Communication is essential for success. Whether at the interpersonal or professional level, we spend a staggering amount of time communicating.
Communication allows people to generate meaning through the exchange of verbal and nonverbal messages. However, there are a number of concepts that shape human communication. These concepts are critical for understanding the communication process. They also have implications for your own communication effectiveness. I will discuss a few of them in this article.
Communication is a process
We often think about communication as if it occurs in discrete, individual acts such as one person’s utterance or a conversation.
Communication is, however, a continuous flow. It is a process of adapting to the inevitable changes that affect any relationship. Almost all over us have people in our lives who have changed our way of life by their words and actions. Such changes are, however, not instant, they usually occur over time.
Communication can be understood by looking at the other person’s thoughts and feelings as expressed verbally and nonverbally as a whole. Relationships cannot be frozen. Every interaction is a point of departure for a subsequent interaction. Every communication experience is the result of the accumulation of experiences preceding the present one. Each new experience affects future transactions. Human communication is a process.
Communication is transactional
We are all connected through communication. When we communicate, we engage in a transaction. Parties involved in the communication process are both senders and receivers simultaneously, not just a sender or a receiver. When you speak, you receive responses, usually nonverbal, from listeners. The feedback further influences the message you continue to send.
A skilful communicator reads feedback accurately and adjust his/her subsequent message appropriately. The transactional process also means that communication influences all those involved. Each party exist in relation to others. You don’t communicate in the same way with your boss as you do with your colleagues. For example, consider what will happen if you were talking with your colleagues and your boss, who is probably the serious looking type, enters the room.
The change in audience will lead to other changes, such as changing the topic or looking serious. When we are in a team, every utterance, action, and choice continually defines and redefines who we are in relation to other team members and who they are in relation to us.
Communication is purposeful
When we communicate, we have a purpose in mind. When we speak or write, we are trying to accomplish some goal. We engage in communication to gain knowledge of others, the world and ourselves, form relationships, assist others by listening, offering solutions, and strengthen or change the attitudes of others.
Men and women for instance, communicate for different reasons. Whereas men tend to communicate more for information, women usually communicate for relationship purposes.
Communication is sharing meaning
Our world becomes meaningful through communication with others. Meaning is not established in social isolation. We construct meaning, determine connections and patterns in our mind, and make sense of our world through sharing of ideas, feelings, reflections, and experiences with others. Sharing meaning can be done verbally and nonverbally.
We share meaning verbally through words. However, the meaning of words depends on common agreement, and words can have different meanings. Common agreement therefore does not always avoid misunderstanding. Nonverbally, we share meaning through our facial expressions, eye contact, personal appearance etc. like verbal communication, nonverbal communication can also be ambiguous. Wrong meanings can be drawn from what others are doing or saying. Despite its ambiguity nonverbal communication can have a big impact on our impression of others. People’s nonverbal behaviour shapes what we think about them.
Communication takes place within a context
All communication takes place within a context, or an environment in which meaning occurs. Context consist of who says what to whom, the purpose of the communication, where it occurs, the time and the way it is done. There are several dimensions of communication context including:
Physical context: this refers to the physical environment in which communication takes place. Whether at the home, the office or out with colleagues, the physical context has a great influence on the content of the message as well as the form (how you say it). The way we interact in the office will be different from how we interact at home or when we are with friends at a party.
Social-psychological context: this focuses on the relationship among the communicators. For instance, the status relationship among the parties, their friendliness, cooperativeness or competitiveness etc., influences the communication process. In an organisation where competition is very strong among group members, the communication process will be affected as members try to outdo each other. Also, communication that would be permitted during an informal meeting will not be considered appropriate at a formal meeting.
cultural context: culture has a great influence on the communication process. Culture refers to the way of life of a group of people, including norms, values, perceptions and behaviours. Cultural factors affect every communication and influence what we say, how we say it, and how we respond to what others say. As Ghanaians, our cultural system influences the way we communicate as peers, with the elderly and the like. Even within the different ethnic groups in Ghana, there are words and phrases that mean different things in different ethnic groups.
When we communicate, we bring our beliefs, norms, values, and attitudes to each interaction and the culture we belong to shape each of these factors. Culture can also be defined by age and gender. For example, as people move from their teen years to adulthood, middle age and old age, they generally make a transition from one age-related culture to another. Each stage has its own set of communication principles. In addition to individual cultural background, communication between participants is also defined by their nationalities. The way Ghanaians communicate is different from non-Ghanaians. Understanding the communicative behaviour of different groups/nationals is therefore essential for successful communication.
Communication is ambiguous
Ambiguous messages are messages with more than one meaning. Ambiguity occurs when words are interpreted differently. When we communicate an idea, we don’t actually express our meaning exactly and totally; rather we communicate meaning with some reasonable accuracy – enough to give the other person a reasonably clear sense of what we mean. Sometimes this does not work, and the other person misunderstands what is being communicated. In group communication, you may not be sure of how your ideas are being evaluated or what style of leadership will be effective.
In public speaking, you may not be sure how your audience will react to your speech. It is the same with relationships. Relationships tend to become ambiguous, particularly at the early stages due to uncertainty. As it progresses, it becomes less ambiguous. It is important to pay attention to what you are communicating and who you are communicating with.
Communication is irreversible, unrepeatable, and inevitable
Finally, communication is a process that cannot be uncommunicated, unrepeated and occurs whether we are conscious of it or not. Communication is often thought of as intentional, purposeful, and consciously motivated. This is true for the most part. However, there are instances when communication takes place even when the person is unaware. Communication is therefore inevitable.
For example, take an employee who is in a room with an expressionless face, perhaps looking through a window. Although the employee might not be communicating physically, the team leader or manager might read several meanings – lack of interest, bored, worried about something etc. In any case, the team leader is receiving several messages even though the employee may not intend to communicate. Communication is such that it cannot be reversed.
The axiom you cannot not communicate sums up this. Once you say something, you cannot press the revers button. The process can go in only one direction. You can off course try to reduce the effect of the message by saying “I didn’t mean what I said, I didn’t mean it that way, I was not thinking straight because I was so angry.” Regardless of the effort to reduce the effect, a message, once sent cannot be reversed. There is the need to reflect on what you are about to say before you say it, especially in conflict situations where tempers run so high.
Communication is also unrepeatable because everything is constantly changing. You cannot recapture the exact same situation, frame of mind, or relationship dynamic that defined a previous interaction. For example, you cannot repeat making a first impression in an interview or meeting someone for the first time. You can only try to counteract the earlier impression created, which may be negative. We can try to reduce negative impressions by being conscious of what we say and how we say it, verbally or nonverbally.
Communication is shaped by everything around us. To be a competent communicator, it is important to understand the concepts that shapes the communication process. Without this, conflict will be a constant feature in our daily interactions. Competent communication is a skill that can be learned.