Interpersonal Communication

Basic Principles of Interpersonal Communication

Thirty years ago, a businessperson was generally hired on the basis of technical skills.  Since then, the world’s economy has moved toward service-oriented, information-focused businesses that are increasingly organized in teams.  Now, Fortune 500 companies name strong interpersonal, communication and team skills as the most important criteria for success in management positions (Buckley, Peach, & Weitzel, 1989; Kane, 1993), and employers consistently name interpersonal communication skills as crucial for success on the job (Maes, Weldy, & Icenogle, 1997).

Businesspeople often contrast the “soft” interpersonal skills with analytical problem solving skills, but managers are starting to discover that an ability to learn and grow in the job is limited by an inability to “empathize or cope with the emotional reactions of others that naturally occur” in the workplace (Paul, 1967).  Furthermore, the typical business organization is not an easy place to maintain interpersonal relationships.  The diversity of communication styles and cultural expectations, the lack of time to develop relationships, and the heavy reliance on written or electronic forms of communication are all antithetical to the ways in which human beings traditionally create and maintain relationships.

Sometimes people use the term “interpersonal communication” in order to differentiate face-to-face interaction from written or electronic messages.  In other cases, people discuss “interpersonal communication” as though it referred exclusively to personal relationships with family members, friends or coworkers, thus distinguishing them from “work” relationships that are perceived to be somehow different.  Neither of these characterizations quite captures the complexity of interpersonal communication within a business setting.

As one communication text puts it, “interpersonal communication occurs not when you simply interact with someone, but when you treat the other person as a unique human being” (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2002).  From this perspective, interpersonal communication can occur in writing or by email, as well as in a face-to-face setting.  Further, even total strangers who interact with each other respectfully could be said to be communicating interpersonally even though the topic of conversation might be trite or task related.    In short, interpersonal communication is more about the content and character of the exchange than about the mechanics of how it happens or with whom.  The successful member of a business organization will display a range of interpersonal skills whenever he or she uses communication to maintain relationships, share tacit knowledge, or exchange information about emotions, values and motivations. 

·                     Understand how interpersonal skill functions to create an effective business organization.

People Skills in the Effective Organization

In a family or friendship relationship, the primary role of communication can be simply to create and maintain that specific relationship.  In a business environment, each interpersonal relationship exists within a complex network of interrelated relationships.  As a result, the ability to communicate interpersonally—that is, with people as people—becomes a foundational skill for virtually any other organizational activity.

Building Trust

No organization can continue to perform tasks productively unless its members have a basic trust in each others’ capabilities and motivations to continue to act cooperatively.  It is the ability of individuals to achieve interdependence that creates organization.  Getting work done requires an endless series of complex collaborations, and spending time and energy wondering whether others will do their part can create serious obstructions to productivity.   Success depends on each member’s ability to trust others to do their own parts of the job, to support the company’s goals and objectives and to maintain an environment in which problems can be resolved in a quick and effective manner.  Organizational success, therefore, is often found to be related to an ability to build trusting relationships (Cooper, 1997).

Trust: a firm belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of another.

Trust is built on part experience with an individual—or with other individuals who seem to be “like this one.”  If I have seen a coworker complete his sections of the design drawings on every job we’ve ever done before, I will probably trust him to do the same on this job.  I have somewhat less reason to trust a new co-worker, of course, so I will have to make some choices.  I might trust whoever hired her to make a good decision, again, based on the staff’s performance at hiring folks in the past.  I might trust her credentials, which she has hung on the wall.  I might trust her to be pretty much like all the rest of the people from her college or home town or ethnic group or gender with whom I have worked with in the past.  Of course, I might decide not to trust her, and find ways to check on the quality and quantity of her work—perhaps discretely but possibly in an annoying, overbearing or antagonistic way.

An important part of interpersonal skill then, is to provide reasons for others to trust you, and to accurately and effectively insure that you can trust others.  The reliability of a person’s previous work is, of course, the best and most straightforward indicator, but when that is not available we call on a host of verbal and non-verbal methods to gauge the trustworthiness of our colleagues. 

  • Consistency: trust is created by acting in more or less the same way all the time.  An “even” temper, a “steady” work pace, a “predictable” response or a “uniform” style of dress are all signals that the same behavior will keep on occurring in the future.
  • Communication: trust is easier to maintain when interruptions, failures or changes are communicated to others before they are surprised by them.  Change is inevitable, but when communication is used to provide a warning, the change need not create unpredictability as well.
  • Commonality: since we always tend to trust those who are like those we’ve already learned to trust, a person can earn trust by displaying those commonalities.  Rather than dwell on your degree from a different university or the ethnic diversity of the staff, focus on finding the things you all have in common.
  • Cooperation: Understand that however good your own intentions might be, a trial period is necessary.  Good natured cooperation with those who want to keep an eye on your work will create trust in two ways: you allow others to verify the quality of your work and you acknowledge the interdependence that is the basis for a trusting relationship in the future.

Human Decision Making

Emotions are the “value”  indicators in human thought processes.  Business decision making tends to focus on explicit, analytical “unemotional” data, but human beings must always evaluate that data in a process that is handled by the emotional system (Damasio, 1994).  The emotional aspects of decision-making have been traditionally considered to be a “people” skill, and sometimes quite separate from “business” decision-making skills.  In any large organization, though, it is people who are making the decisions, and a finely tuned ability to understand the emotional value system of the human mind is crucial for success. 

Clearly people who lack the analytical skill to think clearly and make good decisions will be at a disadvantage, but those who lack the skill anticipate other peoples’ reactions are also unable to recognize what they are doing wrong.  The more incompetent  people are at dealing with other people, the smarter they believe themselves to be, thereby leaving themselves vulnerable to missed opportunities, failing to get training that they need, and in the end, they “never figure out what went wrong” (Dunning & Kruger, 2000).

As the proportion of “knowledge work” grows in the economy, social skills become even more important for business success.  R esearch shows that as more intellectual capabilities are a pre-requisite for success—true of business generally, but even more so in accounting, law or information systems—the more important people skills become as a predictor of career success (Darling, 2000).  Perhaps even more significantly, “people” skills are not important just for the first level customer service representative or in the lower-level office cubes.  The higher up one moves in the organization, the more important “emotional intelligence” is to success (Book, 2000).

Technical skills and cognitive abilities, while important, are not the key drivers of business success.  Using studies from nearly 500 global companies, 85% of what distinguishes outstanding leaders is Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 2002).

Developing Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence includes both personal and social competence.  In the personal realm, a person with emotional intelligence is self-aware, able to accurately assess his or her own strengths and limits and act in a self-confident way.  This is a person who can control his or her emotions and keep destructive emotions in check.   The social aspect of emotional intelligence involves an ability to accurately perceive and interpret the emotions of others, leading to an ability to develop healthy relationships.  In both the personal and social realms, the emotionally intelligent person uses this information to guide his or her thinking and actions (Abraham, 1999). 

The key skills of emotional intelligence include being able to

§  Accurately perceive emotional expressions in oneself and in others

§  Select socially appropriate responses to situations and others’ emotions

§  Self-regulate ones own emotional state

§  Arouse or affect the emotions of others

§  Use emotional knowledge to solve problems

Emotional learning is quite unlike “book” learning.  Rather than consciously noticing and remembering facts and the relationships between facts, the emotional part of the brain learns through practice, shaping itself through repetition of “proper” responses (Reber).  The communicator who wishes to develop emotional intelligence is thus urged to practice emotional skills. 

§  Try to “watch” your own emotional reactions, noting how you feel in various situations and what causes you to feel various ways. 

§  Notice how others react to situations, and whenever possible fine tune the accuracy of your perceptions by talking with others about their emotional responses. 

§  Try to find the patterns in your own emotional responses so that you recognize the output of your implicit cognitive processes.  You might realize that you get a “tight gut” when you are asked to do something that violates your deepest ethical principles or that you get irritable when faced with a task that seems too difficult to do well. 

§  Watch those who do have highly developed emotional intelligence and try to imitate the way they display, control or use their emotions in various situations.

The individual who develops accuracy in his or her own emotional perceptions and responses is also creating an increasingly reliable tool for judging the “hidden” factors in a situation. Developing emotional intelligence can certainly make it possible to develop warmer and more positive friendships with co-workers, but the benefits are equally important for work success.  Emotional intelligence has a positive effect on work group cohesion, congruence between self and supervisor appraisals and individual employee performance and can prevent emotional, ethical and job conflicts from interfering with job satisfaction (Abraham, 1999). 

At Bell Labs individual team members had comparable abilities and skills, but “star performers” had been able to create and maintain informal networks of people who could be called on for assistance (Kelley & Caplan, 1993).  

Variations in Communication Style

Although basic principles of human communication are true across cultures, organizations, and personalities, individuals do vary widely in their communication skills, preferences and practices.  The effective communicator will take into account the specific social standing, cognitive style, and communication preferences of each individual. 

Social Position and Communication

Life Stages and Career Stages

One consultant identifies four generations currently active in the U.S. workforce: the Silent Generation (60-72), the Baby Boomers (40-59), the Generation Xers (25-39), and the Millennials (24 and younger), each of whom has its own values and biases (Robertson & Moos, 2005). Newly graduated “career track” managers have always faced the problem of supervising older workers, some who have even learned to think of themselves as part of the training process [Cle Detling].  Advice is the same:

§  Older workers are individuals, just like anyone else, and shouldn’t be treated as a “class”.

§  Don’t assume you know what others expect of you—including older workers.  Just because they’ve been around a while doesn’t mean they can read your mind, and they might will need training on new processes.

§  Value their experience.  Listen to their advice, and try to understand what it is based on.  They probably know a great deal more about the situation than they can explain and most are happy to mentor you.

§  Don’t play “boss” at them; those who grew up in a hierarchical society already know the rules.  Acting haughty in that context is rude.

Gender in the Workplace

Management and Leadership Differences

file://C:\My Documents\All Current\Teaching\113\Backups\2005\Documents and Settings\WinUser\Application Data\Microsoft\Word\Documents and Settings\WinUser\Application Data\Microsoft\Word\Application Data\Microsoft\Application Data\Microsoft\Word\WinUser\My Documents\Backups\2005\FullTexts\Maher2004.htmAlthough women are increasingly taking a role in the global economy, women are still underrepresented in the highest echelons of corporate management.  While “a growing mound of research shows that female execs trounce men in nearly every area of performance” their patterns of interpersonal communication still mark them as lacking in “executive presence” (Conlin, 2002). Women’s developmental relationships are created and sustained largely through talk, but the traditional notions of “managerial” communication as being goal-directed  and instrumental tends not to value the ways in which women in particular use interpersonal communication to “shape managerial practice and identity” (Carter, 2002 85).

In short, things that work well for men don’t work as well for women, and vice versa.  Research shows that men gain promotions and other organizational benefits with “ingratiating behaviors” such as flattery, signals of conformity to another’s opinions, and doing favors for the other person.  Meanwhile, women and ethnic minorities do not gain much from the same behaviors. In fact, women and ethnic minorities who exhibited monitoring and control signals were punished with less advancement, while Caucasian men earned favor with that style of communication {Westphal, 2007 #6027}  

Gendered Communication Styles

The classic studies in differences between male and female patterns of interpersonal communication (Tannen, 1995a, 1995b) suggest that both men and women can benefit from a greater understanding of their respective styles.

Some strategies for women dealing with men in business:

Speak up; don’t allow yourself to be interrupted because you are waiting for others to give up space in the conversation.

Avoid tag endings and vocal inflections, which convey uncertainty or indecisiveness.

Don’t take male comments like “” as relationship information.

Be aware of relationship, personal, and narrative forms of knowledge; use them judiciously with a male audience.

Some strategies for men dealing with women in business:

Remember to use polite relationships markers such as “ma’am” whenever terms like “sir” or “boss” are commonly used with men,

Don’t monopolize conversations, interrupt, or speak “for” a woman who is standing right there.

Don’t call women by patronizing relationship names such as “missy”, “lady” or “mom”.

Avoid direct, “barking” vocal tones.

Give non-verbal “I’m listening” signals such as head nods, eye contact and the occasional “mm-hmm”.

Romance in the Workplace

A particularly difficult aspect of gender in the workplace involves romance.  Virtually no one who has been involved in an office relationship will recommend that others do the same, but sexual attraction is an inevitable element of interpersonal communication in the workplace.  Policies regulating coworker dating are increasingly common (Two wasted days at work, 2005) on the grounds that personal relationships detract from organizational productivity.  Even when things go well, the emotional energy it takes to carry on a romantic relationship is energy unavailable for work-related tasks, relationships, and problem solving.

Whether relationships are specifically prohibited or not, most workers recommend taking action to avoid them:

§  Power is an aphrodisiac and so is trauma.  When the related neurochemicals kick in, there is an attraction to the most available male or female who happens to be around (Freeman, 1995). A smart worker will remove him or herself from problem situations before falling in love with whoever happens to be around. 

§  Those with a healthy social life outside the office are less susceptible to the emotional pressures of office life and more likely to develop supporting romantic relationships elsewhere.

§  Taking care to communicate properly and with proper etiquette will mask the signs of human passion and help avoid their consequences.  Always dress appropriately and use proper titles with those who appear to be particularly attractive.  Keep office doors open and people informed of your whereabouts, and stick to business in the conversation.  

In the end, some romances will inevitably blossom between co-workers.  At most companies, the continuation of a relationship will require a job switch for one of you.  At a minimum, couples should not try to integrate a personal relationship with the organization’s chain of command, and there should never be any public displays of affection in the workplace.


Communicating Across Generations

A cohort of people is a group of individuals who have shared an experience.  In the case of generations, this means a group of people who have experienced roughly the same memorable experiences.  Generations are most influenced by a collection of experiences that occurred in their formative years, before they’ve turned 18. Current researchers generally identify four cohorts that are now active in the contemporary workplace:

World War II

Born between 1922-1945

Defining events: WW II, Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Korean War, GI Bill, Atomic Bomb, Radio

Characteristics: Patriotic, loyal, hard-working, military-style leadership model (follow orders/no questions), duty

Baby Boomers

Born between 1946-1964

Defining events: Civil Rights, women’s rights movement, “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, Vietnam, assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., television

Characteristics: rebellious, movers and shakers, love/hate authority, optimistic, competitive

Generation X

Born between 1965-1981

Defining events: Watergate, MTV, AIDS, single-parent homes and latch-key kids, Challenger explosion, personal computers and the internet

Characteristics: skeptical, independent, concerned with self-preservation, sense that the American dream is unrealistic.  71% name “credibility” as the number one leadership attribute {Gibson, 2009 #6028}


Born between 1892-2000

Defining events: Fall of the Berlin Wall, Columbine shootings, 9/11, War in Iraq, Tsunami aid, cell phones and ipods

Characteristics: global outlook, optimistic, patriotic, fast-paced multitaskers, street smart, function as a group; 68% rate “listens well” as the number one leadership attribute {Gibson, 2009 #6028}

A SHRM study reported that the most frequent conflicts come about over work ethic, change management, and organizational hierarchy {Gibson, 2009 #6028}

Communication and Disability

The most relevant issues in communication with people who have disabilities are often related to the technical aspects of preparing documents, website, or other communications.  When the communication technique is face-to-face conversation, the issues are most often related to our own human fear of the unknown. Those who don’t know much about what it might be like to have a disability are simply shy about communicating with someone who does. 

Guidelines for overcoming this apprehension focus of four things: Contact: Get acquainted with as many people as you can.  One blind communication professor points out that "communication problems...often happen because of lack of contact" with those who have disabilities {Smith, 2009 #6029}.

Ask, don't Assume: "Most people with disabilities would rather you ask them about a particular issue rather than assuming that a particular answer is the correct one" {Smith, 2009 #6029}. Some individuals are willing to answer random questions about the disability, while others desire privacy, but always ask about accommodations that might be desired in a given situation. 

Respect:  Don't act like a person can't hear or think due to an unrelated disability.  Instead, "let the person with the disability lead and set the tone when it comes to jokes, references to the disability, and how they want to be identified" {Smith, 2009 #6029}.

Empathize: You might be able to imagine some aspects of what it’s like to have a disability, and simulation exercises such as spending a day negotiating your university campus in a wheelchair can be insightful.  

Information Processing Preferences

Every human being is a unique result of intricately interrelated genetic, environmental and cultural factors.  These factors influence nearly every aspect of a person’s personality and behavior, and communication behaviors are no exception.   In practical terms, understanding others in the workplace requires being able to communicate with them in ways that will be effective, appropriate and appreciated.

Dimensions of Cognition
Interaction Preference: Extravert vs. Introvert

Some people are energized by being around people and seek out interaction as an enjoyable, relaxing activity.  Others have to spend energy to interact with people and need to “recharge” by getting away from people for a while.  About 10% of the population lies at each extreme, but most people fall somewhere in the middle, learning to do some things better with people and some things alone.  Within this larger middle group, people tend to become somewhat like their families and friends.  If you grew up in a very outgoing family, with lots of talking at the dinner table and people around all the time, you will probably be more used to gathering information and forming ideas by “talking them through” with people.  Those of you who grew up in a quieter household, where people typically work alone on projects and don’t talk “just for the sake of talking,” you might find it more natural to solve problems quietly by yourself.  In the United States, talking about things is generally valued highly, and about 75% of the population rate themselves to be extraverted. 

Information Source Preference: Sensate vs. Intuitive

Some people prefer to use the information they get from their senses—relying most on what they can see and touch and hear.  Others are more inclined to value the invisible ideas, concepts or theories that people create to analyze and explain sense data.  Most people have learned to use both kinds of information depending on the circumstances, but will tend to prefer one or the other if they have a choice.  About 75% of the U.S. population is more comfortable with using sense information, while the rest are less interested in getting the factual details than in figuring out the categories into which the facts ought to fall.

Problem Solving Style: Analytical vs. Global

Regardless of where people get their information, they will have preferences about how they use it.  Some people like to compare new information with other information, classifying it, defining it and looking for the ways in which one thing is different from another.  Other people like to see how information fits together, seeing the whole pattern of all the pieces together and worrying less about what the individual bits look like.   Most people can do either kind of information processing, but will find one way to be the “easiest” or most “natural” or most “productive” thing to try first.  Traditional gender roles in the United States have tended to allow women more latitude in depending on their “intuition” to make decisions, while men are more carefully taught to analyze the facts “objectively.”   While there are probably still more women who are willing to trust their global thinking processes and more men who feel they must rely only on analytical skills, businesses are beginning to recognize the value in being able to use both capabilities appropriately.

Decision Making Preference:  Judger vs. Perceiver

Before action can be taken, some sort of decision must be made with the information your brain has processed.  Some people appreciate the sense of closure that a decision or action brings, and will make it as soon as possible.  Others like to remain open to new information, new ideas or changes in the environment and prefer to delay a decision as long as possible.  The preference for making or delaying decisions appears to be a learned one.  When making decisions too early leads to doing work that turns out to be useless, we learn to delay our decisions; workers will learn to be flexible when they work for a boss who often changes his mind about the desired goals.  Similarly, we learn to make decisions and stick to them when that is productive behavior; the person who sets the meeting time and has it put on the team calendar gets to pick the time most convenient for her.

The U.S. workplace tends to be very explicit that being “decisive” is highly valued, giving considerable power and prestige to those who are willing to make a decision on the basis of limited information.  People are actually split about evenly on this dimension, however, and the reality is that both styles are equally valuable, but in different situations.  The person who hates to come to a decision “prematurely” is often the most flexible about changing plans, and the ability to respond easily to changes is highly valued during times of crisis.

Balancing Cognitive Styles

Everyone has the capacity to use a full range of behaviors, but over a lifetime of habit, practice and feedback, you will have learned to rely most of the time on a more limited set of behaviors. The best communicators in a work setting are not those with a particular style.  Instead, they are the people who take the time to learn the preferences of others and to take each other’s strengths in a balance of diverse approaches. 

·                     Don’t ever assume that other people process information just like you do or that they prefer to interact in the same way you do.  Instead, try to find out how others around you would like to do things so that you can work most productively with each of them.

·                     Balance assignments to take advantage of natural interaction preferences as much as possible.  Let the Introvert spend long hours analyzing the data, or don’t make him come to every single meeting.  Have the Extravert give the presentations that have to be prepared at the last minute, but don’t expect her to accomplish long writing assignments between meetings.

·                     Work together on complex tasks that require attention to both the big picture planning and the details of getting the job done.  Very few people are equally good at both, and even if they can do both, they usually prefer one or the other.   Thus, complex tasks are better done by groups of people where both kinds of information sources can be utilized for maximum success. 

Communication diversity is a fact of business life.  No matter how skilled, prepared, motivated and responsible the individuals involved in a group, personality differences will always exist.  Those differences lead to different ways of being skilled, prepared, motivated and responsible. Personality “difference” is not the same as personality conflict, but differences can lead to misunderstanding and even conflict.   Sometimes people think it is impolite to talk about differences honestly.  (Your mother probably taught you not to point at kids who were “different.”)  In other situations, people just don’t have the vocabulary to talk about differences productively.   (You never learned any other way to describe “weird” people.)  Either way, differences can get in the way of group work.  If they can’t be discussed productively, they can easily turn into conflict.

·                     If you don’t understand how someone thinks or how he or she comes to conclusions, you won’t be able to provide the information necessary for that decision-making process to work.

·                     If you don’t discuss your preferences or your misunderstandings, you won’t be able to select the most effective communication methods for getting the work done. 

Although the topic might be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, your communication and work preferences are something you need to be able to talk about with your co-workers, supervisors and colleagues in order to work successfully with them. You need to know what you are good at and what you will need others on your work team to help you with.  You need to be able to describe the things that you can only do for a little while, as well as the things are that you’d be happy to do for the rest of your life.  Most important for group work, you need to be comfortable explaining to others on your work team how you work best, what you don’t do well and what you can promise to do better than most other people.

Chapter Notes

Abraham, R. (1999). Emotional Intelligence in Organizations: A Conceptualization. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 125(2), 209.

Beebe, S. A., Beebe, S. J., & Redmond, M. V. (2002). Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Book, H. E. (2000). One Big Happy Family: The Emotionally Intelligent Organization. Ivey Business Journal, 65(1), 44.

Buckley, Peach, & Weitzel. (1989).

Carter, T. J. (2002). The Importance of Talk to Midcareer Women's Development: A Collaborative Inquiry. Journal of Business Communication, 39(1), 55-91.

Conlin, M. (2002, 22 Jul). She's Gotta Have 'It'. BusinessWeek, 88.

Cooper, R. K. (1997). Applying Emotional Intelligence to the Workplace. Training and Development, 51(12), 31-38.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, The Hearst Corporation.

Darling, B. (2000, 25 May). Are You in Touch with Your Emotions? Accountancy Age, 24.

Dunning, D., & Kruger, J. (2000). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Freeman, W. J. (1995). Societies of Brains:  A Study in the Neuroscience of Love and Hate. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Goleman, D. (2002). Primal Leadership: Harvard Business School Press.

Kane, K. R. (1993). MBA: A Recruiter's-eye View. Business Horizons(36), 65-68.

Kelley, R., & Caplan, J. (1993). How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers. Harvard Business Review, 71, 128-139.

Maes, J. D., Weldy, T. G., & Icenogle, M. L. (1997). A Managerial Perspective: Oral Communicaton competency Is Most Important for Business Students in the Workplace. The Journal of Business Communication, 34(1), 67-80.

Paul. (1967).

Reber, A. S. (1993). Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robertson, J., & Moos, B. (2005, 25 July). Xers, boomers bump heads. Register, p. 3.

Tannen, D. (1995a). The power of talk: Who gets heard and why. Harvard Business Review, 73(5), 138-148.

Tannen, D. (1995b). Talking from 9 to 5 : women and men in the workplace : language sex and power (1st ed. ed.). New York: Avon.

Two wasted days at work. (2005, 16 March: 3:30 PM EST). Retrieved 16 May, 2005