What is Communication?

See also: Interpersonal Communication Skills

Communication is simply the act of transferring information from one place to another.

Although this is a simple definition, when we think about how we may communicate the subject becomes a lot more complex. There are various categories of communication and more than one may occur at any time.

The different categories of communication are:

  • Spoken or Verbal Communication: face-to-face, telephone, radio or television and other media.
  • Non-Verbal Communication: body language, gestures, how we dress or act - even our scent.
  • Written Communication: letters, e-mails, books, magazines, the Internet or via other media.
  • Visualizations: graphs, charts, maps, logos and other visualizations can communicate messages.

The desired outcome or goal of any communication process is understanding.


The process of interpersonal communication cannot be regarded as a phenomena which simply 'happens', but should be seen as a process which involves participants negotiating their role in this process, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

Senders and receivers are of course vital in communication. In face-to-face communication the roles of the sender and receiver are not distinct as both parties communicate with each other, even if in very subtle ways such as through eye-contact (or lack of) and general body language. There are many other subtle ways that we communicate (perhaps even unintentionally) with others, for example the tone of our voice can give clues to our mood or emotional state, whilst hand signals or gestures can add to a spoken message.

In written communication the sender and receiver are more distinct. Until recent times, relatively few writers and publishers were very powerful when it came to communicating the written word. Today we can all write and publish our ideas on the Internet, which has led to an explosion of information and communication possibilities.

The Communication Process

A message or communication is sent by the sender through a communication channel to a receiver, or to multiple receivers.  The sender must encode the message (the information being conveyed) into a form that is appropriate to the communication channel, and the receiver(s) then decodes the message to understand its meaning and significance.

Misunderstanding can occur at any stage of the communication process. Effective communication involves minimising potential misunderstanding and overcoming any barriers to communication at each stage in the communication process. See our page: Barriers to Effective Communication for more information.

An effective communicator understands their audience, chooses an appropriate communication channel, hones their message to this channel and encodes the message to reduce misunderstanding by the receiver(s).  They will also seek out feedback from the receiver(s) as to how the message is understood and attempt to correct any misunderstanding or confusion as soon as possible. Receivers can use Clarification and Reflection as effective ways to ensure that the message sent has been understood correctly.



Communication Channels

Communication theory states that communication involves a sender and a receiver (or receivers) conveying information through a communication channel.

Communication Channels is the term given to the way in which we communicate. There are multiple communication channels available to us today, for example face-to-face conversations, telephone calls, text messages,  email, the Internet (including social media such as Facebook and Twitter), radio and TV, written letters, brochures and reports to name just a few.

Choosing an appropriate communication channel is vital for effective communication as each communication channel has different strengths and weaknesses.  For example, broadcasting news of an upcoming event via a written letter might convey the message clearly to one or two individuals but will not be a time or cost effective way to broadcast the message to a large number of people.  On the other hand, conveying complex, technical information is better done via a printed document than via a spoken message since the receiver is able to assimilate the information at their own pace and revisit items that they do not fully understand. Written communication is also useful as a way of recording what has been said, for example taking minutes in a meeting. (More on Note Taking and How to Conduct a Meeting).

Encoding Messages

All messages must be encoded into a form that can be conveyed by the communication channel chosen for the message.  We all do this every day when transferring abstract thoughts into spoken words or a written form.  However, other communication channels require different forms of encoding, e.g. text written for a report will not work well if broadcast via a radio programme, and the short, abbreviated text used in text messages would be inappropriate if sent via a letter. Complex data may be best communicated using a graph or chart or other visualisation.

Effective communicators encode their messages with their intended audience in mind as well as the communication channel. This involves an appropriate use of language, conveying the information simply and clearly, anticipating and eliminating likely causes of confusion and misunderstanding, and knowing the receivers’ experience in decoding other similar communications.  Successful encoding of messages is a vital skill in effective communication.

Decoding Messages

Once received, the receivers need to decode the message, and successful decoding is also a vital skill.  Individuals will decode and understand messages in different ways based upon any Barriers to Communication which might be present, their experience and understanding of the context of the message, their psychological state, and the time and place of receipt as well as many other potential factors.  Understanding how the message will be decoded, and anticipating as many of the potential sources of misunderstanding as possible, is the art of a successful communicator.

Feedback

Receivers of messages are likely to provide feedback on how they have understood the messages through both verbal and non-verbal reactions.  Effective communicators should pay close attention to this feedback as it the only way to assess whether the message has been understood as intended, and it allows any confusion to be corrected.  Bear in mind that the extent and form of feedback will vary according to the communication channel used: for example feedback during a face-to-face or telephone conversation will be immediate and direct, whilst feedback to messages conveyed via TV or radio will be indirect and may be delayed, or even conveyed through other media such as the Internet.

More on feedback: see our pages on Reflection and Clarification.
Also see Giving and Receiving Feedback


Being able to communicate effectively is the most important of all life skills.


Here at Skills You Need, we believe that everybody can benefit from learning more about communication.

Explore our pages and develop your communication skills.

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