As stated in the introduction, the purpose of this text is to increase communication competence. Although the word ‘competent’ is somewhat subjective and the definition can vary from person to person, we conceptualize communication competence as being comprised of three interrelated components. In order to be a competent communicator, our communication needs to be effective, contextual, and reflective. In this section, we discuss each one of these components and how we can improve communication competence.
1.4.1: Effective Communication
Effective communication pertains to two things: achieving our goals and creating (or not creating) shared meaning in interactions. As communicators, we have a variety of goals in interactions, ranging from trivial to important. Goals may include things like passing time, entertainment, getting or giving information, persuading another person, etc. (Verderber, MacGeorge, & Verderber, 2016). Usually, it can be pretty easy to measure whether or not we have effectively achieved our goal(s). For example, let’s say our goal is to persuade our roommate to do the dishes. If they do the dishes, then we have achieved our goal. If they do not do the dishes, then we have not achieved our goal.
Effective communication also includes creating shared meaning in interactions by encoding our messages in a way that will enable them to be easily understood by the other communicator. For example, we may use concrete phrases such as “the blue book on the counter” versus “that thing over there.” Although, sometimes we may purposely choose to use messages that are ambiguous. For example, if a friend were to ask us, “What do you think of this dress?” we may respond by saying “interesting” to avoid giving a direct answer. Because we are not always conscious of encoding and decoding, and because others can decode both our intentional and unintentional messages in a variety of ways (which we may not mean), in this text we will draw more attention to our cognitive processes in the interest of improving shared meaning and communication effectiveness.
1.4.2: Contextual Communication
Context and communication are inseparably intertwined. In order for our communication to be effective, it must take context into consideration. As previously mentioned, context plays an important role in how messages are produced, interpreted, and coordinated. Different contexts have different norms and rules for what is considered acceptable (or unacceptable) and appropriate (or inappropriate) behavior. In other words, norms and rules exists for what we should or can do, and what we shouldn’t or can’t do. A bar (physical context) has different norms and rules for communication than a classroom. The norms and rules for interacting with a stranger versus a close friend (relational context) are vastly different. Contexts overlap, so the norms and rules are dynamic, constantly shifting, and may be hard for us to discern at times. For example, it may be acceptable to kiss someone we are romantically involved with, but not a stranger (relational context). It may be acceptable to kiss we are dating at the park, but not in the workplace (physical context). And depending on our (co)culture (cultural context), it may not be considered acceptable to be affectionate with someone we are dating in any public place. Because communication contexts are intertwined, it is important for us to be aware of the ways contextual nuances influence and shape interactions.
In addition, contexts are also embedded with ethics, or what is considered right or wrong in terms of actions and behaviors. Ethics exists on individual, co-cultural, and cultural levels. For example, we may be part of a religion (co-culture) that considers lying, regardless of the context, to be wrong. However, as an individual we may think it is okay to lie in certain situations, such as for safety reasons or to protect our privacy. As competent communicators, we must become adept at identifying contextual nuances and adapting our behavior to the context. We will cover the specifics of contextual influences throughout the book. Adding this knowledge to your understanding of interpersonal communication will help you make mindful choices that work for you and your relationships.
1.4.3: Reflective Communication
The final component of a communication competence is reflective communication, which means becoming more consciously aware and mindful. Being reflective means actively considering our own communication and analyzing the long and short-term effects of our behavior(s) on our identity, other people, and our relationships.
Since communication meets identity needs, both verbal and nonverbal communication is used to manage our identity and present an image of ourselves based on how we want others to perceive us. Identity is contextual and fluid and can be communicated intentionally and unintentionally. For example, let’s say in a professional context we want others to perceive us as being confident and intelligent. We might intentionally communicate this nonverbally by looking at people in the eye and verbally by using big words. However, we may also unintentionally engage in behaviors that communicate a different identity to others than the one we what. For example, a brief interaction in the workplace in which we yell angrily at a colleague may cause those who witness this interaction to perceive us as being immature or difficult to work with. Because of this, it is important to analyze how even small interactions contribute to other’s perceptions of who they think we are.
Since interpersonal communication involves at least two people, the way we communicate impacts those around us, whether it be a stranger, friend, or partner. Even a brief encounter with store clerk could have the potential to impact that person positively or negatively. For example, if we were to give a grocery cashier a compliment by saying that we like their haircut, that might make them feel good. Likewise, if we were to insult them by saying their haircut is unflattering, it could have the opposite effect. While some may argue that people are ultimately accountable for their own feelings and should take responsibility for them, competent communicators engage in perspective-taking and are cognizant of the potential interpretations of messages and the effects of these messages on others.
Finally, the way we communicate can have both short-term and long-terms effects on our relationships, both personal and professional. Getting into a superficial argument in an intimate relationship may have the short-term effect that other person not talking to us for the rest of the day. However, if in that argument we said something extremely hurtful, even if we apologized later, that other person may never forget what we said, and it may come up over and over again and cause long-term issues in the relationship. In relationships, our immediate communication and how we communicate with others over periods of time can be key to building healthy and mutually satisfactory relationships or unhealthy relationships that eventually dissolve.
1.4.4: Improving Communication Competence
Three key things can help improve communication competence: knowledge, skills, and motivation.
We can improve our communication competence by learning communication concepts, principles, characteristics, and theories. This knowledge enables us to better understand ourselves and others. Specifically, knowledge of communication processes helps us develop self-awareness of our goals and abilities; investigate the whys behind the choices we make and the way we interact with others, consider how our experiences and expectations influence the meaning we assign to a given situation, event, person, comment, behavior, etc., and consider how others’ experiences and expectations influence the meaning they assign to situations, events, person, comments, behaviors, etc.
In addition to increasing our knowledge of communication, in this text we will learn concrete skills and techniques to improve communication effectiveness. Stewart (2012) uses the metaphor of inhaling and exhaling to describe the interpersonal communication process. Skills such as listening will fall under the inhaling category. We can consciously improve our inner cognitive processing by taking in information from others and the outside world. Skills such as assertiveness will fall under the exhale category as we consciously strategize about what messages we want to put out in the world, paying attention to how they might be perceived.
The skills we learn can be thought of as ‘communication tools.’ Communication tools are a lot like carpenters’ tools. We all have different levels of skill ability and a different range of tool usage. Some of us may have fairly full toolbox of tools that we already are able to skillfully use, while others don’t. A skilled carpenter is able to purposefully select from a variety of different tools and use them skillfully to build, maintain and repair structures. A skilled communicator is able to purposefully select from a variety of different tools and use them skillfully to build, maintain and repair relationships.
Note that both the carpenter and communicator are able to choose purposefully. Purposeful choices require a key cognitive skill—that of awareness. Improved awareness is the key to increasing any type of competence. Awareness involves being conscious of our own current strengths and limitations, bringing directed attention to the contextual knowledge we gain throughout through studying communication, and being mindful of our interpersonal communication goals. With such an awareness we can ultimately direct ourselves to make effective choices that benefit our lives. The skill of awareness can be developed, practiced, and improved. Our journey to improve awareness can begin with a better understanding of motivation.
Finally, in order to increase our communication competence, we have to want to become a better communicator. It is not enough to learn knowledge and skills, we have to see a reason to apply them as well. Seeing this reason requires not only awareness but a certain type of mindset. This mindset requires a couple of considerations. First, it is helpful for us to realize that things such as our emotional intelligence and communication abilities are not fixed. Dweck (2007) reminds us that people who have a “growth” mindset (rather than a “fixed” mindset) believe they can learn, change, and grow. Neuroscience studies show that if we believe we can improve, motivation is likely to follow, as well as increased achievement.
A similar concept is called locus of control. Your locus of control is the extent to which you believe you have power over the events in your life. Those people with an internal locus of control believe that success or failure is related to their own doing. Those with an external locus of control are less clear about their own role in the way their lives play out, and are more likely to chalk outcomes up to luck or chance. You can work to shape your internal locus in a way that affects your motivation. We don’t need to stay stuck in automatic scripts, routine patterns, and the same old outcomes. We are humans and thus have “agency,” which is the ability to act with free will. We have the capacity to exercise control over our own thought processes, emotions and behaviors, an understanding of which will likely increase our motivation to improve competence.
Sometimes reflecting on who we are, how we communicate, and why we engage in certain behaviors can make us feel uncomfortable. Other times, because certain new skills may differ from how we normally communicate, they can seem disingenuous or feel awkward to use. We may also fear how the new communication patterns will be interpreted by others. However, learning knowledge and skills will enable us to better understand ourselves, others, and the world around us. We can maintain and increase our motivation by considering this potential and periodically reflecting on positive effects that result from improved communication. For example, by improving our communication we may increase our relationship satisfaction, become more successful in the workplace, and better accomplish our goals across a variety of contexts.