10.2.0: Principles of Communication Climate

In this section we will discuss the five principles of communication climate: messages contain relational subtexts that can be felt; climate is conveyed through words, action, and non-action; climate is perceived; climate is determined by social and relational needs; and relational messages are multi-leveled.


10.2.1: Messages contain relational subtexts that can be felt

In addition to generating and perceiving meaning in communicative interactions, we also subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) convey and perceive the way we feel about each other. As we discussed in Chapter 1: Introduction to Communication, almost all messages operate on two levels: content and relational. As a reminder, the content is the substance of what’s being communicated (the what of the message). The relational dimension isn’t the actual thing being discussed and instead can reveal something about the relational dynamic existing between you and the other person (the who of the message). We can think of it as a kind of subtext, an underlying (or hidden) message that says something about how the parties feel toward one another. For example, when deciding on a TV program, your partner might politely suggest, “I’d like to watch this show, how about you?” The content of the message is about what they want to watch. The relational subtext is subtle but suggests your partner values your input and wants to share decision-making control. The climate of this interaction is likely to be neutral or warm. However, consider how the relational subtext changes if your partners insists (with a raised voice and a glare): “We are WATCHING THIS SHOW tonight!” The content is still about what they want to watch. But what is the subtext now? In addition to what your partner wants to watch, they seem to be sending a relational message of dominance, control and potential disrespect for your needs and wants. You might be hearing an additional message of “I don’t care about you,” which is likely to feel cold, eliciting a negative emotional reaction such as defensiveness or sadness.


10.2.2: Climate is conveyed through words, action, and non-action

Relational subtexts can be conveyed through direct words and actions. A student making a complaint to an instructor can be worded with respect, as in “Would you have a few minutes after class to discuss my grade?” or without, as in “I can’t believe you gave me such a crappy grade, and we need to talk about it right after class!” We can often find more of the relational meaning in the accompanying and more indirect nonverbals—in the way something is said or done. For example, two of your coworkers might use the exact same words to make a request of you, but the tone, emphasis, and facial expression will change the relational meaning, which influences the way you feel. The words “can you get this done by Friday” will convey different levels of respect and control depending upon the nonverbal emphasis, tone, and facial expressions paired with the verbal message. For example, the request can be made in a questioning tone versus a frustrated or condescending one. Additionally, a relational subtext might also be perceived by what is NOT said or done. For example, one coworker adds a “thanks” or a “please” and the other doesn’t. Or, one coworker shows up to your birthday coffee meetup and the other doesn’t. What do these non-actions suggest to you about the other person’s feelings or attitude towards you? Consider for a moment some past messages (and non-messages) that felt warm or cold to you.


10.2.3: Climate is perceived

Relational meanings are not inherent in the messages themselves. They are not literal, and they are not facts. The subtext of any communicative message is in the eye of the beholder. The relational meaning can be received in ways that were unintentional. Additionally, like content messages, relational messages can be influenced by what we attend to and by our expectations (as discussed in Chapter 3: The Perception Process and Perception of Others). They also stand out more if they contrast with what you normally expect or prefer.

You might interpret your partner’s insistence on watching a certain show to mean they are bossy. However, your partner might have perceived you to be the bossy one and is attempting to regain loss of decision control. Control could be exerted because doing so is the accepted relational dynamic between you, or it could be a frustrated reaction to a frequent loss of decision control, which they want to regain. Here, it needs to be noted that the relational message someone hears at any given time is a perception and doesn’t necessarily mean the message received was the message intended. Meanings will depend on who is delivering it and in what context. Cultural and co-cultural context will also impact the way a message is interpreted, which we will discuss later in the Communication Competence section of this chapter. In addition, later in this chapter we will discuss metacommunication, a way to address climate and relational subtexts in interactions in order to clarify intent and increase shared meaning.


10.2.4: Climate is determined by social and relational needs

While relational messages can potentially show up in dozens of different communicative forms, they generally fall into categories that align with specific types of human social needs that vary from person to person and situation to situation. In addition to physical needs, such as food and water, human beings have social and relational needs that can have negative consequences if ignored. Negative consequences can range from frustrating work days to actual death (in cases of infants not getting human touch and attention and the elderly who suffer in isolation). Scholars categorize social needs in many different ways. Recall the discussion of Interpersonal Needs Theory from Chapter 8: Interpersonal Relationships, which explained that we are more likely to develop relationships with people who meet one or more of three basic interpersonal needs: affection, control, and belonging. We want to be liked or loved. We want to be able to influence others and our own environments (at least somewhat). We want to feel included. Each need exists on a continuum from low to high, with some people needing only a little of one and more of another. The level of need also varies by context, with some situations calling for more affection (e.g., romantic relationships) and others calling for less (e.g., workplace).

Another framework for categorizing needs comes from a nonviolent communication approach used by mediators, negotiators, therapists, and businesses across the world. This approach focuses on compassion and collaboration and categorizes human needs with more detail and scope. For example, categories include freedom, connection, community, play, integrity, honesty, peace, and the needs to matter and be understood. When people from all cultures and all walks of life all over the world are asked “Do you need these to thrive?” the answer—with small nuances—is always “yes” (Sofer, 2018).

During interactions, we detect on some level whether the person with whom we are communicating is meeting a particular need, such as the need for respect. We may not really be aware, on a conscious level, of why we feel cold toward a coworker. But, it is likely that the coworker’s jokes, eyerolls, and criticisms toward you feel like a relational message of inferiority or disrespect. In this case, your unmet need for dignity, competence, respect or belonging may be contributing to your cold reaction toward this person. When other people’s messages don’t meet our needs in whole or in part, we tend to have an emotionally cold reaction. When messages do meet our needs, we tend to feel warm.

Consider how needs may be met (or not met) in when you are in a disagreement of opinion with someone else. For example, needs may be met if we feel heard by the other and not met if we feel disrespected when we present our opinion. In a different example, consider all the different ways you could request that someone turn the music down. You could do both of these things with undertones (relational subtexts) of superiority, anger, dominance, ridicule, coldness, distance, etc. Or you could do them with warmth, equality, playfulness, shared control, respect, trust, etc.


10.2.5: Relational messages are multi-leveled

On one level, we want to feel that our social needs are met and we hope that others in our lives will meet them through their communication, at least in part. On another level, though, we are concerned with how we are perceived; the self-image we convey to others is important to us. We want it to be apparent to others that we belong, matter, are respected, understood, competent, and in control of ourselves. Some messages carry relational subtexts that harm or threaten our self-image, while others confirm and validate it.

To help better understand this second level of relational subtexts, let’s discuss the concept of “face needs.” Face refers to our self-image when communicating with others (Ting-Toomey, 2005; Brown and Levinson, 1987; Lim and Bowers, 1991). It does not refer to our physical face, but more of an unsaid portrayal of the image that we want to project to others, and sometimes even to ourselves. Most of us are probably unaware of the fact that we are frequently negotiating this face as we interact with others. However, on some level, whether we are aware of it or not, many of our social needs relate to the way we want to be perceived by others. Specifically, we not only want to feel included in particular groups, we also want to be seen as someone who belongs. We want to feel capable and competent, but we also want others to think we are capable and competent. We want to experience a certain level of autonomy, but we also want to be seen as free from the imposition of others. Communication subtexts such as disrespect tend to threaten our face needs, while other behaviors such as the right amount of recognition support them. Once again, we can apply the temperature analogy here. When we perceive our “face” to be threatened, we may feel cold. When our face needs are honored, we may feel warm. Effective communication sometimes requires a delicate dance that involves addressing, maintaining, and restoring our own face and that of others simultaneously.

Because both our own needs and the needs of others play an important role in communication climate, throughout the rest of this chapter we will utilize the following three general categories when we refer to social needs that can be addressed through communication:

  • Need for Connection: belonging, inclusion, acceptance, warmth, kindness
  • Need for Freedom: autonomy, control, freedom from imposition by others, space, privacy
  • Need for Meaning: competence, capability, dignity, worthiness, respect, to matter, to be understood
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