6.1 Interpersonal Communication

We communicate with each other to meet our needs, regardless of how we define those needs. From the time you are a newborn infant crying for food or a toddler learning to say “thank you” for your meal, to the time you are an adult learning the rituals of the job interview or how to negotiate a critical deal, you are learning to communicate in order to meet your evolving needs. As you do so, you gain a sense of self within the group or community. 

This idea of sharing our experiences, whether it be positive, or negative is interpersonal communication. When we offer information to other people and they offer information towards us, it is defined as interpersonal communication.

Interpersonal Communication is communication between two or more people. It can be informal, such as a conversation in a checkout line; it can also be formal, such as in a job interview or a business presentation. Although we often think of interpersonal communication as verbal, it can be nonverbal as well. Think of a situation where someone asks what you want to do and you answer with a shrug of your shoulders, or a speaker asks if you can hear her at the back of the room and you answer with a “thumbs up”. Interpersonal communication often occurs in face-to-face contexts where it is unplanned and spontaneous. Think about the conversations you have with your family and friends. Interpersonal communication will be necessary your entire life, so it is important to hone your skills. At most colleges, public speaking is a required course, yet many students do not believe they will be making public speeches during their career. If you think about it however, you will likely be doing many forms of public speaking on a smaller scale: your boss may ask you to fill the team in on how your last project went, or it may be necessary to discuss a loved one’s medical needs with their care team; you may have a child who is struggling and need to advocate on their behalf at a parent-teacher conference, or you may want to negotiate on price with a couple selling you a used vehicle. Interpersonal communication can help us achieve our personal and professional goals.

Aside from making your relationships and health better, interpersonal communication skills are highly sought after by potential employers, consistently ranking in the top ten in national surveys (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2010). Interpersonal communication meets our basic needs as humans for security in our social bonds, health, and careers. But we are not born with all the interpersonal communication skills we’ll need in life.

In this chapter, you will learn about ways to make communication more effective. You will learn about communication models that might influence how a message is sent and/or received. You will also learn about characteristics that influence the message and can cause others not to accept or understand the message that you were trying to send.

Social Penetration Theory

How do you get to know other people? If the answer springs immediately to mind, then we’re getting somewhere: communication. Communication allows us to share experiences, come to know ourselves and others, and form relationships, but it requires time and effort. Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor describe this progression from superficial to intimate levels of communication in social penetration theory, which is often called the Onion Theory because the model looks like an onion and involves layers that are peeled away (Altman & Taylor, 1973). According to social penetration theory, we fear that which we do not know. That includes people. Strangers go from being unknown to known through a series of steps that we can observe through conversational interactions.

In this model, at the outermost layer of the onion there is only that which we can observe. We can observe characteristics about each other and make judgments, but they are educated guesses at best. Our nonverbal displays of affiliation, like a team jacket, a uniform, or a badge, may communicate something about us, but we only peel away a layer when we engage in conversation, oral or written.

You generally begin getting to know someone with small talk – conversations with less personal details, where you discuss things such as the weather. You rarely tell our life story to a stranger, but as you move from public to private information, you make the transition from small talk to more substantial conversations. As relationships deepen, conversations become more intimate. Communication requires trust and that often takes time. Beginning relationships are more fragile, and when expectations, roles, and ways of communicating are not clear, misunderstandings can occur.

According to the social penetration theory, people go from superficial to intimate conversations as trust develops through repeated, positive interactions. Self-disclosure is “information, thoughts, or feelings we tell others about ourselves that they would not otherwise know” (McLean, 2005). Taking it step by step, and not rushing to self-disclose or asking personal questions too soon, can help develop positive business relationships. Figure 6.1 below, an image of onion layers resembles the process of building interpersonal communication relationships.

diagram of the inside of an onion showing layers the layers are labeled as superficial communication, building trust, and strong working relationship
Figure 6.1. Layers of disclosure in interpersonal communication.

Principles of Self-Disclosure

Along with sharing information, thoughts, or feelings verbally, it is important to consider what you communicate about yourself through the clothes (or brands) you wear, the tattoos you display, or the piercing you remove before you enter the workplace. Self-disclosure is a process by which you intentionally communicate information to others, but can involve unintentional slips that may reveal more than you planned. Nonverbal communication, in particular personal style which was discussed earlier in this text, is important to be aware of.

Interpersonal Relationships

Interpersonal relationships are the interactions between people – the bonds, connections or associations we have with others – whether they be rather fleeting or very intimate. If you have ever had even a minor interpersonal transaction such as buying a cup of coffee from a clerk, you know that some people can be personable, but does that mean you’ve developed a relationship through the transaction process? For many people, the transaction is an impersonal experience, however pleasant. You may, however, hit it off with your hairdresser; after a couple of months visiting his salon you determine that your families have a lot in common and invite his partner and children to a barbeque at your home. What is the difference between the brief interaction of a transaction and the interactions you periodically have with your hairdresser? Or between your hairdresser and your closest colleague, who was recently promoted as your manager, so you no longer go out together on Friday nights? What is the status of these relationships?

The developmental view places an emphasis on the prior history but also focuses on the level of familiarity and trust. Over time and with increased frequency we form bonds or relationships with people; if time and frequency are diminished, we lose that familiarity. The relationship with the clerk may be impersonal, but so can the relationship with the manager become, after time has passed and familiarity is lost. On the other hand, we may become very close friends with our hairdresser and his partner, as our families become best friends whose relationships last for decades.

In the business environment, interpersonal communication is necessary, regardless of whether we focus on collaboration or competition. We want to know our place and role within the organization, accurately decipher what is happening around us, and create a sense of safety and belonging. Family is the first experience in interpersonal relationships, but as we develop professionally, our relationships at work may take on many of the attributes we associate with family communication. We may view colleagues in a way that is similar to sibling rivalries, thus we may begin competing for attention and resources, or contending for support. The workplace and our peers can become as close, or closer, than our birth families – with similar challenges and rewards.

To summarize, interpersonal relationships are an important part of everyday life, and building our interpersonal communication skills helps strengthen our business and personal relationships. We come to know one another gradually (layer by layer). The principle of self-disclosure is a normal part of communication.

60 Interpersonal Needs” from Communication for Business Professionals by eCampusOntario is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Chapter 2: Overview of Interpersonal Communication” from Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Talking Business Copyright © 2023 by Laura Radtke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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