There may be no observation about communication skills that is more fundamental and more far-reaching in its implications than that they are developed and refined over time through implementation. Communication skills do not appear instantaneously fully developed and ready to be applied in persuading comforting or understanding others. The novice public speaker interviewer therapist or negotiator is unlikely to be as polished or as successful as one who has a wealth of experience in such activities. The general idea that communication skills develop gradually through use is widely recognized and accepted so much so that it can be seen to constitute the basic warrant for much of what transpires in college courses on communication skills professional training seminars and relationship counseling sessions. Doubtless most communication teachers and trainers would conclude with michael argyle and his associates trower that practice is essential in the acquisition of social skills.
Although the practice–skill acquisition relationship is readily seen to be embedded in the very fabric of what and how we teach our understanding of the nature of this relationship remains somewhat vague. As teachers trainers and practitioners we acknowledge—even if only implicitly—that practice leads to improved performance but behind this general principle lurks a number of essential questions: What is the nature of the cognitive mechanisms that give rise to changes in performance quality as a result of practice i.e. why does practice cause improvement if performance improves as a function of practice then what is the nature of the function relating changes in performance quality to amount of practice what individual-difference variables or person factors impact the course of skill acquisition and in what ways what types of practice are more or less effective in bringing about performance improvements despite the significance of these and related issues for the design of instruction and training programs these sorts of questions have not typically been a point of greene emphasis for communication researchers.
In part this may be because skill acquisition is a slow process that does not easily lend itself to the constraints of laboratory studies or even to the temporal limitations of a semester-long course. Researchers in other skill domains have observed that acquiring even a reasonable degree of proficiency in relatively complex activities such as computer programming and air-traffic control requires a minimum of 100 hours of training and practice even more remarkable there is a general consensus that truly exceptional performance in a wide variety of activities requires a minimum of 10 years of intensive preparation see chase 1973 the aim of this chapter is to examine the course of adult communication skill acquisition with emphasis on message production i.e. output and processing input skills. Particular attention is given to addressing the questions outlined above concerning the impact of practice on skill development. In pursuit of these points two distinct but potentially complementary lines of inquiry come to the fore each reflecting a different sense of the term model see hawes on one hand models may serve as explicative devices elucidating the mechanisms that underlie and give rise to the phenomena of interest.
On the other models can serve a primarily descriptive function in seeking to express or capture the dynamics of the process es under scrutiny. Although concern with the course of communication skill acquisition by adults particularly on a timescale such as that shown to characterize the development of proficiency in other behavioral domains has been rather sparse by drawing on work from a variety of research traditions including some that are only indirectly related to communication and social interaction it is possible to make some headway on both the explicative and descriptive fronts. Behavioral and cognitive markers of skill development intrinsic to the concept of skill acquisition is the notion that performance quality improves over time that is people get better as they persist in the activity under examination. The deeper question of course is what does it mean to get better— how exactly does behavior change as a skill develops or alternatively how is performance quality and by extension change in performance quality to be assessed there is a tradition in the study of social skill and competence that can be traced at least as far back as the seminal work and brown and centering on the notion that performance quality in the social sphere involves the effectiveness and appropriateness of ones actions see also spitzberg this volume; wilson this volume that is people exhibit skillful behavior to the extent that they are effective in accomplishing their interaction goals while adhering to the norms and rules operating in that social context.
Obviously operationalizing performance quality by recourse to effectiveness and appropriateness has considerable intuitive appeal. At the same time given the concern with describing and explaining the course of adult communication skill acquisition such an approach is severely limiting because most of the relevant research and theory has been developed in the context of traditions of inquiry that emphasize other indices of performance quality. To gain some purchase on the issues central to this 1in point of fact would not apply the term model to the sort of explicative frameworks reviewed here because they do not involve analogues. Rather in hawess terminology these conceptual frameworks would be more properly identified as theories. 2. adult communication skill acquisition review then it is necessary to look beyond changes in effectiveness and appropriateness to other sorts of changes—both behavioral and cognitive—that accompany the development of communication skills. behavioral indices of skill development speed.
Perhaps most readily apparent of the behavioral changes that occur as a person becomes more skilled at a given activity is an increase in speed of task execution—quite simply experts are faster than novices. The relationship between practice and speed of task execution is quite robust and has been shown to hold for a wide variety of perceptual cognitive and motor behaviors for reviews, in fact so central is rapidity of task performance that some definitions of skill include speed as an essential characteristic e.g. glass of particular importance in the context of a focus on acquisition of communication skills is the fact that speedup in task performance appears to extend to the realm of message-production behavior.
A delightful illustration of just such an effect is found in kuipers 1996 analysis of the verbal fluency of announcers of horse races who may serve many years in an apprentice capacity while developing the ability to deliver rapid-fire descriptions of fast-changing events. It is important to note however that although fluency or speech rate tends to increase with experience a caveat is in order concerning this relationship. Under certain conditions people with the greatest experience may actually have lower rates of speech because they make effective use of pauses to assist their listeners in comprehending the message. An example of this effect is found in a study by contrasting the speech fluency of professional broadcasters student broadcasters and people with no broadcasting experience while they were reading news stories and editorials. the results indicated that when reading news stories the professional broadcasters had higher speech rates and fewer and shorter silent pauses than the other two groups.
When delivering an editorial however it was the student broadcasters i.e. those with moderate levels of experience who exhibited the highest rates of delivery again presumably because the more experienced broadcasters were using pauses to their advantage. Thus it appears that while people with more experience at a particular type of message-encoding task have the ability to speak with greater rapidity they may choose not to do so in the interest of maximizing listener comprehension. Accuracy. a second defining characteristic of the behavior of highly skilled individuals is greater accuracy or its converse lower error rates put simply experts dont make as many mistakes; their responses are more likely to be correct as defined by some criterion of accuracy or appropriateness see the growth of accuracy with practice is observed to occur for both input processing tasks such as reading x rays and output tasks such as typing moreover the impact of practice on error rate extends to the realm of message production where experts are shown to exhibit far fewer speech errors and disfluencies as with speed however some caveats are in order concerning the practice–accuracy.
Similar effect can be seen to emerge over the span of years from childhood to middle age in that the highest oral reading rates are exhibited by those in the early teen yearS greene relationship. First although it is the case that greater expertise is associated with both greater speed and accuracy for any given level of skill there is commonly observed a speed–accuracy trade-off see proctor that is increases in performance speed are typically made at the cost of more frequent errors as when attempting to type faster results in more erroneous keystrokes. Again a similar effect occurs in the case of verbal message production where faster rates of speaking are associated with more frequent speech errors see a second caveat concerns the fact that under some circumstances frequent use of particular behavioral routines may cause those behaviors to manifest themselves in situations in which they are not appropriate as when habitual responses disrupt or override ones intended course of action.
Finally it is important to note that there are situations in which considerable time spent on some task does not necessarily result in more accurate performance. An interesting example of such a phenomenon concerns the ability to detect deception. It is commonly observed that people with years of experience in occupations such as law enforcement who place great emphasis on ability to detect deception are in fact no better at such tasks than their lay counterpart at the same time however it is clear that training people to look for the correct behavioral cues does result in significantly better detection of deception thus practice employing nonoptimal techniques or practice that is not accompanied by corrective feedback may not necessarily lead to more accurate performance.
Flexibility. a third behavioral change that characterizes the development of skill is an increase in flexibility and adaptation to situational exigencies. The ability to make behavioral adjustments is commonly identified as a central component of communication competence and again evidence suggests that both input processing performance. Behavioral productio come to be characterized by greater flexibility as experience increases. At the same time suggested that practice alone is not sufficient to ensure behavioral flexibility. These authors distinguish routine and adaptive expertise where the former entails the increased speed and accuracy arising from practice but with little flexibility while the latter involves development of a more abstract conceptual understanding of the skill domain and for this reason is associated with more creative adaptive performance. From this perspective then practice is likely to lead to adaptive expertise only under those conditions that foster development of a conceptual grasp of the performance domain.
Multiple-task performance. The study of peoples ability to carry out multiple simultaneous tasks has a long history in the behavioral sciences and as intuition suggests it is not unusual to find that the speed and accuracy with which some task can be carried out is diminished when a second task is introduced. it is also the case however that such interference effects are reduced or even eliminated with practice. For example after several weeks of practice subjects have been shown to develop the ability to read and comprehend written material while simultaneously transcribing unrelated aurally presented words e.g. hirst spelke reaves similarly skilled typists are able to type written material while carrying out a variety of other tasks.