14 Minutes of reading
How to improve interpersonal communication in the workplace
Interpersonal communication is an essential aspect of any business. Impeccable communication can help team members and managers to ensure the seamless exchange of information, promote a stimulating and motivating environment, foster cohesion and boost team performance. While these might sound like unattainable ambitions, they can all be achieved through the use of specific interpersonal communication techniques. What’s more, training can help employees to develop and refine these sorts of skills.
In this article, we’ll give you all the tools you need to improve interpersonal communication within your organisation.
Defining interpersonal communication
What is interpersonal communication?
Its definition is a fairly straightforward one.
Any interaction with another person involves some form of communication, whether that’s verbal, written, gestures or facial expressions. Interpersonal communication is therefore an exchange (of information, of emotions, etc.) between at least two people.
Communication can even be invisible to us. Peter Drucker, one of the most influential thinkers on management, once said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.” In other words, whenever we find ourselves face to face with another human being, we’re communicating with them whether we like it or not!
In reality, interpersonal communication follows a logical progression, which reveals its complexity. At this stage, it’s worth mentioning the interpersonal communication chart. Let’s take a look.
Interpersonal communication chart
This chart, or communication model, has six key components:
- The sender of the message;
- The receiver of the message;
- The medium (written or spoken communication);
- Encoding (how the sender puts the thought into words);
- Decoding (how the receiver interprets the verbalised thought);
- Feedback (i.e., the receiver’s response).
When a sender transmits information, there is an intention behind their message. The receiver, for their part, perceives this coded message in a certain way, decodes it and responds to it. Interpersonal communication therefore involves:
- content, which is the information itself;
- an interaction, which is how the message is heard and understood.
Barriers to interpersonal communication
While the above model provides some useful insight into interpersonal communication, it also shows that there are many steps involved – and potentially just as many stages where information can be misconstrued or misinterpreted. In this sense, there are some potential barriers to interpersonal communication that can lead to misunderstandings, a lack of interest and even offence.
The first barrier to mention is overly technical language, or jargon. We’ve all listened to a presentation where the speaker assumes too much prior knowledge or uses an abundance of acronyms without explaining what they mean. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to know your audience. If even one person in the room might not know what you mean, it’s best to spell out the acronym – if only on the screen behind you – or provide a quick summary for context.
Another substantial barrier is a lack of trust. Without solid workplace relationships, employees may not feel confident enough to voice their opinion, particularly among their more senior colleagues. This can have a detrimental effect on organisations. Without an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, employees will stop contributing to and building on the company culture, and the organisation becomes a kind of echo chamber for those bold enough to speak. It’s therefore crucial to ensure that every employee feels valued and respected, regardless of their role, status or level of seniority.
A third barrier to interpersonal communication is a bit simpler to fix: choosing the wrong communication medium. This is a mistake that can be easily made. For instance, as a manager, you might find that you tend to be short on time and therefore find it easier to call your team members when you need something. However, if it’s just routine information you need to convey, your message might be better received as an email. Again, considering your audience and tailoring your messaging to achieve your objective is important.
Defining intrapersonal communication
Compared to interpersonal communication (i.e., communication between two or more people), intrapersonal communication involves just one person: you. Whenever we address ourselves, we’re talking about intrapersonal communication. Our way of thinking, which is prompted by certain “triggers” (what we see, hear, feel, etc.) is verbalised in our brain, and without this process we wouldn’t be able to transmit our thoughts to others.
The 5 fundamental principles of interpersonal communication
The Palo Alto School in California studied interpersonal communication back in the 50s. Its work helped to create a useful framework. The team, led by sociologist Paul Watzlawick, came up with five fundamental principles of interpersonal communication.
1. Non-communication is impossible
Every individual, whether consciously or not, conducts themselves in a certain way around others. In this sense, non-communication doesn’t exist. We are all constantly communicating. Non-verbal communication (someone’s attitude, mannerisms and gestures) as well as paraverbal communication (someone’s way of speaking, intonation and volume level) are important aspects of interpersonal communication.
2. Communication has two elements: content and relationship
Interpersonal communication is two-fold and involves both the content of the message and the relationship between people, as we’ve seen. In particular, the content corresponds to the message and information transmitted by the sender to the receiver. The relationship between these actors determines how this message is perceived. A good relationship ensures that information is passed along seamlessly. However, when a relationship is strained, its challenges and frictions can damage the quality of the exchange. For instance, gestures or facial expressions can accentuate or interfere with the message.
3. The nature of the relationship depends on how the communication sequences are punctuated
Communication essentially involves engaging in a series of exchanges which each party “punctuates” with their personality, personal experiences and relationship to the other people present (which might be hierarchical, for example). Because of this complexity, there is a danger of misunderstanding the information transmitted, which can even lead to conflict. To avoid these pitfalls, the sender and receiver need to “meta-communicate”; in other words, they need to rise above the interaction taking place, take a step back from the content of the exchange and observe the relationship established as well as the different non-verbal cues provided.
4. Communication has two modes: digital and analogue
There are two modes of interpersonal communication; without these two modes, the message won’t be understood.
The digital mode corresponds to verbal communication, which is clear and precise for people who all speak the same language. The analogue mode is defined as non-verbal language, which concerns everything that is not said and is subject to interpretation.
5. Every interaction is symmetrical or complementary
In every exchange, each individual has a position in relation to the person or people they are talking to. A symmetrical interaction is marked by a balanced exchange, where none of the actors gain the upper hand. A complementary interaction, on the other hand, is based on the actors having a different status to one another, which can be based on social or job status, age, level of competency, etc. In this case, each of the protagonists must recognise and accept their position in order to uphold seamless spoken and written communications.
How to improve interpersonal communication at work
When working within a team, it’s important to ensure that all communications are meaningful. This helps to ensure there is a pleasant working environment and promotes collaboration, healthy competition and group cohesion. Conveying a clear, unambiguous message is essential regardless of your role or level of seniority. However, this requires a certain skill. As we’ll see, training can really help employees to acquire the interpersonal communication techniques they need.
Why removing the barriers and obstacles to good communication can be tricky
To ensure effective interpersonal communication in the workplace (and beyond), it’s important for the sender to adapt the message to the receiver. This means taking into account their personality and the nature of the relationship between the two of you. The other person’s way of being, motivations, concerns and emotions should be considered and reflected in the communication style. In other words, it’s important to strike a balance between the other person’s perspective and your own perspective so that you can adopt the right stance and make the communication flow better. Striking this balance is not an easy feat.
Some useful interpersonal communication techniques
There are several techniques that can be employed to improve communication. Here are the three most useful ones that you can put into practice right away.
Active listening means putting yourself at the speaker’s disposal, reformulating what they say, encouraging them and asking questions so that they feel they can express themselves and make themselves heard. Active listening involves both verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, you can encourage someone to talk by using gestures, or show that you agree by nodding your head, and so on.
Being assertive at work is about finding a middle ground and not being too passive nor too aggressive. You need to know how to get your point across and argue your case while respecting the views and needs of others. This is quite an art! At the heart of being assertive is self-confidence.
Assertive management will encourage employees to express themselves, which should hopefully lead them to find a compromise between the different ideas or expectations expressed.
Handling difficult situations
It’s human nature to want to avoid conflict and stressful situations. However, it’s often necessary to have difficult conversations and broach thorny issues when they arise in the workplace for the sake of team wellbeing. Fortunately, there are a few steps that managers and employees can follow to help make this process a little easier:
- Describe the facts while remaining objective and articulate the negative consequences that have arisen from the situation.
- Express how you feel about the situation, using the first-person (“I feel that…”)
- Identify and suggest a solution by formulating concrete proposals.
- End on a positive note.
Examples of interpersonal communication
Being a good communicator is important in lots of difficult contexts, from resolving conflict and announcing a difficult decision that will impact how a team is run to giving constructive feedback, expressing disagreement or negotiating a contract.
Here are two frequently encountered scenarios within a company.
Disciplining an employee is a difficult task for any manager. Let’s take a look at the following scenario.
A manager summons an employee to their office and invites them to sit down. From the start, it’s clear from the manager’s body language that they are annoyed. Without further ado, the manager launches into a tirade: “It’s 4 o’clock and I still haven’t had your presentation! This is unacceptable. Do I really have to remind you that you should have sent it to me 2 hours ago? You don’t respect deadlines and I can’t rely on you. Go and do it now. I expect to have it in front of me in the next 2 hours.” The employee leaves, without having said a word.
There are two main problems here. Firstly, the manager is speaking while they are angry and is flying off the handle. Secondly, they are shutting down any possibility of exchange and are acting as if the employee is invisible. Consequently, the subordinate employee feels judged and humiliated. They return to their desk but aren’t able to work effectively, feeling demotivated and even shocked that their boss could have spoken to them like that. What’s more, without having had the opportunity to explain their point of view, the employee feels the manager has been unfair.
How should the manager have acted in this situation? Before summoning the employee, it would have been better for them to take a few minutes to calm down to overcome their initial, instinctive reaction (anger), such as by practising some breathing techniques. This way, they could have approached the situation quite differently by:
- Describing the facts: “You were supposed to hand in your presentation at 2 o’ clock, but I noticed that you haven’t done so yet.”
- Expressing their feelings: “As you know, your presentation was really important and I needed it to prepare for a client meeting, so I am disappointed that you haven’t submitted it.”
- Identify and suggest a solution: “I’d like you to now prioritise this presentation above any other work you have on today.”
- End on a positive note: “That way, you’ll be able to finish the presentation without any distractions.”
Giving constructive feedback
As for delivering feedback, let’s use the example of some feedback on an oral presentation.
Imagine the manager reacts as follows:
“I didn’t like your presentation. Your PowerPoint was difficult to digest, as there was too much text on each slide. Also, you clearly didn’t know the topic well enough as I could see that you kept on turning to face the screen to read what you’d written on the slides. Your presentation just didn’t flow well at all. I expect you to do better next time.”
There are several problems with this kind of reaction. First of all, the feedback focuses solely on the negatives. Next, the manager doesn’t offer any suggestions for improvement. Lastly, they finish by providing their feedback without even giving their employee the chance to respond.
The result is that the employee comes away feeling belittled and incompetent, convinced that their hard work has all been for nothing.
Instead, the manager should have provided constructive feedback and positive encouragement, suggesting proactive ways in which the employee could improve for next time. It also would have been better to highlight what the employee does well. For instance, the manager could have said something like this:
“I thought your presentation covered all bases. You provided some good information and your analytical ability is clearly excellent. One area you could improve on for next time is the style. Your slides were a bit too full and you tended to focus on the screen quite a lot. Try to summarise a bit more and focus on the key message. Another suggestion is that you could practise your public speaking a bit more, as this will make you feel more confident and at ease in these kinds of situations. If you like, why don’t you book out a meeting room and practise speaking in front of an imaginary audience?”
How training in interpersonal communication can help both employees and managers
Good interpersonal communication is based on a set of soft skills, such as listening, learning, self-confidence, assertiveness and even relational intelligence. To help employees and managers acquire these soft skills, Rise Up has developed some handy off-the-shelf training modules to aid interpersonal communication.
Based on innovative and engaging teaching methods, the training aims to facilitate upskilling in all of these soft skills. In particular, serious games are an ideal tool for improving interpersonal communication. Rise Up’s off-the-shelf training on conflict management is an excellent example of this. Learners find themselves in a conflict scenario and have to resolve it. Playing the role of a manager who is faced with an angry employee, they must lead the discussion by choosing the best responses from the options presented onscreen.
With interactive training like this, improving interpersonal communication in the workplace has never been easier. The training modules are an excellent opportunity for any company looking to improve workplace relations.