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The nature of interpersonal communication

Interpersonal communication can be defined in a variety of ways. One way is to define it by the
number of people communicating and their relationship to each other. This we call the dyadic or
relational definition.
Another way is to define it as a developmental process. Where communication begins as impersonal
and becomes more and more personal as the interactions increase in frequency and intimacy. This we
call the developmental definition.

1. A Dyadic Approach to IPC

Here those who are in communication are in some way ‘connected’. So communication between father
and son, employer and employee, teacher student, friends fall under the category of dyadic approach.
So it is impossible to have dyadic communication that is not interpersonal. Invariably there is some
relationship between 2 people who are interacting. Even the stranger who asks directions of a
neighborhood has an identifiable relationship with the resident as soon as the first message is sent. This
interpersonal and non intimate relationship will then influence how the 2 individuals will interact with
each other.

a) Dyadic Primacy:
In the case of triads [3 people], dyads [2 people relationships] remain primary. In case of 2 friends,
when a third person joins the group, there come into existence 3 dyads [AB, BC and AC]. In this way
Dyads can be observed in almost all large groups. Thus the nature of dyads depends on the nature of
interaction, as 2 people come close due to some common interest.

b) Dyadic Coalition:
A dyadic coalition is a 2 person relationship formed to achieve a mutually desired goal. 2 teachers may
take up a research project together, which may benefit all members of the group. At times such
coalition is damaging, for instance if a parent forms a coalition with one of the children, he may end up
alienating the rest of the children.
c) Dyadic Consciousness:
This means that in a dyadic relationship, there is the involvement of 2 people [team, pair, couple] and
the third element i.e. the ‘relationship’. These are the thoughts of the people about the relationship,
who are involved in it. As there increases involvement in the relationship, this third element starts
gaining greater importance. Now the individual interest might be sacrificed so that the ‘relationship’
continues to be.

2. A Developmental Approach to IPC

In the developmental approach communication is viewed as existing on a continuum ranging from
impersonal at one end to intimate at the other. Interpersonal communication is distinguished from
impersonal communication by 3 factors [Miller 1978]

a) Psychological Data: In interpersonal interactions people base their predictions about each other on
psychological data. However in impersonal encounters people respond to each other chiefly as
members of the class or group they belong to. For example a student responds to his professor, initially
as he responds to all professors, similarly the professor responds to the student as he responds to the
whole student community. But as the student has a closer interaction with the professor who then turns
into his mentor, they both start to look at each other as individuals. The psychological uniqueness of
the person guides the other how to interact.
In European and American culture move from social to psychological data is stronger as compared to
Asian and African cultures where the individual’s group membership is more important.

b) Explanatory Knowledge: In impersonal relationships the basic communication style is observed.

However in interpersonal relationships due to greater background knowledge one is able to explain
and justify a particular behaviour. For instance a teacher may be irked by a child’s lazy and indifferent
attitude to studies. But with the knowledge that the child is being raised by a single parent, there will
be greater understanding.

c) Personally Established Rules: In impersonal situations the rules of interaction are set down by social
norms. But in an interpersonal situation the social norms no longer regulate the relationship. In the
second case individuals develop their own personal rules as to at what level of informality will their
interaction be. For instance people tend to take their family members for granted as there is a greater
level of understanding as compared to formal workplace relationships of different levels.


Interpersonal communication is cyclic in nature. The message I sent and then feedback is given to
complete the communication cycle. As it is on going hence the relationship that is impersonal at the
beginning turns into interpersonal where one person is at times the sender and at other times the

A. Source [sender] – Receiver: Interpersonal communication involves at least 2 individuals. Each

person formulates and sends message [sender activity] and at the same time receives and comprehends
message receiver activity]. Who you are, what you know, what you believe, what you value, what you
want, what you have been told, what your attitudes are, and so on all influence what you say, how you
say it, what messages you receive, and how you receive them. Each person is unique and hence each
communication situation is unique.

B. Encoding – Decoding: Encoding refers to the act of producing a message [spoken or written]
Decoding refers to the act of understanding messages. By sending ideas via sound waves the ideas are
put in a code, hence encoding. By translating sound waves into ideas, they are taken out of a code,
hence decoding. Thus speakers and writers are called encoders and listeners and readers are called
decoders. For interpersonal communication to take place messages must be encoded and decoded.

C. Competence: The ability to communicate effectively is an individual’s interpersonal competence. For
example this competence includes the sensibility that in certain contexts and with certain listeners one
topic is appropriate and another is not. Knowledge about the nonverbal cues and cultural norms is part
of interpersonal competence. Communication competence is learnt by observing others, by explicit
instructions, by trial and error and so on. At times people are better communicators as they have been
exposed to richer communication situations and have extrovert personalities. These people are
regarded easy and comfortable to be with.
It is observed that better interpersonal communication skills result in academic competence, job
satisfaction, and meaningful relationships.

Knowledge of interpersonal communication

Leads to

Greater interpersonal competence

Leads to

Greater number of available choices for interacting

Leads to

Greater likelihood of interpersonal effectiveness

D. Messages
In interpersonal communication messages must be sent and received. Messages may be auditory
[hearing] visual [seeing] tactile [touching] olfactory [smelling] gustatory [tasting] or any other
combination. The outfit worn by the communicator, the gait, the handshake, the smile or frown, the
gaze all communicate messages that are sent and received.

Interpersonal need not occur face to face. It can take place by telephone, through prison cell walls,
through video phone or computers. Also notice that messages need not be sent intentionally all the
time, slip of the tongue or a slight eye movement may contain a strong meaning as well.
Messages refer to people, world, events, and other messages. Messages that are about other messages
are called metamessages, for example: “Do you understand?”, “Did I say that right?”, “what did you
say?”, “Is it fair to say that…”, “I want to be honest.”, “that’s not logical…”, “Correct me if I’m wrong”.
2 important types of messages are feedback and feedforward.

E. Feedback Messages
Throughout the interpersonal communication process feedback is exchanged. It is the message sent
back to the sender concerning the reaction to what is being said. Feedback tells the sender what effect

he is having on the listeners. On the basis of this feedback the speaker may adjust, modify, strengthen,
de-emphasize or change the content or form of the messages to get a desired result. Feedback, just like
the initial message may be written, spoken or non verbal. Feedback may take 5 different forms.

E1. Positive / Negative: Feedback may be positive when appreciation or agreement is shown, or
negative, when criticism or a negative reaction is transmitted. Positive feedback communicates that the
sender is right on track and must continue in the same way. Negative feedback tells the person that
something is essentially wrong and readjustment is required. A puzzled look from a listener may mean
that the speaker needs to clarify a term or explain a concept in greater detail.

E2. Person focused / Message focused: Feedback may center on a person, “You have a great smile” or it
may center on the message, “Can you repeat that number?”

E3. Immediate / Delayed: In interpersonal situation feedback is immediate. With the help of word or a
gesture a response is communicated. On the other hand in other situations it may be delayed, like the
supervisor reads questionnaires after the completion of the course. In media situation the feed back is
immediate, but in buying and selling situation it may be delayed until the product is used and results

E4. Low Monitoring / High Monitoring: Feedback varies from spontaneous and totally honest reaction
to carefully constructed response to serve a specific purpose. Most interpersonal situations deal with
spontaneous reactions but at times, depending on the relationship and situation one may be more
cautious in responding, for example head of state in press conference on a foreign soil.

E5. Supportive / Critical: Supportive feedback accepts the speaker and what the speaker says, for
example as a person is consoled he is encouraged to talk and whatever he says then is accepted by the
audience. Critical feedback is evaluative and judgmental. When critical feedback is given, another
person’s performance is judged, as coaching someone in learning a new skill.

F. Feedforward Messages

Feedforward is information that is provided before sending in primary message. They reveal
something about messages to come. For instance the content page in a book, the opening para, movie
previews, magazine covers and introductions in public speeches. The functions that feedforward
performs are opening channels of communication, previewing the message, disclaiming and alter
• There exists the initial willingness to communicate that opens the communication channel.
Keeping in view the environmental factors and other contextual features communication is
• These messages preview other messages, like content ‘I’m afraid I have bad news for you’ the
importance ‘listen to this before you make a move’ the form or style ‘ I’ll give you all the
intricate details’ or the positive or negative quality of subsequent messages ‘you’re not going to
like this but here is what I heard’.

• The disclaimer is a statement that aims to ensure that the message will be understood and will
not reflect negatively on the sender.
• Feedforward is often used to place the receiver in a specific role and requests that the receiver
responds in terms of the assumed role. For instance if it is asked of the receiver that ‘As an
advertising executive what do you think of corrective advertising?’ This question asks for a
response from a specific perspective.

G. Channel
To communicate channel is the medium through which messages pass. The channel acts as a bridge
connecting sender and receiver. Communication rarely takes place over only one channel. Multiple
channels are used to communicate messages, like in face to face interaction mainly speaking and
listening takes place but at the same time gesturing and hand movements are also present.

H. Noise
Noise enters into all communication systems no matter how well designed and sophisticated. Noise is
anything that distorts or interferes with the message reception. Five main types of noise are physical,
psychological, technical, social and semantic [language based]. Noise cannot be eliminated, but its
effect can be reduced.

I. Context
Communication always has a context which influences the form and content of your messages. At
times the context is obvious, like the difference in the manner of communication in a funeral home, a
huge stadium, a rock concert a quiet restaurant. At other times the context is intrusive as underlying
rivalry between 2 members of a bigger group. There are 4 basic dimensions to it:

1. The physical dimension is the concrete environment in which communication takes place.
2. The temporal dimension refers to the time, day and moment in history and the overall
placement of message in the sequence of communication.
3. The socio psychological dimension includes status, relationship, roles, norms of society,
formality, friendliness etc.
4. The cultural dimension is the influence of one’s nationality on the over all message encoding or

J. Purpose
The purpose of interpersonal communication is to learn, to relate, to influence, to help etc. In this world
human beings are dependent on other people to fulfill their own roles. If they are unable to form
communicative links they will fail in their own various responsibilities. Hence the importance of IPC is
immense and gaining conscious knowledge of it gives one an edge to communicate more effectively.


IPC a Transactional Process

Interpersonal communication is best viewed as an ever-changing and circular process.
Everything involved in interpersonal communication is in a state of flux: the individual is
changing, the people he communicates with are changing, and at the same time the
environment is changing. At times these changes go unnoticed, and at others they continue to
The process of communication is circular, as each participant in the communication process
serves simultaneously as a speaker and listener. Hence it is a mutually interactive process.

Interdependent Elements
The elements in IPC are interdependent. Each element is connected to the other and to the
whole. The sender, receiver, message, medium, feedback can’t exist in isolation; they have to be
connected together for IPC to take place. Because of this interdependency, a change in any one
element causes changes in overall communication situation. For instance; a group of students
are discussing about the recent exams that were held, and then a teacher joins the
communication circle, this will change the overall manner in which communication was taking

Inevitability of IPC
Communication is basically regarded as intentional, purposeful and consciously motivated,
but at times communication takes place without the willingness of a IPC participant. An
assistant editor sitting with an expressionless face, staring out of the window thinks he is not
communicating with the manager. But the manager reads various meanings out of his
behaviour. He might think that the assistant is bored, lacks interest, worried about something,
is tired etc. The assistant did not intend to communicate any of these meanings. If his
behaviour goes unnoticed then no communication would have taken place.
A stranger who smiles at a passer by is communicating some kind of meaning, and is looking
for some kind of a response. The passer by may not respond in any way, which will be read as
some kind of a response. Hence IPC is inevitable.

Irreversibility of IPC

Some processes can be reversed, for instance water may be converted in ice and then melted
back into water. This process may be reversed as many times as wanted, but not all processes
are irreversible. For instance an orange may be squeezed to extract orange juice, but the
process may not be reversed.

In the same way IPC is irreversible. What has been communicated cannot be uncommunicated.
One may go on trying to negate, reduce the effects of the message, but can’t undo the message.
In this way one needs to be cautious to send out messages that are not wished to be withdrawn

Unreapeatability of IPC
The unreapeatability of IPC is once again related to the ever changing nature of all the
elements involved in it. In this way the exact communication situation cannot be recaptured.
Meeting a person for the first time, resolving a specific conflict, comforting a grieving friend on
the death of a loved one is a one time experience that cannot be repeated just as it was done the
first time.

IPC is a Process of Adjustment

IPC can take place only to the extent that the parties communicating share the same system of
symbols. This becomes obvious when the speaker and listener belong to 2 different cultures,
not sharing the same language. No 2 people share the identical symbol systems. People have
different vocabularies, and at times have different meanings for same word.
Part of IPC is to try to understand the other person’s signals, how they are used and what they
mean. People in close relationships realize that learning g the other person’s signals takes a
long time and often great patience. One needs to share his own system of signals to be
understood by others.
This principal is especially important in intercultural communication, largely because people
from different cultures use different signals to signify different things. Focused eye contact
means honesty and openness in much of the US, but the same behaviour may signify
arrogance or disrespect in Japan, Middle East, and many Hispanic cultures.

Communication Accommodation
An interesting theory largely revolving around adjustment is communication accommodation
theory. This theory holds that speakers will adjust to or accommodate to the speaking style of
their listeners to gain, for example, social approval and greater communication efficiency. For
example, when 2 people have a similar speech rate, they seem to be more attracted to each
other than to those with dissimilar rates. Similarly the speaker who uses language intensity
similar to that of listeners has a greater credibility than the one who uses language intensity
different from the listeners.

IPC is a series of punctuated events

Communication events are continuous transactions. There is no clear cut beginning or clear cut
end. As observers of the communication act, the continuous stream of communication can be

broken into smaller pieces as causes or stimuli or effects or responses. A child may be losing
interest in studies and the parents may be scolding him for it, but the more they scold the more
loss of interest takes place. In this way it becomes a vicious cycle.

This tendency to divide communication transactions into sequences as stimuli and responses is
referred to as punctuation. Understanding how another person interprets a situation, how he
or she punctuates, is a crucial step in IPC understanding. It is also essential in achieving
empathy [feeling what the other person is feeling].

Relationships may be viewed as Symmetrical or Complementary

IPC can be described as either symmetrical or complementary. In a symmetrical relationship the
two individuals mirror each others’ behaviour. If one member expresses, passion, jealousy,
passivity, aggression the other responds in the same manner. The relationship is of equality,
with the emphasis on minimizing the differences between the two individuals.
In a complementary relationship the two individuals engage in different behaviours. The
behaviour of one serves as the stimulus for the other’s complementary behaviour. In
complementary relationships the differences between the parties are maximized. The people
occupy different positions, one superior and the other inferior, one passive and the other
active, one strong and the other weak. At times cultures or contexts establish such
relationships; for example the complementary relationship between employer and employee,
teacher and student, etc.

The content and relationship dimension in IPC

Communication refers to the external world and also to the relationship between the parties.
For example; the judge may say to the lawyer “See me in my chamber immediately.” This
message has both the content aspect [as the lawyer will see the judge immediately] and the
relationship aspect [the use of simple command]. However the lawyer is not expected to give
the same command to the judge, who holds a superior position.

Hence, the content has to be similar to the relationship in a particular communication

situation. If they are incongruous the communication would essentially fail to have a desired