1.4: Communication Competence

Learning Objectives

  1. Define communication competence.
  2. Explain each part of the definition of communication competence.
  3. Discuss strategies for developing communication competence.
  4. Discuss communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety and employ strategies to manage them.

Communication competence has become a focus in higher education over the past couple of decades as educational policy makers and advocates have stressed a “back to basics” mentality (McCroskey, 1984, p. 259). The ability to communicate effectively is often included as a primary undergraduate learning goal along with other key skills like writing, critical thinking, and problem solving. In advanced communication courses, students are expected to move beyond the basic communication competence expected of any college and university graduate by engaging with challenging communication scenarios related to specific business/professional contexts and by enhancing their abilities of engaging in reflexive, metacognitive processes of self-monitoring and self-assessment.

In addition to supporting you directly in your future managerial/ leadership roles at work, the advanced communication skills taught in this course are meant to foster your development of the seven “Job Skills for the Future” Fanshawe College plans to prioritize in future years. Here is the list:

Fanshawe College: Job Skills for the Future

  • FanshaweNovel and adaptive thinking: Find innovative, creative and unconventional relationships between things or concepts.
  • Resilience: Succeed through adversity.
  • Social intelligence: Build and nurture mutually beneficial relationships.
  • Self-directed learning: Identify and achieve personal learning goals.
  • Global citizenship: Create an awareness of the wider world and our place in it.
  • Complex problem solving: Find solutions to real-world problems.
  • Implementation skills: Manage projects to achieve key milestones and outcomes.

You can read more about these skills here: https://www.fanshawec.ca/about-fanshawe/choose-fanshawe/innovation-village/silex-and-job-skills-future#

Since this book focuses on advanced professional communication in terms of workplace managerial/ leadership applications, you will see connections to the higher-order cognitive skills referenced here in all chapters. A “Getting Competent” feature box is included in each chapter specifically to emphasize aspects of communication competence of high impact on your development of higher-order cognitive skills.

Defining Competence

Developing communication competence can bring many rewards, but it also requires time and effort. Paul Shanks – Communication – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Communication competence refers to the knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts (Cooley & Roach, 1984, p. 25).

Knowledge of communication patterns. The cognitive elements of competence include knowing how to do something and understanding why things are done the way they are (Hargie, 2011, p. 9). Since you are currently taking a communication class, try to observe the communication concepts you are learning in the communication practices of others and yourself. This will help bring the concepts to life and also help you evaluate how communication in the real world matches up with communication concepts. As you build a repertoire of communication knowledge based on your experiential and classroom knowledge, you will also be developing behavioral competence.

The ability to use communication. At the individual level, a person’s physiological and psychological characteristics affect competence. In terms of physiology, age, maturity, and ability to communicate affect competence. In terms of psychology, a person’s mood, stress level, personality, and level of communication apprehension (level of anxiety regarding communication) affect competence (Cooley & Roach, 1984, p. 25). All these factors will either help or hinder you when you try to apply the knowledge you have learned to actual communication behaviors. For example, you might know strategies for being an effective speaker, but public speaking anxiety that kicks in when you get in front of the audience may prevent you from fully putting that knowledge into practice.

The ability to adapt to various contexts. What is defined as competence varies based on social and cultural context (Cooley & Roach, 1984, p. 25). Social variables such as status and power affect competence. In a social situation where one person has more power than another (e.g. supervisor vs. employee), the person in the higher position in the hierarchy is typically the one who sets the standard for competence. Cultural variables such as race and nationality also affect competence. A Taiwanese woman who speaks English as her second language may be praised for her competence in the English language in her home country but be viewed as less competent in the United States because of her accent. In summary, although we have a clear definition of communication competence, there are not definitions for how to be competent in any given situation, since competence varies at the individual, social, and cultural level.

The National Communication Association (NCA) has identified the following aspects of competence — with a focus on speaking and listening, and noting that developing communication competence in these areas will help people in academic, professional, and civic contexts (Morreale, Rubin, & Jones, 1998):

  1. State ideas clearly.
  2. Communicate ethically.
  3. Recognize when it is appropriate to communicate.
  4. Identify their communication goals.
  5. Select the most appropriate and effective medium for communicating.
  6. Demonstrate credibility.
  7. Identify and manage misunderstandings.
  8. Manage conflict.
  9. Be open-minded about another’s point of view.
  10. Listen attentively.

These are just some of the competencies the NCA identified as important for college graduates. While these are skill focused rather than interpersonally or culturally focused, they provide a concrete way to assess your own speaking competencies at the start of this class and to then track your progress throughout the term, as we study and attempt to assimilate a large variety of advanced communication strategies and techniques.

Developing Competence

We all have areas where we are skilled and areas where we have deficiencies. In most cases, we can consciously decide to work on our deficiencies, which may take considerable effort. There are multiple stages of competence you should try to assess as you communicate in your daily life: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence (Hargie, 2011, p. 9).

  • Before acquiring a rich cognitive knowledge base of communication concepts and before practicing and reflecting on skills in a particular area, you may not be aware that you are communicating in an incompetent manner — that is, you may exhibit unconscious incompetence.
  • Once you learn more about communication and have a vocabulary to identify concepts, you may find yourself exhibiting conscious incompetence: you know what you should be doing, and you realize that you’re not doing it as well as you could.
  • As your skills increase, you may advance to conscious competence: you know you are communicating well in the moment, which will add to your bank of experiences to draw from in future interactions.

When you reach the stage of unconscious competence, you can communicate successfully without straining to be competent. Just because you reach the stage of unconscious competence in one area or with one person does not mean you will always stay there. We are faced with new communication encounters regularly, and although we may be able to draw on the communication skills we have learned about and developed, it may take a few instances of conscious incompetence before you can advance to later stages.

Becoming more mindful of your communication and the communication of others can contribute to your communication competence. Free Stock Photos – public domain.

Obviously, becoming a more mindful communicator can speed up your progress toward communication competence. A mindful communicator actively and fluidly processes information, is sensitive to communication contexts and multiple perspectives, and is able to adapt to novel communication situations (Burgoon, Berger, & Waldron, 2000, p. 105). Becoming a more mindful communicator has many benefits, including achieving communication goals, detecting deception, avoiding stereotypes, and reducing conflict.

Whether or not we achieve our day-to-day communication goals depends on our communication competence. Various communication behaviors can signal that we are communicating mindfully — such as  asking employees to paraphrase their understanding of the instructions given (showing that you are aware that verbal messages are not always clear, that people do not always listen actively, and that people often do not speak up when they are unsure of instructions for fear of appearing incompetent or embarrassing themselves). Some communication behaviors indicate that we are not communicating mindfully — such as withdrawing from a romantic partner or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior during a period of interpersonal conflict. Most of us know that such behaviors lead to predictable and avoidable conflict cycles, yet we are all guilty of them. Our tendency to assume that people are telling us the truth can also lead to negative results. Some tentativeness and mindful monitoring of a person’s nonverbal and verbal communication can help us detect deception. However, this is not the same thing as chronic suspicion, which would not indicate communication competence.

Key Concept SpotlightSpotlight: “Getting Competent”

Getting Started on Your Road to Communication Competence

The “Getting Competent” boxes throughout this book are meant to help you become a more confident and skilled communicator. While each box will focus on a specific aspect of communication competence, this box addresses communication competence more generally.

A common communication pitfall that is an obstacle on many students’ roads to communication competence is viewing communication as “common sense.” In fact, this can be accurate in some cases but not in others. For instance, many of us are aware that conflict avoidance can lead to built-up tensions that eventually hurt an interpersonal relationship — it may be “common sense” to expect that. Still, in order to put that “commonsense” knowledge to competent use, we must have a more nuanced understanding of how conflict and interpersonal communication relate and know some conflict management strategies.

Communication is common in that it is something that we spend most of our time doing, but the ability to make sense of and improve our communication takes competence that is learned through deliberate study and personal reflection. Throughout this term, try to systematically engage in the following:

  • Challenge yourselves to apply the concepts we are learning to your personal and professional life and goals.
  • Commit to sharing the knowledge you gain in this class with those around you.
  • Practice self-monitoring (start to notice your communication habits and abilities more; notice both strengths and areas in need of improvement).
  • Be prepared to put in the time to improve (it takes effort to become a better listener, give better feedback, etc.).

If you start these things now you will be primed to take on more communication challenges that will be presented throughout this book.

  1. What aspects of communication do you think are “common sense?” What aspects of communication do you think require more formal instruction and/or study?
  2. What communication concept has appealed to you most so far? How can you see this concept applying to your life?
  3. Do a communication self-assessment. What are your strengths as a communicator? What are your weaknesses? What can you do to start improving your communication competence?

Overcoming Anxiety

Communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety are common but can be managed productively. Ana C. – day 339 butterflies – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Decades of research conducted by communication scholars shows that communication apprehension is common among college students (Priem & Solomon, 2009, p. 260).  Communication apprehension (CA) is fear or anxiety experienced by a person due to actual or imagined communication with another person or persons. CA includes multiple forms of communication, not just public speaking: 15 to 20 percent of college students experience high trait CA (they are generally anxious about communication) and 70 percent experience some trait CA — which means that addressing communication anxiety in a class like the one you’re taking now stands to benefit the majority of students (Priem & Solomon, 2009, p. 260).

Public speaking anxiety is type of CA that produces physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in people when faced with a real or imagined presentation (Bodie, 2010, p. 72). Research on public speaking anxiety has focused on three key ways to address this common issue: systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills training (Bodie, 2010, p. 72).

Communication departments are typically the only departments that address communication apprehension explicitly, which is important as CA is “related to negative academic consequences such as negative attitudes toward school, lower over-all classroom achievement, lower final course grades, and higher college attrition rates” (Allen, Hunter, & Donohue, 2009). Additionally, CA can lead others to make assumptions about your communication competence that may be unfavorable. Even if you are intelligent, prepared, and motivated, CA and public speaking anxiety can detract from your communication and lead others to perceive you in ways you did not intend.

Top Ten Ways to Reduce Speaking Anxiety

We will discuss this more in later chapters, but for now,  here are a few basic tips that can help you manage your anxiety:

  1. You are not alone. Public speaking anxiety is common, so don’t ignore it—confront it.
  2. You can’t literally “die of embarrassment.” Audiences are forgiving and understanding.
  3. It always feels worse than it looks.
  4. Take deep breaths to release endorphins, which naturally fight the adrenaline that causes anxiety.
  5. Look the part. Dress professionally to enhance confidence.
  6. Channel your nervousness into positive energy and motivation.
  7. Start your outline and research early. Better knowledge = higher confidence.
  8. Practice and get feedback from a trusted source (such as a friend or colleague).
  9. Visualize success through positive thinking.
  10. Rehearse as much as possible. Practice is a speaker’s best friend.

Key Takeaways

  • Key IconCommunication competence refers to the knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts.
  • To be a competent communicator, you should have cognitive knowledge about communication based on observation and instruction; understand that individual, social, and cultural contexts affect competence; and be able to adapt to those various contexts.
  • Getting integrated: The NCA notes that developing communication competence in speaking and listening will help college students in academic, professional, and civic contexts.
  • Levels of communication competence include unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence.
  • In order to develop communication competence, you must become a more mindful communicator and a higher self-monitor.
  • Communication apprehension (CA) refers to fear or anxiety experienced by a person due to real or imagined communication with another person or persons. Public speaking anxiety is a form of CA that more specifically focuses on anxiety about giving a public presentation. Both are commonly experienced by most people and can be managed using various strategies.



  1. Getting integrated: Evaluate your speaking and listening competencies based on the list generated by the NCA. Out of the skills listed, which ones are you more competent in and less competent in? Which skill will be most useful for you in academic contexts? Professional contexts? Personal contexts? Civic contexts?
  2. Think of a person you know who you think possesses a high level of communication competence. What makes you think this? What communication characteristics do they have that you might want to have yourself?
  3. What anxieties do you have regarding communication and/or public speaking? Since communication and speaking are a necessary part of life, identify some strategies you can use to manage those anxieties.


Allen, M., Hunter, J. E., & Donohue, W. A. (1989). Meta-analysis of self-report data on the effectiveness of public speaking anxiety treatment techniques. Communication Education, 38(1), 54–76. DOI: 10.1080/03634528909378740

Bodie, G. (2010). A racing heart, rattling knees, and ruminative thoughts: Defining, explaining, and treating public speaking anxiety. Communication Education, 59(1), 70–105. DOI:10.1080/03634520903443849

Burgoon, J. K., Berger, C. and Waldron, V.R. (2000). Mindfulness and interpersonal communication. Journal of Social Issues 56(1), 105-127. https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00154

Cooley, R. E., and Roach, D.A. (1984). A conceptual framework. In Bostrom, R.N. (Ed.), Competence in communication: A multidisciplinary approach (pp. 11-32). Sage.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. Routledge.

McCroskey, J. C. (1984). Communication comptence: The elusive construct. In Bostrom, R.N. (Ed.), Competence in communication: A multidisciplinary approach (pp. 259-268). Sage.

Morreale, S., Rubin, R.B, & Jones, E. (1998). Speaking and listening competencies for college students. National Communication Association.

Priem, J. S., &  Solomon, D.H. ( 209). Comforting apprehensive communicators: The effects of reappraisal and distraction on cortisol levels among students in a public speaking class. Communication Quarterly 57(3), 259-281. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463370903107253


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Advanced Professional Communication Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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