Principles of Interpersonal Communication

Common to all interpersonal communications are some basic principles.

These principles govern the effectiveness of our communications; they may be simple to understand but can take a lifetime to master.

This page explains these principles and gives examples of how, why and when interpersonal communication occurs.

Interpersonal Communication is not Optional

We may, at times, try not to communicate; but not communicating is not an option.  In fact the harder we try not to communicate, the more we do!  By not communicating we are communicating something: perhaps that we are shy, perhaps that we are angry or sulking, perhaps that we are too busy.  Ignoring somebody is communicating with them, we may not tell them we are ignoring them but through non-verbal communication we hope to make that apparent. 

We communicate far more and far more honestly with non-verbal communication than we do with words.  Our body posture and position, eye-contact (or lack of it), the smallest and most subtle of mannerisms are all ways of communicating with others.   Furthermore we are constantly being communicated to, we pick up signals from others and interpret them in certain ways and whether or not we understand is based on how skilled we are at interpreting interpersonal communication. See our pages: Non-Verbal Communication and Personal Appearance for more information.


Once it’s Out, it’s Out.

The process of Interpersonal Communication is irreversible, you can wish you hadn’t said something and you can apologise for something you said and later regret - but you can’t take it back. 

We often behave and therefore communicate to others based on previous communication encounters.  These encounters may or may not be appropriate points of reference.  We stereotype people, often subconsciously, maybe by gender, social standing, religion, race, age and other factors – stereotypes are generalisations, often exaggerated. 

Because of these stereotypes, when we communicate with people we can carry with us certain preconceptions of what they are thinking or how they are likely to behave, we may have ideas about the outcome of the conversation. 

These preconceptions affect how we speak to others, the words we use and the tone of voice.  We naturally communicate in a way that we think is most appropriate for the person we are talking to.  Unfortunately our preconceptions of others are often incorrect.  This can mean that our communication is inappropriate and therefore more likely to be misunderstood.   As the goal to all communication has to be understanding it can be said that we have failed to communicate.  By communicating in this way, being influenced by preconceived ideas, we feedback further stereotypes to the person we are speaking to, thus exasperating the problem. 

Start all interpersonal communication with an open mind; listen to what is being said rather than hearing what you expect to hear.  You are then less likely to be misunderstood or say things that you regret later.

Learn to develop your listening skills with our pages: Listening Skills and Active Listening. Also see our page: The Art of Tact and Diplomacy for help in these areas.


Endless Complexity

No form of communication is simple, there are many reasons why communication is taking place, how it is taking place and how messages are being broadcast and received. Variables in communication, such as language, environment and distraction as well as the individuals involved in communicating all have an effect on how messages are sent, received and interpreted. 

When we communicate verbally we swap words - words that have, maybe subtly, different meanings to different people in different contexts.  It could be argued that words are in fact just tokens we exchange with each other and that they have no inherent meaning at all – See Philosophy and Rhubarb for light-hearted discussion in this area.  We can communicate the same thing to different individuals but each person may have a different understanding or interpretation of the message.

At any point in communication any misunderstanding, regardless of how small it may seem, will have an effect on the message that is being received.

See Communication in Difficult Situations and Barriers to Effective Communication for more information.


The Context of Communication

All communication has a context; communication happens for a reason. 

Communication can fail because one or more of the participants overlook the context.  To help avoid misunderstandings, and therefore communicate more effectively, it is important that the context of the communication is understood by all.  Why is the communication happening?  It is important that participants are on the same ‘wavelength’ so that they understand why the communication is occurring.  It may be useful to start a larger conversation by explaining why it is happening.

Knowing why communication is occurring is an important first step - there are however problems that affect the context of the communication:

Timing

Timing is fundamental to successful communication. as well as considering a suitable time to hold a conversation you should make sure that there is enough time to cover all that is needed, including time to clarify and negotiate.  Talking to an employee about a strategic decision five minutes before they have to leave the office for the day, for example, would probably not be as successful as having the same conversation the following morning.

Location

It should be fairly obvious that communication is going to be less effective if it is conducted in a noisy, uncomfortable or busy place.  Such places have many distractions and often a lack of privacy.

Misconceptions

The context of communication is also governed by our own feelings about it. As already discussed, we stereotype people and therefore can develop inaccurate misconceptions and false assumptions. When communicating we may assume that: all parties know what we are talking about; we know the other person’s views and opinions of the situation; we should not show any emotion; we are right, they are wrong. 

There are many other examples of misconceptions highlighting the importance of careful reflection and clarification in all communication.

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