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What is interpersonal communication and why is it important?

Understand interpersonal communication on a deeper level as we offer some top tips for communicating effectively.

A group have a discussion

Never underestimate the importance of soft skills in helping you to navigate challenges in life. Communication skills are one of the most essential soft skills, coming in handy throughout all areas of life, including relationships, your career, and negotiations.

In this article, we’ll be focusing specifically on interpersonal communication, which is a huge part of everyday life. We’ll discuss the 4 principles of interpersonal communication, the main types, some potential barriers, and the difference between interpersonal and intrapersonal communication. Finally, we’ll give some top tips on how to communicate more effectively with other people.

What is interpersonal communication?

Even if you haven’t heard of interpersonal communication, you do it every day without necessarily thinking about it. Essentially, it’s the process of people exchanging ideas, information, feelings and intent through messages and signals. 

Interpersonal communication consists of any exchanges between people – this can be face-to-face but can also exist online or over the phone. The messages people get across to each other can be verbal and nonverbal – we communicate not only through what we say but also through things like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures.

The difference between interpersonal and intrapersonal communication

It can be easy to mix up terms like interpersonal and intrapersonal communication, but the truth is, they’re complete opposites. While “inter” refers to communication between people or groups, “intra” refers to communication inside a person or group. 

Generally speaking, when we talk about intrapersonal communication, we refer to how we communicate with ourselves. Some examples of uniquely intrapersonal communication include our self-concept, perceptions, and expectations. 

While both kinds of communication are useful in many areas of life, neither is more important than the other. It’s also okay to be better at one type than the other – we’re all different after all. If you struggle with interpersonal communication, hopefully, this article will clarify some things for you. 

The Four Principles of Interpersonal Communication

There are four main principles to be aware of when considering interpersonal communication. These principles help to demonstrate the nature of interpersonal relations and should provide you with a deeper understanding.

  • Inescapable. It’s pretty much impossible to escape interacting with other people. Even if you prefer time by yourself, you’ll probably be communicating regularly online with others.
  • Irreversible. We can’t take back the things that we say or do during interactions with others. Even if we apologise or offer an explanation for what we did or said, our original communication can’t be reversed.
  • Complicated. Because there are so many aspects of interpersonal communication beyond what is actually being said, it’s complicated by nature. Often, things can be interpreted in many different ways – and it can be especially hard for some neurodivergent people to pick up on subtle cues. Similarly, many neurotypical people are not aware of different communication styles, and this can also cause different interpretations.
  • Contextual. It can be difficult to control how our communications are received due to the other factors involved. Who is receiving the communication, where are they, and why have they perceived it a certain way? Most of this is down to context.

Different types of interpersonal communication

Interpersonal communication can be categorised into four main types. Below, we’ll briefly explain what each of these categories means:

  1. Verbal. This is all about the words you’re actually saying and incorporates things like the language you choose, how persuasively you speak, and the use of affirmative sounds like “uh-huh” and “I see”. 
  2. Listening. Being able to listen attentively is one of the most important communication skills, whether you’re physically listening with your ears or being attentive in other ways. Listening can involve techniques such as clarification and reflection.
  3. Written communication. It is becoming increasingly essential to have good written communication, whether you’re using it in the workplace or on social media. This incorporates things like clarity, tone, grammar, and even things like punctuation and emojis.
  4. Non-verbal communication. As mentioned earlier, this includes everything that’s not being said in a face-to-face conversation. That’s gestures, body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Being able to use these non-verbal cues and notice them in others can be useful.

Interpersonal communication examples

To give you an even broader understanding of these four different types of interpersonal communication, we’ve listed some examples underneath and revealed which category they fall under:

  • Phone calls. Since you can only hear voices during phone calls, you have to rely on strong verbal communication skills.
  • Presentations. You use all four types of interpersonal communication when presenting information. You need to speak clearly, use non-verbal cues, listen to your audience and refer to written texts.
  • Email. You need good written communication when writing emails, especially in the workplace.
  • Performing in a play. Performers need to use a mix of verbal and non-verbal communication to effectively entice the audience and get their message across.
  • Texting. This relies on written communication but is less formal than emails or letters and requires a more personalised approach.

Why is interpersonal communication important?

If we’ve not made it clear by now, we’ll emphasise again that strong interpersonal communication skills can make a positive difference in many areas of life. For example, one study in the Eurasian Journal of Educational Research found that students who received communication skills education showed a significant increase in empathetic tendencies and the ability to express their emotions. Also, great communication skills often go hand-in-hand with fantastic teamwork and leadership abilities, and these things will make you more attractive to employers.

Interpersonal communication skills can improve your personal and professional relationships by helping you to express your thoughts and convey your intent clearly. Additionally, you’ll be more able to understand and empathise with others due to your listening skills.

However, struggling with aspects of interpersonal communication does not make you incapable or worth less than anyone else. There are many reasons why you might find parts of communication difficult, including being on the autistic spectrum, having social anxiety, and dealing with other neurological differences or mental health struggles.

Nobody should have to change who they are in order to be more palatable to others – but it can be helpful and even freeing to have a better understanding of the different types of interpersonal communication.

Potential barriers to interpersonal communication

A barrier to interpersonal communication is something that gets in the way of a message being received. This can lead to misunderstandings, disinterest and even offence. 

To help you understand why sometimes we face issues when communicating with others, we’ve created this list of potential barriers to interpersonal communication. The barriers that arise will depend on the situation and the people involved, but these are all potential problems to be aware of.

1. Too much technical jargon

Unless you’re speaking to experts on the topic you’re talking about, you should try to avoid unnecessary jargon. This applies to verbal and written communication. Using too much unnecessarily technical language can make your message confusing or even incomprehensible, and the point that you’re making can get lost in translation. Instead, keep it clear and concise, paying attention to who you’re speaking to.

2. Inconsistent cues

Sometimes, you might be saying something with your words, but conveying something totally different with your body language. This is called an inconsistent cue because you’re sending two opposing signals simultaneously. For example, if you smile when you’re actually angry, the receiver will likely misunderstand the message you’re attempting to convey.

3. Choosing the wrong medium

Certain mediums are more appropriate than others for certain conversations. For example, emotional conversations are better to be had face to face, as you can use verbal and non-verbal cues to put across your message. Emails are great for conveying routine information, while texts or instant messages are good for casual conversations and quick questions.

4. Poor relationships

When there’s a lack of trust between people, particularly in a work environment, communication issues often arise. This is because preconceived notions of a relationship can affect certain messages being delivered effectively – maybe because the receiver isn’t paying proper attention, or because they don’t believe or respect what the speaker is saying. This can be exacerbated by things like cultural or generational differences, especially when people are holding on to stereotypes.

In addition to this, hierarchical structures in offices can also impede interpersonal communication, as junior employees may feel reluctant to communicate properly and present their opinions to their seniors.

5. External factors

There are often several uncontrollable external factors at play during interpersonal communication. Sometimes, this could be noise affecting hearing and focus, or it could be a poor internet connection impeding a conversation. Unfortunately, external factors will never go away, but it’s important to remember to be patient and considerate to the other person or people you’re communicating with when such difficulties arise.

Top tips on how to improve your communication skills

For a full article on how to build effective communication and teamwork skills, you can take a look at our previous blog post. In the article, we discuss everything, from asking effective questions and maintaining a positive attitude, to taking communication courses and speaking with clarity.

If you want to dive straight into a course, we have some fantastic options below:

However, we do also have some tips for how to manage challenging conversations and get the most out of speaking to people. In our Why challenging conversations are good open step, experts from the University of Leeds offer the eight tips below. While these tips mostly apply to face-to-face communication, some of them could be applied to written communication.

  1. Embrace the fact that challenging conversations are an opportunity for growth and address any issues as soon as you feel calm and centred.
  2. Set clear expectations to avoid confusion.
  3. Listen carefully and give the person your complete attention.
  4. Recognise and respect personal differences.
  5. Find points of agreement.
  6. Make the other person feel heard by reflecting back what they’ve said and fostering eye contact.
  7. Use ‘I’ statements instead ‘you’ statements so that you focus on your own feelings and beliefs rather than the person you are speaking with. Your conversational tone becomes softer and less accusatory.
  8. When structuring feedback, try this approach: state what happened, then how it made you feel and finally conclude with a solution of how it can be made better. It’s best to take responsibility for your reaction and come with an idea of how things can be improved.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this article has helped you to feel more confident about interpersonal communication. Whether you’re looking to improve your skills in the workplace or in your personal life, it’s never too late to brush up on essential life skills such as communication, creativity, emotional intelligence or critical thinking. To discover more, why not check out our soft skills blog post?

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