know that her Ieelings, as
well as the message content are recognized.
4. Aote ,ll cues, ver-,l ,nd nonver-,l. The receiver must be sensitive to the
nonverbal messages as well as the verbal ones. II the receiver identiIies mixed messages,
he may ask Ior clariIication.
5. Rephr,se the sender's mess,ge. The receiver may restate or paraphrase the verbal
and nonverbal messages as Ieedback to the sender. The receiver can do this by allowing
the sender to respond with Iurther inIormation.

The last guideline is one oI the most powerIul oI the active listening techniques
and is used regularly by counselors and therapists. It helps the receiver avoid passing
judgment or giving advice, and encourages the sender to provide more inIormation about
what is really the problem.


Communication is the process oI transmitting inIormation and common

understanding Irom one person to another. The elements oI the communication process
are the sender, encoding the message, transmitting the message through a medium,
receiving the message, decoding the message, Ieedback, and noise.
A number oI barriers retard eIIective communication. These can be divided into
Iour categories: process barriers, physical barriers, semantic barriers, and psychosocial
barriers. To improve the eIIectiveness oI communications, schools must develop an
awareness oI the importance oI sender's and receiver's responsibilities and adhere to
active listening skills.

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