Monday, September 28, 2015

2015 Mid-Atlantic Judge Conference: Becoming a Better Teaching Judge by Erik Aliff

The Fall 2015 Mid-Atlantic Judge Conference is in the books. Ninety-three (ish?) levels of judges turned out to Battlegrounds, an LGS in Richmond, Virginia, to talk shop and teach each other new things. I had the pleasure of presenting on WER in the last time slot (and you can see the PowerPoint), but for the first three hours of the conference I had an even greater pleasure: learning new things from other judges.

The first presentation I attended was Erik Aliff's Becoming a Better Teaching Judge, about communication and how judges can use communication models to become better educators. Erik is a teacher IRL, and he brought his classroom experience to bear on the 20 (ish) of us who attended his presentation. That's one of my favorite things about judge conferences — each one of us has a life outside of judging, and brings valuable experience and expertise to share.

The image on Erik's PowerPoint, which you can almost make out in my amazing photo (*cough*) is a communication model diagram. It was the focus of his presentation. Here's the detail of the diagram:

But, before we get into too much detail on that, we should start at the beginning, with the first question Erik asked the audience. Why do we communicate?

There were a lot of answers.

  • Because I have something I need to tell you.
  • Because I want to express myself.
  • Because I want to indicate awareness of my triggers.
Yeah, that last one was way funnier in person. But, as Erik pointed out, all of these things are just really specific examples of the one reason we communicate.

We communicate because we want something.

We want players to know that pairings are going up, and we want our opponents to let us resolve our triggers. As judges, we are responsible for communicating an enormous amount of information during an event, and that communication is insanely complex.

We're speakers and listeners at the same time, and we need to be able to adapt to changing communication situations. Let's go back to the model and start at the beginning, with speakers and listeners.


Speakers have a purpose. They want something. When we're judging our purpose is often to provide information. There are some purposes that we should discard. Showing off how well you (not we, because I definitely don't know them that well) know the comprehensive rules makes you look smart, but looking smart doesn't help the players enjoy their event.

I'm going to provide them with the best information, with the answer that they need. This has to be our purpose.

Speakers have knowledge. There are things that they know and don't know. The knowledge we have can be relevant, exciting, and meaningful, but it's important as a backdrop to all of our communication.

Speakers have attitudes about themselves, their listeners, and the conversation. A speaker's attitude about himself is important to how he's received by his listener. If he's confident, he'll be more credible than if he appears uncertain or nervous. A speaker's attitude toward his listener can change how he approaches the communication.

Keep in mind that, whether or not you like an individual player, your purpose should be to help them. Finally, speakers have attitudes about the conversation. If you don't want to be involved in the conversation, it will influence the effectiveness of your communication.


Like speakers, listeners have a purpose, they have knowledge, and they have attitudes.

Determining whether what your listener--often a player or another judge--wants is the same as what he's saying his wants is important for communicating effectively. A common judging example of this are poorly phrased questions that require answers that may be misleading.

"Can I target that spell with Spellskite?" "Yes, you can." But, it might not do what you want it to do. Trying to understand the purpose of your listener. Ask questions until you're sure you understand what's going on and what your listener wants.

As judges, our job is often to fill the gap between a listener's prior knowledge and what we need them to know. Rules questions are an obvious example. Players have an understanding of the rules, but might not know how a specific interaction works.

We step in and fill the gap between their knowledge and what they need to continue playing their game. We also often fill the knowledge gap in regards to tournament operations: your parings are posted over there; there are 15 minutes left in the round; standings will be posted when the last result slip is in.

Listeners also have attitudes that can help or impede our attempt's to communicate with them. If they've had a bad experience with a judge before, they may be less trusting. If they're on tilt, they may be more confrontational toward their opponents or flustered with themselves.

Assessing their attitude about themselves, their situation and the other people involved can help you adjust your communication style to be more effective. Erik recommended taking the time when you're walking to the table to try to get an idea about the players' attitudes. What's their body language like? Is it open and friendly or closed and tense?

(Some judges listening to Jeph Foster and Eric Dustin Brown kick off the conference.)

Changing Purposes

Often, other people will attempt to change our purpose, to get us to want what they want. Is changing your purpose okay? Yes, absolutely. But whether or not you should change your purpose depends on the situation, your original purpose, and the knowledge and attitudes of both speakers and listeners.

Frame of Reference

In the model above, the white background can be viewed as the frame of reference. Everyone has different expectations and understandings when entering a conversation. Different cultures have different views on authority, for example, and that might change how you need to communicate to effectively convey your message.

People play Magic all around the globe. They come from different backgrounds and expect different things. It may be difficult to anticipate how someone is going to react to a situation, but trying to understand your listener's frame of reference will go a long way toward understanding what they want and how you can help them.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

Yep, now we're at the arrows. Verbal communication is easy: it's the things we say and write. Okay, so maybe it's not so easy. Written words can be misinterpreted. Spoken words have the advantage of intonation, which helps us convey more meaning than the words themselves.

If verbal communication is tricky, nonverbal communication is another beast entirely. Our body language is something that we don't always control and we're often not aware of, but it's an important part of our message. It expresses our purpose, knowledge, and attitudes. Worse, it can sometimes work at cross purposes with our verbal communication. Practice awareness of your body language and whether it reinforces or impedes the message you're trying to convey.

Erik's example of this was with height differences. If you tower over players, you present yourself as intimidating, potentially as a superior or even an enemy. If you're on their level, however, you present yourself as an equal who's trying to help them solve their problem. Kneeling next to a table so that you're at eye level with the players can help to defuse tense situations or let them know that you're on their side, and the enemy is whatever problem they're experiencing in their match.


At events, the most common communication channel between players and judges is the spoken word. Whether it's over a PA system or face-to-face, much of the communication that goes on uses words, tones and body language.

Many, many, many other communication channels exist. Text messages. Email. Phone calls. Smoke signals. Choosing an appropriate channel is an important part of communicating an effective message. For judges, this is often relevant to providing feedback after an event.

Do you talk to other judges in person, send them a Facebook message, or just submit a Judge Center review? Keep in mind that nonverbal channels often make messages ambiguous. Emotions are added on top of words that you may or may not have intended.


Lots of things can get in the way of effective communication. A crackly PA system can make it impossible to understand announcements. Language barriers at large international events can make it difficult for players to communicate clearly with their opponents about what they're trying to do. Attitudes can get in the way of understanding a speaker's or listener's purpose. Fatigue can cause speakers to ramble when they think they're being clear.

Identifying sources of interference is the first step toward overcoming them. A crackly PA system is easy to spot. A player's bad experience with a judge at another event may be harder to ferret out, but addressing the issue directly may make them more confident in your rulings.


Sometimes, feedback is direct and immediate. "I don't understand what you said," is a clear indication that you failed to communicate your meaning. Sometimes, however, that feedback isn't so clear. Body language, tone, and other nonverbal cues may be all we have to figure out that a player or other event staff member doesn't understand what we're saying.

In order to improve your communication, you need to assess it. If you think a player doesn't understand, ask a question like "Did that answer your question?" You can also get feedback from other judges who observed your interactions. Ask specific questions:

  • Was my meaning clear?
  • Do you think my body language reinforced what I was saying?
  • Do you think the players understand what's going on now?
As will all aspects of judging, seeking feedback is the key to improving.

Erik did something during his presentation that I can't do in text, which is a shame: he reinforced these parts of the communication model with real examples. He towered over one of the judges in the front row, then sat next to him to show how much of a drastic difference body language can make in communication. He gave examples of how different tones can change the meaning of otherwise identical statements. He put up an image of crying babies and explained that, yes, judge sometimes do communicate like that--without making their purpose or message clear.

Here's a link to a collection of communication resources, most of them TED talks. Hopefully they, and the information from Erik's seminar, help you Become a Better Teaching Judge.

No comments:

Post a Comment