Posted by: Tammy Cravit | December 13, 2010

Avoid Misunderstandings by Avoiding Jargon

As most of us know, one of the key triggers that can create conflict is misunderstanding. If you and I don’t have a common understanding of what we’re discussing, how can we possibly negotiate an agreement? In fact, creating a shared language and a shared understanding is, in my view, one of the key tasks of a negotiator, mediator, or facilitator.

One place where I too often see misunderstandings crop up in schools, especially in the Special Education context, is where professionals use jargon or technical language. In fact, a significant part of what I do in facilitating the Special Education process for parents is to help them understand the language of the law and of the professionals on their child’s education team.

Consider this excerpt, which I’ve taken verbatim (except for the student’s name) from a real report prepared by a school psychologist:

Jane’s below average score on the Auditory Comprehension subtest of the TAPS-3 is significantly lower than her score on the Listening Comprehension subtest of the WLPB-R, and was probably due to lapses of attention on the TAPS-3 (see WLPR-B below). Her below average score on the Sentence Memory subtest is relatively consistent with her below average to low average score on the Memory for Sentences subtest of the WLPB-R.

If you’re a school psychologist or credentialed Special Education teacher (or if, like me, you have a lot of experience reading these sorts of documents), the above paragraph conveys important information about how Jane learns and where she is in her academics. If, on the other hand, you’re a typical parent, it’s highly likely that by the end of the paragraph, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion.

The trouble here is one I’ve seen in many professions that use specialized language: The professionals forget that not everyone can talk like them. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and psychologists all have their own lingo, and their own verbal shorthand. And the professionals forget that the terms which are commonplace for them aren’t that way for everyone.

When parents face a barrage of this kind of specialized lingo, I see several common reactions. Some simply shut down, failing to engage the process at all and going along with the school’s decisions because they simply don’t understand what’s being proposed. Some feel as though the school’s trying to put one over on them, or trying to bury serious problems by wrapping them up in bland professional-ese. These folks often become angry and combative at the perceived verbal slight-of-hand. Others feel talked down to, which brings up defensive feelings. In all three cases, the student’s needs get lost in the unnecessary conflict.

How can we avoid this problem?

For parents, the answer is simple: Ask questions. Lots of them. Say, “you said in your report that Jane scored below average on the Auditory Comprehension subtest of the TAPS-3. Can you explain to me what that test measures?” In all likelihood, the professionals aren’t trying to be condescending or difficult. They just forget that not everyone speaks their language. A Special Education Facilitator can also help you make sense of what the evaluations and assessments are telling you.

For educators and professionals, the solution comes from being conscious of our language choices. The law often requires this sort of technical language in the reports, so you have a couple of options for minimizing confusion. You can give the technical information in writing, followed by a brief explanation, in plain English, of what the assessment results mean. Or, you can take some time when you give a parent a report or assessment to walk through its contents and explain what the findings mean.

Once parents, teachers, psychologists and other professionals come together with a common language and cut through the jargon, communication becomes clearer. Opportunities for misunderstanding, and therefore for conflict, are reduced. And everyone can stay focused on the task of helping the student to succeed.

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