Human Resource Development (HRM-627)
When asked to define interpersonal communication from communication in general, many people say that
interpersonal communication involves fewer people, often just two. Although much interpersonal
communication involves only two or three people, this isn't a useful way of defining interpersonal
communication. If it were, then an exchange between a homeowner and a plumber would be interpersonal, but
a family conversation wouldn't be. Clearly, the number of people involved is not a good criterion for defining
Some people suggest that intimate contexts define interpersonal communication. But this also doesn't define
interpersonal communication as the context doesn't necessarily tell us what is unique about interpersonal
What distinguishes interpersonal communication is the particular quality, or character, of interaction. This
emphasizes what happens between people, not where they are or how many are present.
A Communication Continuum
We can begin to understand the unique character of interpersonal communication by tracing the meaning of
the word interpersonal. It is derived from the prefix inter, meaning "between", and the word person, so
interpersonal communication literally occurs between people. In one sense, all communication happens
between people, yet many interactions don't involve us personally. Communication exists on a continuum from
impersonal to interpersonal.
A lot of our communication doesn't involve personal interaction. Sometimes we don't acknowledge others as
people at all but treat them as objects; they bag our groceries, direct us around highway construction, and so
forth. In other instances, we interact with others in stereotypical or role-bound ways but don't deal with them
as distinct people. With a select few people we communicate in deeply personal ways. These distinctions are
captured by philosopher Martin Buber (1970) who distinguished between three levels of communication: I-It,
I-You, and I-Thou.
I-It Communication: In an I-It relationship, we treat others impersonally, almost as objects. In I-It
Communication we do not acknowledge the humanity of the other people; we may not even affirm their
existence. Salespeople, servers in restaurants, and clerical staff often are treated not as people but as
instruments to take orders and deliver what we want. In the extreme form of I-It relationships, others are not
even acknowledged. When a homeless person asks for money for food, some people do not even respond but
look away as if the person isn't there. In dysfunctional families, parents may ignore children, thereby treating
the children as I-It, not as people.
I-You Communication: the second level Buber identified is I-You Communication, which accounts for the
majority of our interactions. People acknowledge one another as more than objects, but they don't fully engage
each other as unique individuals. For example, suppose you go shopping and a salesclerk asks, `May I help
you?' chances are you won't have a deep conversation with the clerk, but you might treat him or her as more
than an it. Perhaps you say, `I'm just browsing today. Yow know how it is at the end of the month no
money.' The clerk might laugh and commiserate about how money gets tight by the end of each month. In this
interaction, you and the clerk treat each other as more than its: the clerk doesn't treat you as a faceless shopper,
and you don't treat the clerk as just as an agent of the store.
I-You relationships may also be more personal than interactions with salesclerks. For instance, we talk with
others in our classes, on the job, and on our sports teams in ways that are somewhat personal. The same is true
of interaction in chat rooms where people meet to share ideas and common interests. Interaction is still guided
by our roles as peers, members of a class or team, and people who have common interests. Yet we do affirm
their existence and recognize them as individuals within those roles. Teachers and students often have I-You
relationships. In the work place majority or our relationships are I-You. We communicate in less depth with
more people in our social circles than those we love most. Casual friends, work associates and distant family
members typically engage in I-You communication.
I-Thou Communication: the rarest kind of relationship involves I-Thou communication. Buber regarded this
as the highest form of human dialogue because each person affirms the other as cherished and unique. When
we interact on an I-Thou level, we meet others in their wholeness and individuality. Instead of dealing with
them as occupants of social roles, we see them as unique human beings whom we know and accept in their
Human Resource Development (HRM-627)
totality. Also, in I-Thou communication we open ourselves fully, trusting others to accept us as we are with
virtues and vices, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses.
Buber believed that only in I-Thou relationships we become fully human, which for him meant we discard the
guises we use most of the time and allow ourselves to be completely genuine in interaction (Stewart, 1986).
Much of our communication involves what Buber calls `seeming', in which we're preoccupied with our image
and careful to manage how we present ourselves. In I-Thou relationships, however, we engage in `being'
through which who we really are and how we really feel.
I-Thou relationships are not common because we can't afford to reveal ourselves totally to everyone all of the
time. Thus, I-Thou relationships and the communication in them are rare and special.
Definition of Interpersonal Communication
We can build on Buber's poetic description to define interpersonal communication as a selective, systemic,
unique and ongoing process of transaction between people who reflect and build personal knowledge of one
another and create shared meanings.
The heart of interpersonal communication is shared meanings between people (Duck, 1994a, 1994b). We don't
just exchange words when we communicate. Instead, we create meanings as we figure out what each other's
words and behaviors stand for, represent, or imply. Meanings grow out of histories of interactions between
unique persons. For example, my partner, Robbie, and I are both continuously committed in our professional
obligations, and we worry about the pace of each other's life. Often one of us says to the other, "bistari,
bistari." That phrase means nothing to you unless you know enough Nepalese to translate as its meaning `slow
down, go gradually.' When one of us says `bistari, bistari,' we not only suggest slowing down but also remind
each other of our special time living and trekking in Nepal. Most close friends and romantic partners develop
vocabularies that have meaning only to them. People who work together also develop meanings that grow out
of their interactions over time. Once in my department, faculty members argued for 30 minutes over whether
we wanted a semicolon or a dash in a sentence that was part of our mission statement. Now, whenever we start
debating small issues, one of us is bound to say `semicolon or dash?' Usually this evokes laughter and persuades
us to abandon a trivial argument.
You might have noticed that I refer to meanings, not just one meaning. This is because interpersonal
communication has two levels of meaning (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967). The first level, called the
content meaning, deals with literal or denotative meaning. If a parent says to a five year old child, `clean your
room now,' the content meaning is that the room is to be cleaned.
The second level is the relationship meaning. This refers to what communication expresses about relationship
between communicators. The relationship meaning of `clean your room now' is that the parent has the right to
order the child; they have an unequal power relationship. If the parent had said, `would you mind cleaning your
room?' the relationship meaning would have reflected a more equal relationship. Suppose a friend says, `you're
the only person I can talk to about this,' and then discloses something that is worrying him. The content level
includes the actual issue itself and the information that you're the only one with whom he can discuss this issue.
But what has he told you on the relationship level? He has communicated that he trusts you, he considers you
special, and he probably expects you to care for his troubles.
Scholars have identified three dimensions of relationship level meanings. The first dimension is
responsiveness, and it refers to how aware of others and involved with them are we. Perhaps you can
remember a conversation you had with someone who shuffled papers and glanced at a clock or kept looking at
a computer screen while you were talking. If so, you probably felt that she wasn't interested in you or what you
were saying. Low responsiveness is communicated on the relationship level of meaning when people don't look
at us or when they are preoccupied with something other than talking with us. Higher responsiveness is
communicated with eye contact, nodding, and feedback that indicates involvement (Richard & McCroskey,
A second dimension of a relationship meaning is liking, or affection. This concerns the degree of positive or
negative feeling that is communicated. Although liking may seem synonymous with responsiveness, they are
actually distinct. We may be responsive to people we don't like but have to pay attention to, and we are
sometimes preoccupied and unresponsive to people we care about. We communicate that we like or dislike
other by what we actually say as well as by tone of voice, racial expressions, how close we sit to them, and so
Power or control is the third dimension of relationship meaning. This refers to the power balance between the
communicators. A parent may say to a five year old, `clean your room because I say so, that's why.' This
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communicates that the parent has the power to tell the child what to do. Friends and romantic partners
sometimes engage in covert power struggles on the relationship level. One person suggests going to a particular
movie and then to dinner at a pizza parlor. The other responds by saying she doesn't want to see that movie
and isn't in the mood for pizza. They could be arguing on the content level about their different preferences
for the evening. If arguments over what to do or eat are recurrent and heated, however, chances are the couple
is negotiating power. In interpersonal level of meaning often is the most important, for it sets the tome of
interaction and for how people feel about each other.
In sum, we have seen that communication exists on a continuum, ranging from impersonal to interpersonal.
We've also learned that it is best understood as a transactional process, not a linear exchange or an interaction.
Based on the transactional model, we defined interpersonal communication as a selective, systemic, unique, and
ongoing process of transaction between people who reflect and build personal knowledge of one another as
they create meanings. Meanings, we have seen, reflect histories of interaction and involve content and
relationship levels. Building on this definition, we're now ready to identify basic principles of interpersonal
PRINCIPLES OF INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION
There are eight basic principles of effective communication which we would describe one by one:
1. We Cannot "Not Communicate"
Whenever people are together, they communicate. We cannot avoid communicating when we are with others
because they interpret what we do and say as well as what we don't do and don't say. Even if we chose to be
silent, we are communicating. Even when we don't intend to communicate, we do so. We may be unaware of a
grimace that gives away our disapproval or an eye roll that shows we dislike someone, but we are
2. Communication Is Irreversible
Perhaps you have been in heated arguments in which you lost your temper and said something you later
regretted. It could be that you hurt someone or revealed something about yourself you meant to keep private.
Later you might have tried to repair the damage by apologizing, explaining what you said, or denying what you
revealed. But you couldn't erase your communication; you couldn't unsay what you said. That means what we
say and do does matter and becomes a part of the relationship. Remembering this principle keeps us aware of
the importance of choosing when to speak and what to say or not say!
3. Interpersonal Communication Involves Ethical Choices
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that focuses on moral principles and code of conduct. Ethical issues concern
what is right and what is wrong. Because interpersonal communication is irreversible and affects others, it
always has ethical implications. For instance, if you read a message in a hat room that makes you angry; do you
fire off a nasty reply, assuming you will never meet the person so you won't face any consequences? In work
settings, should you avoid giving negative feedback because it could hurt others' feelings? In these and many
other instances, we face ethical choices.
4. Meanings Are Constructed In Interpersonal Communication
Human beings construct the meaning of their communication. The significance of communication doesn't lie
in words and nonverbal behaviors. Instead, meanings arise out of how we interpret one another. This calls our
attention to the fact that humans use symbols, which sets us apart from other creatures.
For example, what does it mean if someone says, "You're sick"? To interpret the comment, you have to
consider the context (a counseling session, a professional meeting), who said it (a psychiatrist, supervisor or
subordinate, a friend, an enemy), and the words themselves, which may mean various things (a medical
diagnosis, a challenge to your professional competence, a compliment, a disapproval).
5. Metacommunication Affects Meanings
The word metacommunication comes from two root terms; meta, which means "about" and communication.
Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication. For example, during a conversation with
your friend, you notice that his body is tense and his voice is sharp. You might say, "You seem really stressed."
Human Resource Development (HRM-627)
The statement metacommunicates because it communicates about your friend's nonverbal communication.
Metacommunication is both verbal and nonverbal.
Metacommunication can increase the chance of creating shared understanding. For example, teachers
sometimes say, "The next point is really important." This comment signals students to pay special attention to
what follows. A parent might tell a child, "What I said may sound harsh, but I'm only telling you because I care
about you." The comment tells the child how to interpret a critical message.
Research has found that women are more likely than men to appreciate metacommunication when there is no
conflict or immediate problem to be resolved. While curled up on a sofa and watching TV, a woman might say
to her husband, "I really feel comfortable being close with you." This comments on the relationship and on the
nonverbal communication between the couple.
6. Interpersonal Communication Develops And Sustains Relationships
Interpersonal communication is the primary way we build, refine, and transform relationships because it allows
us to express and share dreams, imaginings, and memories and to weave all of these into the joint world of
7. Interpersonal Communication Is Not A Panacea
As we have seen, we communicate to satisfy many of our needs and to create relationship with others. Yet it
would be a mistake to think communication is a cure-all. Many problems can't be solved by talk alone.
Communication by itself won't end hunger, abuse of human rights around the globe, racism, or physical
disease. Nor can words alone bridge irreconcilable differences between people or erase the hurt of betrayal.
Although good communication may increase understanding and help us find solutions to problems, it will not
fix everything. We should also realize that the idea of talking things through is distinctly Western. Not all
societies think it's wise or useful to communicate about relationships or to talk extensively about feelings.
8. Interpersonal Communication Effectiveness Can Be Learned
It is incorrect to believe that effective communicators are born. Although some people have exceptional talent
in athletics or writing, all of us can become competent athletes and writers. Similarly some people have an
aptitude for communicating, but all of us can become competent communicators.
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