A simple explanation of the theory of interpersonal communication and tips on how to improve your own communication skills.
Interpersonal communication is typically defined as communication between a few (approximately 2-5) people. It is often referred to as a “transactional process,” which means that the communicators act as both senders and receivers of messages.
What are “messages”?
Messages are the material being communicated. Senders use signs and symbols, such as words and actions, to create messages to which the receiver assigns meaning. There are two dimensions to these messages: content dimension and relational dimension. The content dimension is what the message actually says. The relational dimension, on the other hand, is the way that the phrasing defines the relationship between communicators; formal phrasing may imply a professional relationship, while words such as “honey” or “sweetie” may imply an intimate relationship. On the other hand, “honey” and “sweetie” can also be used in a sarcastic, degrading manner—this is why it is important to understand the relational context of messages. The structure of the conversation varies differently depending on these dimensions.
What forms messages in addition to spoken words?
There are five main areas that contribute to the meaning of a message outside of the words which are spoken. These are kinesics, haptics, proxemics, oculesics, and vocalics. Kinesics is the use of the body. Smiling, listening with an open mouth, and tensing or relaxing your body can all contribute to the way a message is interpreted. Haptics is the use of touch; obviously touching someone while speaking can convey intimacy, earnestness, or any other number of things. Proxemics is the use of space when talking to someone; the appropriate amount of space varies with culture, but usually the closer one is, the greater the level of intimacy in the relationship. Oculesics is the use of your eyes when communicating. In any beginning public speaking course you are taught to make eye contact with your audience. There is a different amount of eye contact “appropriate” to any situation, and failure to meet those requirements often has a negative effect on the receiver’s impression of the sender. Often we attribute a lack of eye contact to lying or lack of confidence, both which can be detrimental in a relationship.
What is important in interpersonal communication?
In order to be considered a competent communicator, you must be able to follow the “Rules.” Rules exist for any given situation within a culture. For example, there are both rules of friendship and rules for conflict. Rules governing friendship include the exchange of news and support, mutual intimacy and trust, defense and tolerance when dealing with third parties, and respect for each other’s differences. Rules for conflict address mutual understanding, rationality, conciseness, and respect and consideration. To ignore or break any one of these rules would make you appear to be a poor communicator.
In addition to following these rules to communication, you must also know what to communicate in order to do it effectively. You must be able to choose the knowledge that, if communicated, would most effectively contribute to the conversation with the desired result. You must also understand how to communicate that knowledge. There are two main processes that contribute to communicating your knowledge: planning and action assembly.
Planning involves anticipating and planning possible strategies for accomplishing some goal or goals. Planning does not have to be entirely conscious; however, planning is almost always efficient. There are three principles used to ensure that a plan is as efficient as possible: competence (will the plan accomplish the goal as satisfactorily as possible?), prior success (has a similar plan worked before in a similar situation?), and simplicity (the fewer steps, the fewer chances for mistakes). With experience, a communicator will gradually add to a plan to prepare for all possible situations and challenges along the way.
Action assembly is the process by which different behaviors are put together into actions in pursuit of a goal. Communicators must choose action sequences that they believe will be most effective in accomplishing their goal. They must choose the correct phrases, the right tone of voice, the body posture, when to pause, who to look at, whether to smile as they introduce themselves or wait until the other person has introduced himself? We choose which sequences to use based on the same criteria with which we judge our plans: competence, prior success, and simplicity. These decisions are usually made through split-second play-it-by-ear decisions, which is why a thorough plan is necessary to be a fully competent communicator.
What are some challenges to interpersonal communication?
There are three major challenges that to becoming an effective communicator: social anxiety and shyness, goal complexity, and oversimplification of self and other.
Social anxiety and shyness can have a negative effect on communication in a number of ways. Sometimes they can prevent a person from communicating altogether if their fear is that severe. Less severe cases can prevent behaviors that typically indicate a competent speaker, such as eye contact or a strong, audible voice. If you are shy, consider taking a public speaking class in order to better handle your reservations when it comes to speaking in public.
Goal complexity can be just as detrimental to one’s communication skills as shyness. If you have multiple, sometimes competing goals, accomplishing just one of them can be next to impossible. In order to solve this problem, you must begin to analyze your many goals. Decide which among them is most important and why; for those that are less important, determine why they were ever a goal at all. Perhaps they developed from and underlying principle which does not necessarily compete with your other goals.
Finally, there is the oversimplification of self and other. By assuming that you completely understand your own personal goals or those of another person, you put yourself at a serious disadvantage. People are difficult to understand and almost never constant in their goals and motivations. You must constantly analyze and attempt to understand another person’s goals and motivations, and never assume that they are the same from day to day. If you are not aware of changes, your communication will be both incompetent and ineffective.
How can I improve my interpersonal communication skills?
If you often feel nervous speaking, even within a small group, a public speaking course should help tremendously. After speaking in front of 20 or 30 people, speaking to just a few should seem easy.
If you find yourself constantly confused as to how to make the other person understand what you are saying, try starting a journal. Write in it every day, focusing on the day’s events and how it made you feel. Try to make it clear exactly how you are feeling and what happened so that a perfect stranger could pick up the journal and understand perfectly what it was like to be you that day. By exercising your ability to put feelings and occurrences into written words, you should see an improvement in your ability when speaking as well.
If you never understand where the person is coming from and are constantly caught off-guard by twists in the conversation, try going to a coffee shop or other public place a couple times per week, by yourself, and people-watch. Although it might sound creepy, try listening to another table’s conversation. Try to figure out the relationships between the persons in the conversation, and their individual goals and motives and feelings. Once you can get a general idea of the backgrounds of complete strangers, you should feel more aware of the motivations and thoughts of the people that you communicate with every day.