If you’ve been following social media during election season, you might despair at people’s ability to discuss the issues without resorting to insults or outright hostility. While civil communication is necessary for democracy, is the discourse actually changing anyone’s mind?

Rather than thinking about communication as the transmission of information from one person to another, professor Robert Danisch says we need to think of communication as a practical art of producing effects on others.

Danisch is a scholar and teacher of communication, and if there’s one fundamental problem that he is compelled to point out, it’s the misuse of the word itself. Communications — with an s — refers to the technologies used to generate and transmit communication, not the practice itself.

“If you want to get better at communication, the first thing you need do is to stop thinking of it as a transmission. You need to stop saying ‘Did you get it?’”

Instead, communication is more about making meaning, he says. “You make meaning by producing effects on others. So, it’s about how to produce the right kinds of effects to convey your message or ideas.” In fact, he is effecting communication students in the classroom and beyond with a toolbox of learning resources, including his podcast series, Now We’re Talking.

“Once we start to pay close attention to the effect our interpersonal or public communication practice has on another person or audience, then we are in a better position to improve our communication skills.”

Danisch, who is department chair of Communication Arts and director of the Arts First program, is deeply committed to addressing what he sees as a central problem in democracies. “How do we get along well with others who have different views and opinions about the world? Civil communication practices are essential for maintaining at least weak ties — because, without these ties, the very fabric of our democracy is threatened.”

Improving all forms of communication — interpersonal, small group, written, public speaking and leadership — are covered in the series of micro lessons in Danisch’s podcast, which just hit 73 episodes and close to 17,000 plays. Topics range from the basics, “What is communication? And how do I get better at it?” to public rhetoric, “How to win an election,” to social psychology, “How some communication practices can ruin our relationships.” Or this timely one: “Why and how to stop invalidating others.”

Along with the podcast, Danisch has produced a video series and, in 2018, he published a book entitled What Effect Have I Had?. As an alternative and complement to more traditional classroom instruction, he says these media provide valuable tools for students (and even alumni, as it turns out) to use when they engage in practical exercises, research assignments, or daily life and work interactions.

Danisch sees particular impact and potential in the podcast format. “Podcasts are a great tool for knowledge mobilization. And the quick production of podcasting allows me to use current events or issues to illustrate communication concepts. The series is proving a great teaching resource.”

In fact, students have co-hosted podcast episodes with Danisch, often using communication examples from their own lives. “Part of the reason I love what I teach is my students can easily find examples of what we’re talking about — in political culture, in their private lives, it’s everywhere. The students are instantly engaged and have five examples of a communication problem or solution.”

In both his teaching and scholarship, Danisch wants to show why situations or relationships break down because of poor communication. He has published books on American pragmatism and democracy, and is currently preparing his next book, Competing Obligations, for publication next spring. It’s about civility and how communication practices are critically important for democratic societies, he says.

“The book is deeply tied to the podcast — where I work through questions in micro detail about how communication practices preserve, maintain or build relationships.” While it takes a more theoretical approach on why these relationships are necessary for a democratic society where people are able to get along with each other in the face of difference, Danisch makes the book topical too — “I talk about Trump and his tweeting and the problem of civility … there are a lot of contemporary examples.”

Through his administrative leadership roles Danisch also advocates for better communication practices. As chair of a multi-unit department, as director of Arts First, and as one of the designers of Waterloo’s Undergraduate Communication Outcome Initiative (known as UCOI), Danisch encourages faculty, staff and students alike to “think about communication in different ways that focus on your relationship with others, and that transform the way you approach a communication problem.”

Five things to understand about effective communication

  1. Stop asking, “Did you get it?” and start thinking about how you make meaning by producing effects on others.
  2. Audience and context are the two most important considerations for effective communication.
  3. You cannot NOT communicate: you are always producing effects on others, so consider all of the ways in which you are effecting others.
  4. Worry less about making assertions, being right, or delivering information; instead, ask questions to build relationships.
  5. Communication is more than the words: meaning is made through our interactions with others and not found in the text alone.