Indiana State University Newsroom

Professor shares research at international conference on improving communication in school

November 19, 2014

An Indiana State University professor shared insights on understanding people to maintain and enhance relationships among students and school employees at an international conference in Japan in October.

Researchers from the Process Communication Model International Congress invited Ryan Donlan, an assistant professor of educational leadership in the Bayh College of Education, to offer an academic presentation on research in the model and a practitioner presentation on how teachers and principals can use this model in schools.

"It was an honor to attend this conference and to see this model of communication and personality alive in all these different countries and languages. To learn from people across at least five continents was deeply appreciated," he said.

Donlan learned about the Process Communication Model in 2005 as part of a problem solving course taught by his dissertation chairperson in the doctoral program at Central Michigan University.

"As group of students in his class, we asked our professor Dr. Michael Gilbert to bring to us five days of PCM training, and I was able to receive my introductory and advanced training in the model. A year or two later, I went for my certification training in Washington, D.C. and received the permission to do more work in the model," Donlan said. "Since then, I've become as persistent a student as I've been able to be, and now I have the opportunity to conduct some research on the model, which is a real gift."

A person using this model can typically determine where personality energies lie within seconds of meeting someone. The model doesn't typecast, Donlan said, but instead recognizes that all people exhibit, to varying degrees, six personality energies - thinker, harmonizer, persister, rebel, imaginer and promoter.

"Just by looking at somebody's words, tones, gestures, postures and facial expressions, you can determine things like where a person's strongest perceptions are (in thoughts, feelings/emotions, actions or reactions), and can shift to a perception through which they prefer to be communicated," he said. "It's like how teachers differentiate instruction to students in a classroom to optimize learning styles. We can optimize our communication style to match somebody so they get the most out of it."

Better connections can minimize distress, so as to avoid others' becoming hyper convictional, critical or blameful others, or manipulative. Donlan plans to spend the next 25-30 years looking at how the model can be used in schools to boost student success.

"It's really subtle, but the subtleties make a huge difference," he said. "If you know that someone stronger in rebel personality needs the emotive way of communicating and their psychological need is for playful contact, you may want to give them a high-five because they need that contact. They also need to play before they work, so in a classroom where a teacher says you need to get your work done, then you can have five minutes at the end, that strategy would be counterproductive with most at-risk kids."

Donlan is a certified trainer in the model and, as part of Indiana State's Ph.D. program in educational leadership, he has shared specific information with 100-plus students at Indiana State.

"The model's practical applications get into heavy psychology, and it's rewarding if you can apply these communication strategies second-by-second. It's eerily accurate and works everywhere you go - at the doctor's office, in Walmart or almost any workplace," he said. "I've used this model myself in schools as the superintendent of a charter school district with at-risk kids in a two-county region to look at dropout prevention, teacher retention and motivation, and school-family relations, and it was incredibly effective in making a difference in the lives of so many people."

Donlan participated in a validation study of the model in 2012, and has since authored international journal articles and a book chapter in a national publication.

He's now collaborating with Eric Hampton, associate professor of educational and school psychology at Indiana State, and Fenfen Zhou, a visiting scholar from China, to measure the impact of training in the model by looking at present-day use in various countries.

At the conference, Donlan shared this information with the model's territory owners and encouraged questions regarding ongoing involvement.

"The Process Communication Model is a model of communication and personality that has its background in 40 years of clinical psychology, and it's an incredibly powerful model for understanding people and for maintaining and enhancing relationships among people in their personal and professional lives," he said. "Teachers can use it with kids in school, principals can use it with teachers, and superintendents can use it in their districts, and people can even use it with their own children and families."

The model dates back to nearly 40 years when Taibi Kahler, a Purdue University student from Hammond working on a Ph.D. in psychology, derived theories that have since been used by NASA to understand the personality dynamics of astronauts in order to hire and train them to be able to withstand the stresses of spaceflight. President Bill Clinton later used it while campaigning and while in office. The model is now in worldwide use and application.

Donlan said the model suggests that a person's strongest personality is established at birth or shortly after and the other five personalities layer by about age 7.

"It's a model that would benefit from additional, contemporary research in various contexts of application, and I feel obligated to delve deeper into parts of the theory that would benefit from research on its theoretical interconnectivity," he said. "I'd like to offer another layer of science to the model by creating a longitudinal study looking initially at children between the ages 0-60 months to assess the theoretical implications of what happens to them later in life based on what occurs during targeted developmental stages and the subsequent handling of life issues that present themselves, instead of having people look back retroactively."

Contact: Ryan Donlan, assistant professor of educational leadership in the Bayh College of Education, Indiana State University, Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or