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Using the Cooperative Principle as an Instructional Designer

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Our team has a great interest in communication and its many nuances. We have been researching how we can be the best versions of ourselves in this area. As instructional designers communication is crucial for:

1) Working with clients: If we don’t communicate well with our clients, we don’t understand their world. We also don’t provide them with an understanding of what we can offer them. This leads to poorly run projects and creating solutions that are not fit for purpose.

2) Working effectively as a team: Effective communication is crucial for any team. Whether it is a work team, sports team or relationship.

3) Designing solutions that make a difference: The solutions that we design need to speak to the end user. This means that we need to communicate information to the end user in an effective way.

We recently found a communication principle that we believe will make a difference to how we communicate with our clients, how we communicate with each other as a team and how we communicate information through our solutions (this means it may add value to you too!). Even Google is employing the concepts from this principle into their designs (Nieves, 2019), so we had to check it out.

The principle is called the “Cooperative Principle” and was developed by Paul Grice in 1975. The principle places importance on the flow of conversation and its goal in offering appropriate information and answers (Nieves, 2019). The principle has four maxims (i.e. an expression of a general truth or principle) to consider:

1) Relation: Keep it relevant.
2) Manner: Communicate clearly and briefly.
3) Quality: Tell the truth.
4) Quantity: Enough information but not too much.

(Usborne, 2019).

We won’t waste too many words on the in-depth details of this communication principle. Our intent is to provide you with practical ways that you can incorporate it into your work as an instructional designer. If you would like to know more about the principle, we recommend watching this video (How Communication Works, 2019) for a simple explanation (it was a great help for our team in understanding the concept).

1) Relation - Keep it Relevant

This maxim can refer to a response that is on the surface irrelevant but has a hidden meaning.

For example, imagine that you ask your client, “Would you like to be involved in the creative brainstorming session with our team?” and they say, “I don’t even have time to eat lunch most days.”

Whilst the client has not answered your question with a relevant response, they have provided a response with a hidden meaning. This meaning is that they do not have time to attend the brainstorming session that you have proposed to them.

Another potential example of an irrelevant statement is if a client or yourself raises information that is not relevant to the original intent of the meeting.

For example, imagine you are discussing an online induction with a client and they say,

“Our old CEO would never have let this happen. He was so old-fashioned…” and they continue to talk about how bad the old CEO was.

Whilst it may feel good for the client to express this, it is not really relevant to the conversation and it is unlikely to add value, wasting valuable time.

Practical Takeaways: 

  • When your client or team member makes a comment that may have an underlying meaning, always confirm your understanding. E.g. “Okay, so will we leave you out of the brainstorming session?”. 
  • If you feel that a conversation with a client or team member becomes irrelevant to the original intent, steer the conversation back to the intent. E.g. “In terms of our goal, what else should we consider?”
2) Manner - Communicate Clearly and Briefly

Communicating clearly and briefly is crucial to your clients, team members and end users effectively understanding the information you are presenting to them.

Imagine that you ask a colleague where a meeting is being held and this is their response, “Latitude: 51.500729, Latitude: -0.124625.”

Does this response seem appropriate to you? This is an extreme example so most likely not. Your colleague is either trying to be funny or doesn’t want you to know where the meeting is. The question could have been answered in a much more clear and brief manner E.g. “Matthew Johnson’s Office. Know where it is?”.

Practical Takeaways: 

  • Consider how you communicate to your clients. Do you organise your thoughts in a clear and brief way prior to sharing them. Your client may not understand the world of instructional design like you do, so it is important that you explain things in simple terms, free from jargon. Whilst software terminology and learning methodologies may be second nature to you, step into the shoes of your client and consider their perspective.
  • Consider how you can train content in the most clear and brief way. If you can explain a process through a 30 second video over a 20 page booklet, do it. Your end users will thank you for it. Focus on the need to know.
3) Quality - Tell the Truth

This maxim refers to an obvious false statement. It often comes hand-in-hand with sarcasm. 

For example, imagine you say to an end user in a discovery interview, “We are excited to find out how you and your workmates could improve in terms of customer service”, and they respond, “Yeah and I love how the leaders have taken responsibility for their part in this.”

Depending on how this statement was delivered could make all the difference but let us imagine it was said in a sarcastic tone. In this case, rather than moving forward with the interview, stop and explore the hidden meaning behind their message. The information you reveal could completely change your understanding of the problem and in turn the design of your solution.

Practical Takeaways: 

  • When speaking with clients, team members and end users, always keep an ear open for statements with hidden meanings. They may be attempting to share information with you (in a not so obvious way) and as instructional designers, it is your job to gain a deep understanding of the truth to solve the right problem.
4) Quantity - Enough Information but Not Too Much

I experienced this maxim recently. I was having small talk with my hairdresser and asked, “Are you up to anything over the weekend?”. Her response was, “Yes.''

Her short answer revealed that she was not interested in sharing details with me. She did not need to say, “I don’t want to tell you.” Her short answer was enough for me to know that I did not need to know any more information.

On the other hand, too much information can be provided. This is evident in poorly designed eLearning courses featuring thousands of words to explain a concept that could be explained much more simply.

Practical Takeaways: 

  • Consider how you can pick up on social cues like this when you are communicating with your clients, team members and end users. If you are explaining a concept or a decision to a client and they provide a short response, such as, “Okay”, whilst they could literally mean that, it may be worth checking in to confirm they understand what you are saying. 
  • When designing learning solutions, explain concepts briefly and simply whilst still providing the end user with the information that they need to be successful. 
That is it for this blog on ‘Using the Cooperative Principle as an Instructional Designer’. We hope that you gained value from the practical takeaways and can incorporate them into how you operate as an instructional designer. Remember, taking meaning from exact words is not always accurate. Always look out for hidden meanings and seek the truth.

If you would like to discuss this topic in further detail, please do not hesitate to contact our passionate founder Kim via or by connecting with her on LinkedIn.


Lambert, B. (2019). [How Communication Works]. (2019, May 13). Grice's Cooperative Principle: How to Mean More than You Say [Video File]. Retrieved from

Nieves, B. (2019). What Is the Cooperative Principle? Is It Relevant to Conversation? Retrieved from

Usborne, N. (2019). Write Better Copy by Applying the 4 Maxims of the Cooperative Principle. Retrieved from

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