10.4.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we will cover cognitive and behavioral skills to help us more effectively create the communication climate we want to experience, contextual nuances in interpersonal needs, and discuss the importance mindfulness and awareness.


10.4.1: Effective Communication: Cognitive and Behavioral Skills

Cognitive skills involve thinking about others and behavioral skills involve actionable things we can actually say and do. Specifically, we will cover three skills for more effective climate messages: empathy, quadruple thinking, and metacommunication. Empathy:

You may have heard empathy defined as the ability to (metaphorically) “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” to feel what another may be feeling. This description is technically accurate on one level, but empathy is actually more complex. Our human capacity for empathy has three levels: cognitive, affective, and compassionate.

The first is cognitive and involves more thinking than feeling. A more appropriate metaphor for this level is “putting on someone else’s perception glasses,” to attempt to view a situation in the way someone else might view it. It requires thinking about someone else’s thinking, considering factors that make up someone’s unique perceptual schema, and trying to view a situation through that lens. For example, employees don’t always view things the way managers do. A good manager can see through employee glasses and anticipate how workplace actions, decisions, and/or messages may be interpreted.

The second level is affective, or emotional, and involves attempting to feel the emotions of others. The “shoes” metaphor fits best for this level. Attempting to truly feel what other humans feel requires envisioning exactly what they might be going through in their lives. Doing so effectively might even require “taking off your own shoes.” For example, to empathize with a complaining customer, we can temporarily put our own needs aside, and really picture what it would feel like to be the customer experiencing the problem situation. Your own need might be to take care of the complaint quickly so you can go to lunch. Yet, if it were you in the problem situation, you would likely want someone to be warm, attentive, and supportive, and take the time needed to solve the problem.

This level of empathy is often confused with sympathy, something with which you are probably already very familiar. The two are related but are not the same. Feeling sympathy means feeling bad for or sorry about something another person might be going through, but understanding and feeling it from your own perspective, through your own perception glasses, and in your own shoes. We all recognize that losing a pet is likely to be devastating for someone. We therefore feel sympathy for our friend because their dog died. However, feeling empathy requires making an effort to see the situation through their glasses and shoes. What this means is that we consider how they may see and feel the situation differently from us. For instance, we may have experienced many pet losses and even human losses in your life, so yet another pet loss may not feel that significant to us. But, if this is your friend’s first significant loss, they may likely feel more devastation than we would. We can respond more appropriately and with more warmth by letting go of our own perspective and attempting to see and feel the situation as they might. Another way to distinguish between sympathy and empathy is by seeing sympathy as “feeling for…” (as in feeling sorry for or feeling compassion for another person) and empathy as “feeling with…” as in actually feeling the emotions of another person.

The third level of empathy is the compassionate concern for the well-being of our fellow humans (Goleman, 2006). Feeling empathy at this level motivates us to act compassionately in the interest of others. Examples may include dropping off a casserole for a grieving friend, taking some of your coworker’s calls when they are especially busy or stressed, or organizing a neighborhood clean-up. With this level of empathy, we sense what people need and feel compelled to help. Most of us are usually able to empathize at this level with people who are important to us.

Strategies for building empathy: While empathy comes more naturally for some people than others, it is a skill that can be developed (Goleman, 2006) with a greater awareness of and attention to the perception process. Remember that perception is unique to each person. We all interpret and judge the world through our own set of perception glasses that are framed by factors such as upbringing, family background, ethnicity, age, attitude, knowledge of person and situation, past experiences, amount of exposure to others, social roles, etc.

Below addresses specific ways to build our empathy muscles. The strategies fall into two categories: adding information to the rims of our perception glasses and bringing attention to the perception process itself.

Add more information to our perception glasses. In order to add more information to our perception glasses, we need to find out what we can about a situation or person with whom we are seeking to understanding and empathize. We can do this by:

  • Taking in information: When we observe, listen, question, perception check, paraphrase, pay attention to nonverbals and feelings, we take information in rather than putting information out (e.g., listening more and talking less).
  • Broaden or narrow our perspective: Sometimes we feel stuck, allowing one interaction with one person to become all-consuming. If we remember how big the world is and how many people are dealing with similar situations right now, we gain perspective that helps us see the situation in a different way. On the other hand, sometimes we generalize too broadly, seeing an entire group of people in one way, or assuming all things are bad at our workplace. Focusing on one person or one situation a time is another way to helpfully shift perspectives.
  • Imagine or seek stories and info (through books, films, articles, technology): We can learn and imagine what people’s lives are really like by reading, watching, or listening to the stories of others.
  • Seek out actual experiences to help us understand what it’s like to be in others’ shoes: We can do something experiential like a ride-along with a police officer or spend a day on the streets to really try to feel what it’s like to be in a situation in which we are not familiar.

Bring attention to the perception process. Pull down our own perception glasses and try on a pair of someone else’s. Thinking about our thinking is a process called metacognition. By turning our attention toward the way we perceive information and how that perception makes us feel. What factors make up the rims of our glasses and how do these factors shape our perspectives, thoughts, feelings, and actions? Consider what makes another person unique, and what rim factors may influence the person’s perspectives and feelings. We should try to see the situation through those glasses, inferring how unique perceptual schemas might shape the others person’s emotions and actions too. Remember, though, we can never be certain how or why people do what they do. Only they know for sure. But communication can be more effective if we at least give some type of speculative forethought before we act or react. And when in doubt, we can always ask. Climate-Centered Message Planning:

Our second mindful competence skill is called Climate-Centered Message Planning (CCMP), which is a term coined by Gerber and Murphy (2019). CCMP refers to the conscious encoding (planning and forethought) involved in meeting communication goals. CCMP requires two steps and takes the basics of empathy a bit further into message construction. The steps include: 1. Think about what we want to say or do. What is our goal? What outcome(s) do we hope to achieve? What message or behaviors are we considering? What needs do we hope to fulfill? What emotional temperature do we hope to create? Which behaviors or message strategies will help us achieve it? 2. Think about how the other person (or persons) might hear (or perceive) what we say. Here, we should put on their perception glasses and consider as many factors as possible that affect how the person might see and feel our message. We should think about whether the message is likely to be perceived and received as intended. If not, rethink what we want to say so that they will be more likely hear what you want them to hear (so a person is more likely to interpret your messages as you intend it to be interpreted). Remember once again, we can never completely ensure that someone “hears what we want them to hear” (interprets what we intended). However, with some awareness and forethought, we can ensure there’s a better chance of it. CCMP also helps us with better awareness of how what we say and how we say it may impact another person’s relational or face needs. Our consideration of what human beings “need” will help us infer how they might react to messages emotionally, intellectually, or relationally. Doing so helps us communicate more effectively and appropriately whatever our goal may be. Metacommunication:

Our third skill is an action skill: the skill of metacommunication. It, too, requires mindfully elevating awareness beyond the content level of communication, but also requires us to actually discuss things such as needs and relational messages aloud. Metacommunication literally means communicating about communication, and occurs when we talk to each other about any part of the communication process, including what is said or done, how it is interpreted, how we feel, what we wish had been said or done, etc. For example, metacommunication occurs anytime you say “It’s frustrating when you interrupt me,” or “I wish you’d have asked me before you made that decision.” Other forms of metacommunication bring relational messages and social needs right to the surface level for discussion. For example, if you said “when you brought that up in front of my friends, I felt embarrassed and undignified,” or “when I don’t hear from you, I feel less connected to you.” Metacommunication can involve any of the skills we’ve learned so far (“I” messages, perception checking, etc.) and can be used deliberately to address our own wants, needs, or to clarify our intentions when something we’ve expressed may have been ill-received. Scholar and speaker Brene Brown recommends using phrases such as “the story I’m making up about this is…” to explain the way we perceived something and “help me better understand” as a form of listening to understand how another person may have perceived something. Metacommunication can help us in the middle of interactions to clarify and prevent misunderstandings as we both send and receive messages. For example, if you notice someone reacting in a way you didn’t intend, you can ask about it (“how are you feeling right now? What are you hearing me say?”) or you can clarify your intent and adjust (“My intent was not for you to feel disrespected. How can I say this differently so that you hear my respect for you?”). We can also respond to the cold relational messages of others with “When you say it that way, I hear not only what you’re saying but an extra message that you don’t think I’m capable” or “not giving me options leaves me feeling boxed in and I really want to feel more freedom in this relationship.”


10.4.2: Contextual Communication: Context and Needs

Context influences all of our communication, but it also has important implications when it comes to the interpersonal needs we have discussed throughout this chapter. Below we discuss how three types of contextual nuances that influence our needs: relational, individual, and co-cultural.

  • Relational Context:
    Based on the relational context, the relationship we have with others (friend, colleague, etc.), different people will meet different needs. We may expect a specific type of relationship to meet one need (but not the other) or place more or less importance on that relationship meeting a particular need. For example, in workplace relationships with colleagues, managers, or people we manage we may expect these people, and place higher value on these people meeting needs pertaining to competence, capability, control, etc. We may not expect these relationships to, or place lesser importance on them, meeting needs such as warmth and kindness. Conversely, we may expect intimate relationships with friends and romantic partners to satisfy needs related to connection, and not expect them to, or place less importance, on them meeting needs like control.

  • Individual Context:
    Individuals tend to vary in the level of desire for certain needs to be met. We may have low needs in one area and medium or high needs in another. For example, we may have a high need for connection and a low need for freedom. Conversely, another individual may have a low need for connection and high need for freedom. We also see a difference between how much needs are wanted (we want our needs met from others) and expressed (how much we want and do work toward meeting these needs in others). For example, we may have a need to feel respected but do little to show respect to another to meet their respect need.

  • Co-Cultural Context:
    Group membership and identity based on factors like gender, generation, social class, etc. can influence the value placed on a particular need. For example, men are often taught (through socialization) to strongly value the needs of autonomy, control, freedom from imposition by others, space, and privacy. Conversely, women are often taught to place higher value on needs of belonging, inclusion, warmth, and kindness. Because of this, it is important to recognize what we genuinely want in terms of needs- not just what we think we should want or were told we should value.


10.4.3: Reflective Communication: Mindfulness

The word mindfulness refers to “paying attention on purpose,” and has many uses in personal and work life. For interpersonal communication purposes, mindfulness relates to becoming more conscious of how we encode and decode messages. We can better meet our communication goals with increased awareness of how communication carries relational subtexts, how those subtexts may be perceived to meet (or not meet) social needs, and how those perceptions might result in a warm or cold emotional temperature. As with all communication competence skills, awareness helps us shift from a habitual or automatic state of being and thinking to a mindful and thoughtful state where we put more effort, attention and forethought into what we hope to accomplish and why.

Becoming mindful of climate means increasing awareness of the needs of self and others before, during, and after interactions. It requires reflecting on of our own desires, thought processes and emotional reactions, and with applied forethought, thinking about and speculating about those of others. Learning about relational messages and social needs gives us access to a greater variety of perceptual frameworks through which to view communication (e.g., how might this message be received by others?). It also requires that during interactions we observe, reflect on, and attend to others’ emotional reactions and shift gears midstream if necessary. For example, if mid-interaction we observe a person’s outward response that seems to indicate embarrassment, shame, agitation or defensiveness, we can adjust our behavior or discuss and clarify our intent. We may even take notice of an interaction after it occurred, reviewing it and considering how well it went or how we might do better next time. Through awareness, reflection, mindfulness we can build a cognitively complex repertoire of skill, knowledge, and motivation that helps us engage in a skillful dance of communication that attempts to honor social needs.



Consider what you might say and do to convey the given relational subtext.

  1. How might you decline a friend’s invitation to coffee with respect and affection?
  2. How could you address an employee’s need for autonomy when telling her she is needed to work this weekend? The need for dignity?
  3. How might you disagree with a classmate’s politics by recognizing their need for inclusion? Respect? The need to matter?
  4. How might you address the autonomy or affection needs of your significant other when you request that they come home on time tonight?


Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 10: Communication Climate