Interpersonal communication: definition, importance, and skills to know
Last updated on: January 21, 2022
Can you tell what these have in common?
- Waving to your coworker,
- Having a deep conversation with your best friend,
- Telling the waitress your order in a restaurant, and
- Sending a meme in the group chat.
If you haven’t guessed, here’s the answer — all of them are forms of interpersonal communication.
In this article, we’ll learn what interpersonal communication is, why it’s so important, and what skills you should develop to be a great communicator.
What is interpersonal communication?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, interpersonal means “being, relating to, or involving relations between persons.” Therefore, interpersonal communication is communication between people (two or more).
It’s a process in which people exchange thoughts, opinions, feelings, ideas, and information.
Interpersonal communication often includes words, but it’s not mandatory — it can be both verbal and nonverbal.
What are the elements of interpersonal communication?
Every communication situation between two or more people consists of the following elements:
- a channel of communication,
- context, and
Let’s find out what each one entails.
For communication to occur, there must be at least two people who are aware of each other’s presence. They are called communicators.
Sometimes they are referred to as a sender and receiver (of the message), but those terms overlook the reciprocal nature of communication. Interpersonal communication is interactive. Both communicators are simultaneously involved in the interaction, either by speaking or by sending nonverbal cues — smiling, nodding, adjusting their body language, etc.
The message is information, idea, or instruction passed by one person to another. It doesn’t only include words, but also tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions.
One sentence can have completely different meanings depending on the nonverbal part of the communication. Imagine these two scenarios:
- Your boss telling you “Good job!” excitedly, while smiling and patting you on the back.
- Your boss telling you “Good job.” sarcastically, while rolling their eyes.
The words that came out of their mouth are completely the same — yet, in one situation you would feel happy and proud, while in the other you would know you messed up.
The noise refers to anything that obstructs the meaning of a message, so what is received is different than what is intended by a sender. The noise can be:
- lesser known jargon,
- cultural and language barriers,
- inappropriate body language,
- complicated or ambiguous words,
- environmental noise,
- disinterest, etc.
All of those things can create a gap between what’s said and what’s understood.
💡 Pumble pro tip
Learn more about communication barriers and how to overcome them:
Feedback serves as a confirmation of whether the message has been interpreted correctly or not. It can be as subtle as a slight difference in facial expression or as direct as “Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you meant by that.” Just like the message, the feedback can be both verbal and nonverbal.
No communication exists in a vacuum — it’s influenced by a variety of factors, such as:
- the situation in which communication takes place,
- roles and relative status of the communicators,
- place, and so on.
The way a recipient interprets the message greatly depends on these factors.
A channel of communication is the medium by which the message is transferred. In business communication, mostly used channels are email, audio and video calls, and team messaging apps, in addition to face-to-face meetings.
What are the types of interpersonal communication?
Interpersonal communication can be divided into four basic categories:
- verbal (includes oral and written communication),
- visual, and
- active listening.
What does each one mean?
Verbal communication involves oral and written communication.
Oral communication uses spoken language to share a message.
Written communication is a type of communication in which you transmit information, opinions, and thoughts through symbols — in most cases, letters.
Nonverbal communication conveys information without using words. It can accompany verbal communication or take place by itself. Nonverbal cues can be:
- facial expressions,
- body language,
- tone of voice,
- eye contact,
- touch, and
- interpersonal space.
Visual communication conveys information through visual elements, such as:
- presentation slides,
- data charts,
- visual reports,
- mind maps,
- paper handouts, etc.
Active listening is not just listening to what someone is saying, but also:
- being attentive and patient,
- asking questions,
- reflecting back on what is said,
- asking for clarification if needed,
- summarizing, and
- making speakers feel valued and understood.
💡Pumble pro tip
If you want to get into more detail about each type of interpersonal communication, check out our guide:
Communication can occur in many different settings and each has its own typology, so let’s get into the specifics of business communication.
Styles of interpersonal communication in business settings
In their book, Bateman and Zeithaml identified six styles of interpersonal communication that are used in business settings:
- relinquishing, and
Each one of these has its place in certain circumstances.
🔸 Controlling communication style involves one-way communication and is typically used by those in power. The purpose is to direct others and/or give orders. This style of communication is the most useful during times of crisis.
🔸 Egalitarian communication style is the complete opposite — it’s two-way, interactive, and cooperative. It encourages feedback and sharing thoughts and opinions. Due to its collaborative nature, this style is often more effective than the controlling one, especially in environments that require teamwork.
🔸 Structuring communication style’s purpose is to establish schedules, impose organization, and inform everyone of goals and procedures in the company. It works best when it’s combined with the egalitarian style — those two together create a balanced and productive company culture.
🔸 Dynamic communication style is high-energy, with a goal to motivate and inspire others to do something. Use it wisely — it can be ineffective if your audience doesn’t have enough knowledge or experience to successfully take action.
🔸 Relinquishing communication style is highly receptive to the ideas of others. Sometimes, to the point where others take the initiative, while the manager listens and makes comments here and there. This style is effective when team members are dependable, responsible, and knowledgeable.
🔸 Withdrawal communication style is best described as — lack of communication. It can be a result of disinterest, passiveness, or unwillingness to participate in discussions.
Why is interpersonal communication important in the workplace?
Imagine a workplace where interpersonal communication doesn’t exist. Team members don’t talk to each other and have no idea what each of them is doing, managers aren’t bothering to communicate expectations and responsibilities, suppliers don’t answer their phones… Everything would turn into a mess very fast, right?
Let’s look into everything that would be missing in that scenario and learn why interpersonal communication is so important in a business setting.
Interpersonal communication helps you to exchange information effectively and boost productivity
Since the definition of communication is to exchange information, it comes as no surprise that good communication results in better information flow. Interpersonal communication, when done right, has a big role in sharing data and knowledge fast and efficiently.
And when you have all the information you need easily available, you can focus on doing your job. Effective exchange of information boosts productivity, which is even supported by research — according to a McKinsey report, well-connected teams see an increase in productivity of 20–25%.
💡 Pumble pro tip
Learn more facts about workplace communication:
Interpersonal communication facilitates solving problems and making decisions
When it comes to problem-solving and decision-making, good interpersonal skills are an invaluable asset. Possessing such skills allows people to adequately express themselves, discuss, and build on each other’s ideas. Also, open communication ensures that the solution will benefit everyone involved (or at least try to).
Everyone should feel valued and comfortable sharing their input — if they aren’t, brainstorming sessions won’t be a big success.
Arguably, the best problem-solving technique is preventing problems — and good communication prevents potential miscommunication, misunderstandings, and confusion down the road.
Interpersonal communication helps to build trust
Regular interpersonal communication builds trust among coworkers. As stated in an article in the International Journal of Business and Management, “Trust and commitment do not just happen; they are forged and maintained through effective communication.”
Trusting people you work with comes with many benefits, including:
- decreased stress levels and hostility,
- increased productivity and efficiency,
- giving and receiving support,
- increased morale and motivation,
- decreased (or completely banished) micromanagement, and
- higher employee retention.
Interpersonal communication forms contacts and maintains relationships
No man is an island — especially in business. Networking can open doors you didn’t even know existed, boosting your career better than any resume can. According to a LinkedIn study, 80% of professionals consider networking important to career success.
Making (and maintaining) new contacts opens you up to new resources and fresh ideas — you may even be offered a great business opportunity before others. Your connections can also provide you with referrals, mentoring, training, and other opportunities for professional growth.
Moreover, you may develop some new, interesting friendships.
What interpersonal communication skills are important in the workplace?
Whether you’re just entering the workforce or you’ve been working for decades, good communication skills will always put you at an advantage.
Do you feel like interpersonal communication is not really your strength?
Don’t worry — good communicators are made, not born. Workplace communication is not one skill, but a couple of skills stacked on top of each other with a trench coat on.
We listed the most important ones, so you can see which ones you need to work on.
Active listening 👂
Active listening (which we already talked about) is the key to effective communication. Fairly often, instead of listening carefully, we think about what we’re going to say next, where we should go for lunch, or if we remembered to turn off the stove this morning.
Active listening requires being fully immersed in the conversation and thinking about what the person is saying — not just waiting for your turn to talk. If you want to be a better listener, pay attention to these things:
- Make eye contact — that shows you’re present and attentive. However, make sure to look away from time to time, as constant eye contact can be intimidating.
- Look at their body language — sometimes, nonverbal cues tell you more than words can.
- Don’t interrupt — maybe you remembered something very important or maybe you just tend to long jump to conclusions better than Olympian athletes. But, wait for the other person to finish. Interrupting is rude and can be frustrating for the speaker.
- Clarify what the other person is saying — you can ask questions, paraphrase, or summarize what has been said to make sure you’re on the same page.
- Stay focused — the simplest, yet the hardest thing to do.
Being receptive to feedback 🤔
If Michelangelo could say “I’m still learning” at the age of 87 — we can also do our best to never stop learning and improving.
Being criticized rarely feels good, but it’s important to learn to manage our emotions and take a look at our work as objectively as we can. When you receive feedback, try to:
- Step back and process it — don’t act on impulse.
- Think about where it’s coming from — just as you shouldn’t automatically reject feedback, you shouldn’t automatically accept it either. Does that person have the credibility and knowledge to give valid criticism? Do other people think so too?
- Say “Thank you” — also, you can explain your point of view, but don’t argue or get defensive.
Conflict management 🗯️
Conflict management is the practice of resolving conflicts sensibly and efficiently. Conflicts are often unavoidable, so being able to manage and solve them is an incredibly valuable skill to have. To start, here are a few steps you can follow:
- Understand what is the source of the conflict.
- Don’t add fuel to the fire — try to deescalate the situation.
- Listen carefully and make sure everyone gets a word and an opportunity to share their side of the story.
- Analyze the conflict: What is the conflict really about? What could be the motivation for both parties to settle the conflict? What conflict management strategies have been tried in the past and how successful were they?
- Try to determine the solution that works for everyone involved.
💡 Pumble pro tip
If you want to get better at conflict resolution, check out:
Being dependable means you can be trusted to do something and people can count on you. Many employers consider it to be one of the best qualities for an employee to have, according to an Indeed article.
How to be considered a dependable person? Here are a few things you can do:
- Always show up on time.
- Never miss a deadline — and if something unexpected happens and you can’t make it, let your team know as soon as you can.
- Follow the company’s policies — they are there for a reason.
- Make sure your work is always high quality.
- Offer help to your teammates when they need it.
- Be consistent — what you say and what you do should always be in alignment.
Simply put, empathy is the ability to connect and understand others, as well as recognize what the other person is feeling or experiencing. But what is the connection between being able to put yourself in others’ shoes and being successful in business?
According to a Forbes article, empathy is the force that moves businesses forward — empathetic leaders are able to adapt, relate to their environment, and cultivate the strengths of the people around them.
As the article states, “Successful people do not operate alone; each of us needs the support of others to achieve positive results that push us toward our goals.”
Leadership is one of the top skills in demand today, according to 34% of professionals polled in the Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey.
That’s because effective leaders are a crucial part of any successful organization — they create a productive work environment, increase employee engagement, and motivate everyone to do their best.
If you aim to be a great leader, here are some of the qualities you have to possess:
- efficient problem-solving,
- excellent communication skills,
- ability to motivate others,
- good decision-making skills,
- ability to teach and mentor, and
- emotional intelligence.
Not an easy job — but that’s why good leaders are so valuable.
You don’t have to work in the FBI to be in the position to negotiate something. Whether you want a raise or to buy something for a better price, negotiation skills are something all of us can benefit from.
According to Harvard Business School Online, here are the key principles to successful negotiation:
- effective communication,
- emotional intelligence and the ability to control your emotions,
- planning ahead and having a clear idea of what you want to achieve,
- creating value — ideally, coming up with the solution that benefits both parties,
- strong strategy — define your role, understand your value, and understand the other person’s vantage point,
- reflection — think about your past negotiation and identify areas that need improvement.
For a lot of jobs, one of the most crucial interpersonal skills is being able to function within a team. Being good at teamwork requires:
- showing empathy,
- communicating clearly and transparently,
- being accountable and responsible,
- encouraging others to share their input and listening well,
- being honest, but respectful,
- wanting to help others,
- having a collaborative instead of a “me, me, me” attitude.
5 Tips on how to improve interpersonal communication in the workplace
There is no doubt that interpersonal communication is an important factor in achieving success, both on an individual level and organization-wide.
If that’s not your biggest strength, here’s what you can do.
Figure out what you need to improve
A little self-awareness never killed nobody.
Before you do anything else, you need to — as objectively as you can — figure out what you need to work on. No one is born as a perfect communicator, we all have room for improvement.
Do you have trouble initiating a conversation? Are you too hot-headed and tend to say something you don’t actually mean? Do you struggle with listening attentively? Are you passive-aggressive? How often do you interrupt others?
Pay attention to the way you interact with others and see what you can change. You can also openly ask someone you trust what they think you should work on.
Work on your communication skills by observing others
As an introvert who worked hard to develop my communication skills, I can say that these two things are game-changers:
- observing what good communicators do and how they interact, and
Contrary to popular belief, learning doesn’t end in school and it doesn’t have to involve books and academic papers.
Think about people in your surroundings who have great communication skills. What do they do? How do they interact with others? How do they behave in certain social situations? What does their body language look like?
When you get the chance, try to apply some of the things they do. Be patient — it takes a lot of practice.
Also, don’t try to do 10 things at once. Begin with only one, for example making an effort to open up your body language. When you get comfortable with that, move on to the next one.
Understand (and be aware of) different communication styles
Just like people have different personalities, they also have different ways of communicating.
Your extrovert coworkers might prefer talking face-to-face or video calls, while emails and team messaging software might work better for the introverted part of the team.
Some people you come across are assertive, while others can be passive-aggressive. Some are talkative, some are quiet.
If you want to take your communication skills to the next level, you have to make an effort to understand the way people around you communicate. (Maybe you’ll find out that that one coworker doesn’t dislike you, they just dislike talking.)
Get to know your team and their communication styles — it will help you to interact and collaborate better.
💡 Pumble pro tip
If you are curious to learn more about different communication styles, our guide might help:
Schedule regular team meetings and team-building activities
Speaking of getting to know your team — to be able to do so, schedule regular team meetings and team-building activities.
This is especially important if you’re working remotely. It’s hard to talk to someone you see once every two months (and even then, only from the shoulders up).
The more you see each other, the more comfortable you get around each other, which results in better and more open communication.
💡 Pumble pro tip
If you’re looking for ideas for team building activities and games, check out:
Learn to control your emotions
If you are emotional, stressed out, or upset, it’s not very likely that you’ll be able to hold a productive and efficient conversation. And communication in the workplace should be just that — constructive and professional. Emotional outbursts are a no-go.
Learning to regulate your emotions is a long and hard process, but for a quick fix, here’s what you can do:
- Identify your emotions: What are you feeling right now?
What made you feel that way?
What do you want to do about these feelings? (e.g. scream, cry, vent to someone, etc.)
Is there a better way to deal with them?
- Accept your emotions. Repressing them is not only unhealthy, but also not productive at all.
- Give yourself some space to process what you’re feeling.
- Learn a deep breathing technique that will help you calm down.
Conclusion: Interpersonal communication skills will always put you at an advantage
Every job includes communicating with people to a certain degree, which is why everyone should aim to work on their communication skills. Such skills can boost your career in many different ways — from improving your productivity to building a professional network. They also facilitate solving problems and making decisions.
Interpersonal skills that are the most in-demand right now are active listening, being receptive to feedback, conflict management, dependability, empathy, leadership, negotiation, and teamwork.