Although interpersonal communication can encompass oral, written, and nonverbal forms of communication, the term is usually applied to spoken communication that takes place between two or more individuals on a personal, face-to-face level. Some of the types of interpersonal communication that are commonly used within a business organization include staff meetings, formal project discussions, employee performance reviews, and informal chats. Interpersonal communication with those outside of the business organization can take a variety of forms as well, including client meetings, employment interviews, or sales visits. In order to understand the principles of effective interpersonal communication, it is helpful to look at the basic process of communication.

The basic process of communication begins when a fact is observed or an idea formulated by one person. That person (the sender) decides to translate the observation into a message, and then transmits the message through some communication medium to another person (the receiver). The receiver then must interpret the message and provide feedback to the sender indicating that the message has been understood and appropriate action taken.

Unfortunately, errors can be introduced during any phase of the communication process. For example, misunderstandings can occur when the sender does not possess a clear idea of the message he or she is trying to communicate, or has a clear idea but is not able to express it well. Errors in the process can also occur when the receiver does not listen carefully, infers a different meaning than what was intended by the sender, or fails to provide feedback. Ultimately, unclear, inaccurate, or inconsiderate business communication can waste valuable time, alienate employees or customers, and destroy goodwill toward management or the overall business.


In general terms, interpersonal communication can be classified as either one-way or two-way. Oneway communication occurs when the sender transmits information in the form of direction, without any expectation of discussion or feedback. For example, a manager may stop by an employee's desk to inform him that a certain project will be due the following day. One-way communication is faster and easier for the sender—because he or she does not have to deal with potential questions or disagreement from the receiver—but tends to be overused in business situations.

In contrast, two-way communication involves the sharing of information between two or more parties in a constructive exchange. For example, a manager may hold a staff meeting in order to establish the due dates for a number of projects. Engaging in two-way communication indicates that the sender is receptive to feedback and willing to provide a response. Although it is more difficult and time-consuming for the sender than one-way communication, it also ensures a more accurate understanding of the message.

In addition to being classified as one-way or two-way, interpersonal communication can also be broken down into a variety of styles, or specialized sets of behaviors. Bateman and Zeithaml identified six main styles of interpersonal communication that are used in business settings: controlling, egalitarian, structuring, dynamic, relinquishing, and withdrawal. "Different individuals use different communication styles, " the authors noted. "A communicator should realize that some styles are more effective than others in certain situations."

The controlling style is a form of one-way communication that is used to direct others and gain their compliance. Managers using this style usually do not want feedback, and they tend to employ power and even manipulation to reinforce their message. Although the controlling style can be effective when it is used on occasion by respected individuals, particularly in times of crisis, it can also alienate workers. In contrast, the egalitarian style is a form two-way communication that involves sharing information rather than directing behavior. It is used to stimulate others to express their ideas and opinions in order to reach a mutual understanding. In most situations—particularly when cooperation is needed—it is more effective than the controlling style.

The structuring style of interpersonal communication is used to establish schedules or impose organization. Managers using this style would be likely to cite company standards or rules. Though the structuring style may be necessary to inform others of goals or procedures when complex tasks must be performed by a group, it should usually be counterbalanced with the egalitarian style. The dynamic style is a high-energy approach that uses inspirational pleas to motivate another person to take action. This style can be effective in crisis situations, but it is generally ineffective when the receivers do not have enough knowledge or experience to take the required action.

The relinquishing style of interpersonal communication is deferential rather than directive. It is highly receptive to the ideas of others, to the point of shifting responsibility for communication to the receiver. For example, a manger employing this style might allow her staff to discuss and develop the final solution to a problem while making little comment. This style is particularly effective when the receivers have the knowledge, experience, and willingness to assume responsibility. The withdrawal style is more like a lack of communication. Managers using this style try to avoid using their influence and may indicate a disinterest or unwillingness to participate in the discussion.

Finally, an often overlooked element of interpersonal communication is being a good receiver, which involves developing listening skills. Good listening skills can be vital in finding a solution to grievances or even in making sales calls. Listening involves showing an interest in the speaker, concentrating on the message, and asking questions to ensure understanding. One useful listening technique is reflection, or attempting to repeat and clarify the other person's message rather than immediately responding to it with a message of your own. Used correctly, reflection can allow managers to view issues from their employees' point of view. Some other keys to effective listening include: keeping an open mind rather than allowing emotions to intervene; finding a part of the subject that may have application to your own experience; and resisting distractions such as the speaker's mannerisms or clothing. It also helps to be prepared for the discussion, to take notes as needed, and to summarize the speaker's statements.

Strong interpersonal communication skills, utilizing a variety of styles and techniques, are particularly important for small business owners who must supervise the work of others. Bateman and Zeithaml described some of the characteristics of supervisors who receive high marks from their employees. First, these managers tend to communicate more than other managers, explaining the reasons behind decisions and providing advance warning of changes. Second, they tend to employ an egalitarian rather than controlling style when communicating with subordinates, asking for instead of demanding their compliance. Third, they tend to take others' needs and feelings into account when communicating. Finally, most effective managers are good listeners, giving careful consideration to employee concerns and taking the time to respond to questions and complaints.

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