The old adage that “talk is cheap” is going through something of a re-think. Sure, it’s easy to talk about what you plan to accomplish prior to committing any action, but what if that “talk” itself had inherent value?
Newsflash — it does. “Talk,” more formally known as, “interpersonal communication” is one of the most valuable and necessary skill sets to have in the modern world of business.
What Is Interpersonal Communication?
Before we give an interpersonal communication definition, we should first ask “what does interpersonal mean?” Simply put, “interpersonal” is most frequently defined as something “between people.” In this case, it’s communication but it’s more than mere “talk.”
Interpersonal communication refers to the entire process and practice of exchanging ideas, information, and even emotional experiences that can be shared between people.
It is a potent and vital force that isn’t just all about words. It’s an array of cues that come from the voice, body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
Effective interpersonal communication is the bedrock upon which relationships in business (and beyond) are built. Good interpersonal communication is the catalyst for action. When it’s done right, it can truly turn ideas into action.
Though one’s own interpersonal communication definition may differ slightly from others, the basic tenets will likely remain the same. Your skills as a communicator will be judged by your mastery of four basic interpersonal communication concepts.
What Are the 4 Types of Interpersonal Communication and Interpersonal Skills?
When it comes to basic elements of interpersonal communication, the various types of possible communication will cluster under four basic categories: verbal, listening, written, and non-verbal communication.
Whenever you talk or even make an audible sound (like “hmm” of “Ahh!” for example), you’re creating verbal communication. Beyond the content of what you’re saying and the context in which it’s being said, verbal communication also includes additional auditory factors like intonation. This refers to how your voice rises and falls in tone as you speak and can shade how the words are meant to be interpreted.
For example, the phrase “Have a nice day” can take on a number of different meanings when you imagine it said in a friendly way, sarcastically, or even ominously.
Chances are that some point in your life you’ve been accused of “hearing but not listening” to what someone was saying to you. The distinction between the two concepts might have seemed nuanced at first until the message became clear: hearing is involuntary and effortless whereas listening is focused and intentional.
Hearing is an automatic response that is the result of having working ears. Listening takes more effort. It’s purposeful and requires concentration to understand what the speaker is sharing.
3. Written Communication
When you convey a message via written symbols, you’re practicing written communication. From emails and text messages to more formal memoranda and reports, written communication is the cornerstone of most information sharing in business.
When information that is complex or lengthy needs to be shared, it’s usually conveyed through written communication. To that end, written communication is often considered more legally valid than spoken words are. That’s why it often serves as an “official” mode of communication. Written communication can also include emoji, which can help convey more emotional information and context that can be hard to deduce from the words themselves.
4. Non-Verbal Communication
Getting meaning across without using words either written or spoken is the essence of non-verbal communication. This can be achieved through everything from facial expressions, to specific gestures (“jazz hands,” anyone?) to body language and certain postures.
To get a sense of how much can be communicated through non+verbal communication, consider that mimes are able to tell entire stories without uttering a word. Moreover, non-verbal communication often complements spoken communication. Gestures like ‘air quotes” or shoulder shrugging add additional if not entirely different meanings to what’s being said.
We Need to Talk: How Interpersonal Communication Works
Inasmuch as “it takes two to tango,” it takes at least as many (and sometimes many more) for interpersonal communication skills to improve. In a business setting, interpersonal communication can sometimes quickly devolve into looking like a group attempting to dance the Macarena except everyone is doing the steps in a different order. There are conventions we use to frame our thinking about communication. But it’s really far too dynamic a phenomenon to be summed up by a few simple rules.
We often think about communication as having a distinct sender and receiver of a message wherein one person sends a message and the other receives it. The problem with this model is that interpersonal communication seldom occurs so seamlessly — instead, people are more likely to send and receive messages at the same time in a complex, interactive process.
Successful interpersonal communication skills are trained through cultivating active feedback. Simply put, feedback consists of the reactions that a receiver conveys to the original sender. Feedback provides the sender the opportunity to adjust their message in order to improve interpersonal communication.
Feedback occurs not just after someone has made a statement, but often during the interpersonal communication itself. There are a number of social cues used to indicate that one person is indeed listening to the other — from nodding or expressing affirmative sounds like “mm-hmm” to a variety of interjections and interruptions that shape real-life conversations.
As messy as this may seem, all of these elements — the spoken words, facial expressions, tone and gestures — are actually part of the overall message. They help shape how it is intended to be interpreted and indicate how it is being interpreted in real-time.
However, there are factors that can distort this process. Communications theorists call this “noise,” which is anything that obstructs the meaning of a message. Beyond the literal meaning of noise wherein sounds from the physical world intrude upon the reception of a message (from weak mobile phone connections to the sounds of a crowded cafe), there are other types of noise that can negatively impact interpersonal communication.
Cultural and language differences can create an added layer of complication that may obscure a communicator’s intended message. Similarly, the overuse of jargon or colloquial language can get in the way of the listener understanding what is being communicated.
Much of what influences a message and how it is perceived is the context in which it is shared. The context includes not only the setting of the communication (an office, a restaurant, while walking between locations) but the social factors shared by the communicators. Is one the boss of the other? Are the communicators in question friends or competitors or both?
The relationship and relative social status between two people communicating can affect how a message is received.
Just as important is the way in which a message is transmitted from one person to the other. Is it in-person or over the phone? Text or email? Communication theorists refer to the means of interpersonal communication as the channel, which can have implications for how the message is meant to be received.
A formal email from a colleague’s business email address sets the expectation that the message is an “official” communication. However, a channel like a Facebook message suggests a more social context, which would cue a different, less formal style of interaction. Choosing the appropriate channel for the message can sometimes be as important as the message itself.
What Are Some Examples of Interpersonal Communication?
Humans are a social species — consequently, we’re constantly communicating with one another. Research indicates that people speak anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000 words a day to each other. For context, on the higher end of the scale, that’s equivalent to chatting out the average novella in the course of a day.
Interpersonal communication is happening all the time and in the business world, it’s often one of the most important aspects of your job.
So, if you’re wondering to yourself, “What are some examples of interpersonal communication?” Here they are:
1. Phone Calls
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, one of the inventors of the telephone uttered the first words ever transmitted over the line. They were to his assistant and are as historic as they are mundane: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Since then, trillions of words have been spoken into phones daily. How many calls have you made today?
Whether they’re conducted in person, (as in the pre-pandemic days) or on Zoom, meetings have long been a mainstay of the business experience. That said, like the modern saying, “This could have been an email,” think twice before requesting someone’s time and attention in a group setting.
The overreliance on “ye olde slide deck” may be fading out, but presentations remain a mainstay of the corporate conference room. And why not? A well-communicated and visually-appealing presentation can be a rallying point for a project and galvanize the team together.
4. Emails and Texting
Some pundits like to bemoan the fact that, as a culture, we spend too much time interacting with screens rather than each other. The fact is, we’re using the screens to interact with each other — usually through written communication.
At least 97% of smartphone owners text regularly according to the Pew Research Center, which amounts to about 26 billion daily texts sent in America alone.
That’s a lot of interpersonal communication — not to mention a lot of reading and writing.