Interpersonal Communication: What Is It?

Interpersonal communication is one of those concepts that sounds so self-explanatory that it’s easy not to take a deeper look at what it is. But having an underdeveloped sense of interpersonal communication puts you at a disadvantage. The fact that we all communicate with each other in certain obvious ways—speech, body language, text, etc.—obscures just how nuanced this communication can be. Having shallow interpersonal communication skills ensures that you will fail to absorb and to communicate some necessary information. You may also have trouble collaborating and problem solving in many contexts. You almost certainly will struggle to build rapport with clients – a must in management consulting!

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Interpersonal Communication Definition

Let’s not assume we all have a sufficient common sense of interpersonal communication. Instead, let’s really ask: what is interpersonal communication? If we aren’t clear about this, your interpersonal communication definition might be significantly different from mine. For the purpose of this article, let us define interpersonal communication as “any exchange of ideas and emotions between two people”.

There are many different types of interpersonal communication. Speech is the most obvious. But there are many mediums of communication, including text, images, and the various technologies enabling their exchange. For the sake of this article let’s limit our definition to in-person exchanges, but this includes all the forms of exchange beyond just verbal communication.

Interpersonal vs. Intrapersonal Communication

The prefix inter- means between, while the prefix intra- means within. Intrapersonal communication, therefore, is communication that occurs within the individual person. This is the level of interiority at which we not only have all our thoughts, feelings, & ideas, but also the place where we can practice a deeper meta-awareness of our first-order thoughts. We won’t look too deeply at intrapersonal communication in this article. But being able to practice healthy communication with yourself—and being able to bring a deeper awareness to the conversation going on in your head—is key to living a healthy life. This applies on a personal and professional level. And until you can practice healthy communication with yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll really be able to practice it interpersonally.

Elements of Interpersonal Communication

There are many common elements to any act or exchange of interpersonal communication.

  1. The Communicators

The first of these is the communicators. This refers to any and all people involved in the exchange. The most basic form of interpersonal communication involves just two people, but many settings—meetings, classes, etc.—involve communication among larger numbers of people. Note that no act of interpersonal communication involves just a single person or a one-way process. Communication always flows in both/multiple directions between communicators and takes multiple forms.

  1. The Message

The next element of interpersonal communication is the communication, or the message. This refers to all the information—emotional, sensual, conceptual—that is exchanged between two or more people. Some components of the message are obvious, such as the information being communicated. Other components of the message are more subtle—for example, a coworker may be verbally affirming that they understand a proposed course of action, but their body language might indicate that they are anxious or uncertain. In addition to our words and language, the messages we convey take the forms of vocal intonations, physical/manual gestures, facial expressions, and other forms of body language.

  1. Noise

Complicating this is the third element of interpersonal communication, noise. Noise refers to anything that distorts, transforms, or obstructs the message. Actual sound can be a troublesome form of noise (e.g., construction occurring outside the window). Other forms of stimulus can be just as distracting as noise, such as bright/flashing colors, or offensive smells. But sensual overload is not the only thing that can distort a message. Cultural translations & other communication barriers can obstruct a message. Inattention to the nonverbal dimensions of communication can lead to noise (e.g. dissonant body language). Distraction, anxiety, and other forms of “mental noise” can be significant distorting agents to any act of interpersonal communication.

  1. Feedback

Feedback, the fourth element of communication, exists to combat the distortions caused by noise. Feedback consists of all the ways we reflect what’s being communicated, as it’s being communicated, in order to signal that the message is being properly understood. Feedback can involve signaling attention through eye contact and body language, as well as simple nonverbal sounds to affirm understanding. Feedback also involves clarification when a point is improperly understood. Questions and negotiations are a necessary component of good feedback and good interpersonal communication.

  1. Context

The final element we will consider is context. Context refers to all the information that is encoded in a human interaction without being explicitly expressed in communication. For instance, a meeting conducted in your boss’s office includes a great deal of information about proper behavior, as well as the roles you and your boss will be playing. If you ran into your boss in a different context, such as a shopping mall, the expectations for the communication would be very different.

Interpersonal Communication Skills

The foremost thing you can do to increase your interpersonal communication skills is to start paying deep and purposeful attention to how the different elements of interpersonal communication listed above define any exchange between people. A deeper sense of how these elements work will help you to start ensuring your communications are more effective.

Beyond this, the most powerful thing you can do to improve your interpersonal communication skills is almost certainly to become a better listener. It’s true that some of us deal with very practical barriers to communicating what we want to say: anxiety, shyness, speech impediments, physical disabilities, atypical personalities, and more. But for the most part, what limits the success of our communication is that we fail to fully appreciate that communication is always a two-way street. Any meaningful communication involves some kind of exchange.

Even in the most straightforward and hierarchical interaction, such as a boss assigning an employee to complete a simple task, there are many exchanges involved. The boss has to access the mental model they hold of the employee they’re speaking to in order to know how to communicate the message. Further, the boss and employee must exchange more information to ensure the message has been understood and agreed to.

Conclusion

At its core, all business involves communication, exchange, and shared activity among humans. If you’re unable to practice purposeful interpersonal communication, your professional life is significantly disadvantaged. Succeeding in business is hard enough even for those who are skilled in practicing effective communication and healthy relationships. An inability to effectively communicate means you have no real ability to assess reality and to respond with purposeful action.

Does your team need to up-level its communication ability and learn how to drive the right action? Our corporate training program may be just what you need. Learn more and fill out the interest form for a free, personalized consultation.

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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Corporate Training