A Language for Constructive Communication Between
Douglas E. Ray*
It is not surprising that How to Talk Minnesotan1,
a book written by Prairie Home Companion writer Howard Mohr, is very funny. It
combines Minnesota language lessons with stories, ads and vignettes of the types
that have made the long-running radio show so popular. The book also contains
the framework for a communication system which I believe can be particularly
helpful for law school deans and law faculty.2
As will become clear, the "Minnesotan" parodied in
the book is a language of apparently low emotional content and indirect
communication. It is the indirect nature of these communications that causes me
to recommend them, especially for situations when parties are more likely to
become defensive or resentful or to take offense. The faculty-administration
relationship is a delicate one and some types of decanal communication styles
can strain it. Although we prepare our students for an adversarial system, one
in which there are appropriate times for confrontation, most messages can be
delivered more effectively and received more easily without confrontation. This
is especially true in continuing relationships in which the parties need to deal
with each other for the foreseeable future.3
"Minnesotan" works particularly well in cases where
constructive criticism or evaluative feedback is involved. Although the language
might appear ill suited for positive feedback, it can be effectively adapted
with some translation and supplementation.
Breaking the Ice
Minnesotan is not direct. The speaker eases into a topic with
various verbal icebreakers in an effort to be polite. Phrases such as "you
know" or "so then" often precede a statement.
Two people approach the
reference desk at the public library. Which one is the Minnesotan?
A: "I want a book on
mountain goats." B: "If youíre not
too busy, maíam, I was sort of wondering if you could maybe help me find a
book about mountain goats then?"4
Although humorous, this example does communicate a level of
respect for the listener and her time.5
The Role of Questions
"So then" is an icebreaker used to allow one to
introduce a suggestion in the form of a question. It works well to introduce
otherwise awkward topics as in these "Minnesotan" modifications.
Them: "When are you leaving?"
Us: "So when do you think you might start making
your move toward leaving then?"
Them: "Why are you eating candy?"
Us: "So does that one-pounder bag of M&Ms you
got there in your hand mean thatís about it on the diet then?"6
This model can easily be adapted for awkward but necessary
law school topics.
Faculty to Dean:
So, do you think youíll be staying on as Dean for more
than a few months, then?
then, do you think weíll be seeing pay raises this year?
Dean to Faculty:
did these evaluations convince you to change anything about your teaching,
have important advantages over direct statements in enhancing communication
within the law school community because they are less threatening in sensitive
situations. Whether you are dealing with a vulnerable person from a position of
power or approaching a person in authority who might be defensive, questions
allow you to suggest without directly confronting the listener. For example, a
staff member might ask a supervisor "do you think thereís a chance some
student could misunderstand this letter and get the wrong idea about . .
.?" A dean could say to a faculty member having trouble with teaching,
"So, what are some things you could do to improve this situation?"
Although challenging, the question helps the listener focus on the future rather
than uselessly dwelling on the past.
Other variants would include, "So, what can we do to
improve your effectiveness in the classroom?" or "What can we do to
help you finally complete that article youíve been working on for five
years?" Note that these questions ask what "we" can do to improve
the situation. This allows the person to feel that he or she has not lost all
control, conveys a cooperative willingness to help and can ease the other person
from defensiveness to a problem solving mode.
Questions also play an important role in keeping lines of
communication open and moving the dialogue forward. Questions that begin with
"Are you saying that . . ." or, "Does this mean that you . .
." can be used to show you respect the relationship well enough to pay
attention as well as to insure understanding. This pays dividends on many
Making Suggestions and Providing Constructive
common Minnesota phrase of indirection is a guy could and its
variations, including if a guy and a lotta guys. Hereís a
Minnesotan whoís been asked about how to repair a leaking toilet:
"Well, I think if a guy took off that float valve with a Vise Grips, he
could maybe get at the gasket then."
See how different that is from:
_____ "Take off the float valve, dummy!" . . .
lotta guys is often used to give an opinion when it was not asked for
but is maybe needed anyway.
"A lotta guys wouldnít use a welder so close to a gas tank like
In the above examples, one person wants to provide another
with advice. Use of "if a guy" or "a lotta guys" makes this
less apparent.8 It is a concept that can be used to great effect by
faculty and by deans.
1. From Faculty Members to Deans
Deans are not perfect. They are also temporary. Despite these
limitations, they are trusted with many important decisions and need feedback
and suggestions. Although it might seem that deans would always prefer faculty
members who are passive and full of praise for the deanís sense of direction,
this is not the case. The most valuable faculty members are those who provide
ideas, well researched proposals and constructive feedback. Even good ideas can
be made better and bad ideas must be abandoned.
The problem, of course, is finding a way to communicate that
will not cause a wall of defensiveness to impair the messageís effectiveness.
Given the multiple constituencies served and frequent 60-70 hour work weeks in a
modern deanís life, even the most open can sometimes be less receptive. The
"a lotta guys" or "a lotta schools" strategy can be helpful
because it refers to an external standard9 and may seem less
confrontational. It can be more easily processed and received and opens the door
to further communication.
2. Feedback and Constructive Suggestions from Deans to
There are many opportunities for deans to provide feedback
and times when it is imperative. Annual salary reviews provide opportunities.
Pre-promotion and pre-tenure meetings are occasions when direct communication is
absolutely necessary. Because some well-intentioned communications can be
resented or found presumptuous,10 however, less formal occasions
provide opportunities for less direct means of communication. "If a
guy," "a guy could" and "a lotta guys" provide ways for
dean to experiment with non-directive direction.11
professor with two articles like this could do really well mailing the next
one to top journals."
lotta professors have used something like this to get a book contract."
a person just moved these parts of the conclusion to the introduction, the
article might really come together."
lotta faculty find it helpful to provide the syllabus early in the year."
WORD ABOUT EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS
"Oh, great, just wonderful, terrific, I love it!!!"
Get that excited about something in Minnesota and you
might as well paste a bumper sticker on your forehead that says IíM NOT
FROM AROUND HERE . . .
Itís okay to have good feelings but thereís no sense
running down the street telling people about it at the top of your voice . .
Minnesotans prefer to express their positive feelings
through the use of negatives, because it naturally levels things out . . .
If you just got married or bought a late-model pickup
under book price with low mileage and hardly any rust, or itís dawn on
opening day of the duck season, a Minnesotan would say ___ "I
wouldnít want you to think Iím not happy."
Thatís a strong statement here.12
In a world in which some faculty may be used to deans who
spend significant amounts of time providing effusive praise, speaking Minnesotan
is admittedly an impairment.13 Since "nice job" is about as
effusive as my face to face vocabulary gets14, I look for other ways
to extend praise. Introductions, for example, are a good outlet. When
introducing a program, I can tell the audience about the faculty coordinator.
When introducing a faculty speaker to a bar, alumni or student group, I can
mention the personís accomplishments and dedication. I believe, too, in
creating annual awards on which students and alumni can vote to honor
particularly deserving faculty.
Indications that you have taken a person and his or her work
seriously are another way to convey your respect. This can be demonstrated in
the depth of knowledge shown in an introduction or by taking the trouble to have
a thoughtful foundation for a positive opinion. I think that the statement,
"I liked your book, particularly the way Chapter Two added a comparative
law perspective" is much more effective than "Great book." You
also can show respect by asking a personís advice.
Whether a school has a successful year and whether a
workplace is productive frequently turn on big issues such as vision and
dedication. Often, however, misunderstandings or insensitive communication
styles can impede progress or cause productive people to go elsewhere. I believe
that the core principle of Minnesotan, respecting others, can help relationships
prosper and make for a more effective law school. I thank the very patient and
dedicated group of gifted teachers and scholars with whom I work for helping me
reach this conclusion.15