Quality Communication - Active Listening as a Requirement for Quality Judging

Posted in NEWS on October 19, 1999

By Wizards of the Coast

Tim Weissman

As an experienced judge, as well as a family therapist in my day-to-day life, I thought it would be beneficial to share my thoughts on effective communication in judging. As you all know, the DCI has many requirements for judge certification, yet, in my opinion, the skill which stands out above and beyond the rest as a requirement for a quality judge is communication - the ability to effectively interact with people.

Of course a judge needs to know the rules of the game, and higher judges need strong knowledge of policy, but all this book knowledge will go to waste if a judge does not have skill in dealing with people. How a judge makes a ruling has a lasting impression on the player(s). A simple, cut and dry, ruling which is implemented in a poor fashion will not go over as well as some of the most difficult rulings made with effective communication skills and techniques. The impression left with the players goes a long way toward their assessment of the quality and professionalism of the judge AND of the event itself - something with which us tournament organizers are very concerned.

So, if you want to increase your quality as a judge (and as a person for that matter), and be more marketable to tournament organizers, I encourage you to take a look at communication. The communication process seems very obvious, yet many people don't engage in it very well. It goes like this: one person speaks (or engages in some non-verbal message) while the second person listens, then the second person speaks while the first person listens. Pretty basic, yet so many people don't really understand the art that takes place here. Eye contact, body language and other non-verbals are crucial when engaging in communication. Remember, communication is a process, a dance, between two or more people in which there is active involvement in both the speaking and the listening. Most people have no problem giving their input and taking their turn to speak. The area where there seems to be the largest challenge is in the listening. This is also an area where I see many judges needing improvement. Remember, judging should not be about power and influence. It should be about an enjoyment of the game and the desire to see a fair playing field on which players may compete.

When a judge does not engage in quality listening, he/she establishes a rigid power differential and creates an atmosphere of totalitarianism. In essence the message to the player is "I know the answer and I don't need you to give me any information." This doesn't inspire confidence or trust with the players, which in turn reflects poorly on the tournament organizer and their event. So, practice what is called active listening. It is called active because you don't simply sit there and look at the person; you are actively involved. It is a style of listening in which the receiver actively participates in the transfer of the message. When dealing with a player who is speaking, look them in the eye, nod your head, give affirmative verbal cues like "yes" and "uh-huh," ask appropriate clarification questions, keep an interested and open posture, and, finally, let them come to a reasonable finishing point before breaking in for your turn. Nothing goes farther toward building relationships, and therefore trust, than active listening. When the other person feels heard, even the harshest rulings can be implemented smoothly.

In my own experience, it is not uncommon for me to be ejecting a person from the tournament, and for them to be smiling while I fill out the paperwork (well, maybe not smiling, but you get the idea). Let me give you an idea of how to implement quality communication in judging. In fact, I suggest this approach to all new judges. When a ruling is called for and you approach the table, first ask the person calling for a judge what they need. Let them explain the situation to you, asking clarification questions and engaging in active listening. If the opponent tries to interrupt, stop them and explain in a soft but direct manner that your style of judging is to let one person explain the situation fully without interruption, then to give the opponent the same opportunity.

Once you get explanations from both players, engaging in active listening with both, you can make a ruling. After making the ruling, ask them each if they are unclear on why. Then respond where appropriate. If a player becomes emotional at any point, a good way redirect them is to tell them you understand how important this match is, and remind them that this isn't a personal ruling, and that you would appreciate it if it would stay professional. Of course, there are some people out there that don't respond well, no matter what you do, so you might have to become more directive and inform them of penalties for being belligerent to judges. There are other strategies to moderate emotional responses from players, as well as build the trust of players in general. I personally like to carry my rule books and judge guidelines when making rulings. I know there is a school of thought that says players trust it more when you "know" the answer. However, I feel it is just the opposite. Plus, I think it is all in the presentation. I present my act of carrying ruling books with me as a non-biased approach to judging in which players have the chance to see the ruling themselves if desired. Additionally, if they see me looking it up, they feel more trusting of the rule - not like I am just pulling something out of thin air.

Another strategy is to work in a team approach. I do this at all my events, especially when a serious ruling needs to be made. Players trust a team of judges much more than they trust a single one. The reason I bring these strategies up is because the building of trust is crucial in quality communication. If the receiver does not trust what the sender is sending, an open exchange of information is impossible. Thus, building trust is of utmost importance. This can be accomplished with these types of strategies, as well as with active listening. When the player feels heard, and they trust that the judge is being impartial, the actual ruling feels much more acceptable, and the player is much more likely to believe the judge, as well as the event, is professional.

In conclusion, let's recap what active listening is and how it influences communication and judging. Active listening is a style of listening in which the receiver of the message participates fully in the transfer. They ask clarification questions, nod their head in affirmation, look the speaker in the eye and pay attention to the message until such time as the message is finished. When a judge uses this technique of listening, it helps engender trust in the player and facilitates a smooth rule-making process. It also helps moderate emotionality in players, as well as build up confidence in the judge as a competent professional. So, engage in active listening and remember that communication is more effective when trust and rapport are established. Next time you here "JUDGE!" called out, use it as an opportunity to practice quality communication and witness the results first-hand. I'm sure you will be pleased with the response from players, as well as with how smooth rulings can go. Also, feel free to email me with any questions or ideas of your own - tweissm@pdq.net

Tim Weissman, M.A.