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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.3: What is Communication?

  • Page ID
    14851
    • Contributed by No Attribution
    • Anonymous by request

    Learning Objectives

    • Define and explain what is meant by the term “human communication.”
    • Explain the basic model of communication and how it applies to the organizational context.

    First and foremost, there is no agreed upon definition of the word “communication” by various scholars. In fact, various scholars have attempted to examine the term and generally found that there are a vast array of different approaches to understanding the term.Dance, F. E. X. (1970). The “concept” of communication. The Journal of Communication, 20, 201–210.,Dance, F. X. (1984). What is communication?: Nailing Jello to the wall. Association for Communication administration Bulletin, 48, 4–7.,Losee, R. M. (1999). Communication defined as complementary informative processes. Journal of Information, Communication and Library Science, 5(3), 1–15.,Nilsen, T. R. (1957). On defining communication. Speech Teacher, 6(1), 10–17. In one of the most exhaustive examination of the types of definitions created by various academics, Frank Dance examined 95 unique definitions and broke them down into fifteen different types of definitions.Dance, F. E. X. (1970). The “concept” of communication. The Journal of Communication, 20, 201–210. While all of these definitions may exist, not all of them are clearly applicable for our purposes as we study organizational communication. For this reason, we are going to focus on defining the term “human communication.”

    The first step in defining the term “human communication” is to acknowledge that the attempt you are making is one in a voice of many. The definition of “human communication” we will provide here is not necessarily the best or the one most commonly used in every communicative context, but it is the one we will use to guide this book. In the words of Frank Dance when he wrote about what makes human communication human, “Human communication is indeed a dappled thing, swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim. The search for its essence and the study of its meaning is a search rich in the doing, not in the done.”Dance, F. E. X. (1980). Swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim: What makes human communication human. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 44, 60–63, pg. 63.

    For the purposes of this book, we define human communicationThe process whereby one individual (or group of individuals) attempts to stimulate meaning in the mind of another individual (or group of individuals) through intentional use of verbal, nonverbal, and/or mediated messages. as the process whereby one individual (or group of individuals) attempts to stimulate meaning in the mind of another individual (or group of individuals) through intentional use of verbal, nonverbal, and/or mediated messages.Wrench, J. S., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2008). Human communication in everyday life: Explanations and applications. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. This definition can be easily broken down into a series of characteristics: source, message, channel, and receiver. Figure 1.3 "Basic Model of Communication" provides a general representation of what this model looks like within the public speaking context, but can easily be applied to other communicative contexts (interpersonal communication, small group/team communication, mass communication, etc.). Let’s briefly break this definition and model down into four core areas that must be understood: process, source, message, channel, and receiver.

    Figure 1.3 Basic Model of Communication

    Process

    First, and foremost, it is important for anyone studying communication to remember that communication is a processThe notion that there are no distinct beginnings to communication nor ends., which indicates that there are no distinct beginnings to communication nor ends. By process, we mean that communication is a series of interactions that alter with time and produce changes in those involved in the interactions. We should also mention that there are many external factors that can influence the process as well. The success or failure of informative or persuasive attempts can alter how people interact with each other in future interactions. Additionally, one’s cultural background can affect how people approach the communicative process. In essence, there are a number of factors that are constantly at play within an interaction that effect the communication process.

    Source

    The “sourceThe individual (or group of individuals) attempts to stimulate meaning.” is the individual (or group of individuals) attempts to stimulate meaning. To help us understand the role of the source we will look at the two major components here: individual/group and message.

    Individual vs. Group

    We refer to this position in the basic communication model as either an individual or a group because depending on the communicative context, the source of a message could represent a single person’s ideas or an entire group’s ideas. For example, if you are providing an employee feedback about her or his job performance, the message you are sending may come from you and you alone. However, if you are the CEO of a corporation delivering a press conference, your message may be coming out of your mouth but may represent dozens of individuals involved in the crafting of the message. Often receivers are completely unaware of the number of people involved in the crafting and filtering of a message before they receive the message itself. Furthermore, in the position as a CEO, you would also be viewed as the mouthpiece of the organization, so anything you say is also attributed to the organization, which could represent thousands of people.

    Message

    The basic goal of the source is to take an idea that is occurring in her or his mind and someone transmit that same idea to another person (or persons). The “idea” someone is trying to send to a receiver is the messageThe “idea” someone is trying to send to a receiver.. We refer to this transmission of a message from the source to the receiver as “stimulating meaning” because the source is attempting to transmit the idea in her or his head and communicate in such a fashion that the receiver will understand the idea in the same way as the source. One very important caveat to stimulating meaning is ensuring that meaning is actually achieved. One of the biggest mistakes some novice managers have is assuming that if they tell an employee something, their message has actually been understood in the way it was intended to be understood. As such, it’s very important to ensure a receiver is understanding the meaning of a message in the way a source intends for that message to be understood.

    One of our coauthors was recently involved in a labor negotiation. The employees in the organization believed that the organization was financially healthy and thus they deserved better pay. The organization, on the other hand was not financially healthy. The discrepancy between the two arose because there was a pot-of-money that the employees believed could be tapped to give them raises. Unfortunately, that specific pot-of-money was untouchable because the organization oversaw the management of the money but could not actually use the money for its own devices. As a peripheral member of the negotiations, our coauthor recommended that the organization get its auditing firm to clearly specify in a note to the employee negotiators what the uses of the fund were. Our coauthor realized that the organization’s negotiators had a problem communicating this message because the receivers viewed them as biased. By having the outside (and thus impartial) auditing team craft the specific message, the employee negotiators finally understood the problem backed down on their demands. This example involves both problems sending a message (from the organization to the employee negotiators) and then a solution to ensure understanding (from the auditing firm to the employee negotiators). The example also illustrates another common problem with transmissions of messages, receivers must see the source as credible and trustworthy or the receivers may dismiss the message as inherently biased.

    Channel

    When a source decides to create a message, he or she can rely on three primary channels to send that message. A channelThe means by which a message is carried from one person to another. is “the means by which a message is carried from one person to another [emphasis in original].”Wrench, J. S., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2008). Human communication in everyday life: Explanations and applications. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, pg. 10. As we are discussing human communication, break these channels into three distinct types: verbal, nonverbal, and mediated.

    Verbal

    The verbalSpecific spoken sounds that represent real phenomena or ideas. channel consists of specific spoken sounds that represent real phenomena or ideas. For example, when we say the word “office,” we know that the letters o-f-f-i-c-e do not represent an actual physical location but rather the idea of a location where work occurs. Of course, for understanding to occur, the source and the receiver must have the same understanding for how words are intended to be understood. In fact ensuring that people communicating in an organization are using the same lexicon is such a common problem that there are numerous humor books that have been written on the subject.Beckwith, L. (2006) The dictionary of corporate bullshit: An A to Z lexicon of empty, enraging, and just plain stupid office talk. New York, NY: Broadway Books.,Fugere, B., Hardaway, C., Warshawsky, J. (2005). Why business people speak like idiots: A bullfighter's guide. New York, NY: Free Press.

    Nonverbal

    The second channel people can transmit a message through is the nonverbalAny stimuli that could elicit meaning that is not contained in words themselves. channel, which encompasses any stimuli that could elicit meaning that is not contained in words themselves. Everything from how someone gestures, looks (physical attractiveness, dress, jewelry, etc.), sounds, smells, etc… can impact how others will view that person. Research has indicated that between 65 to 95% of someone’s understanding of a verbal message is dependent upon the nonverbal behavior associated with the verbal message.Wrench, J. S., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2008). Human communication in everyday life: Explanations and applications. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.For examine, imagine you walk into a colleague’s office and she’s clearly red-faced and her fists are clenched. You ask her how she’s doing and she flatly responds, “fine.” If you pay attention to only the verbal message sent, “fine,” you will interpret her message as she’s excellent (like fine wine). However, when you interpret her nonverbal behavior, you’ll quickly ascertain that she is far from “excellent” but may not want to talk about what happened at the moment.

    Mediated

    The last channel a source can send a message through is a mediatedAny message that is sent using some kind of technology (print-form, auditory, visual, electronic, etc…). channel. A mediated message is any message that is sent using some kind of technology (print-form, auditory, visual, electronic, etc…). Historically, some of the earliest writings on communicating with employees were about creating employee newsletters to communicate better. In today’s technologically advanced world, we are increasingly spending more and more time communicating with each other at work using mediated computer technologies. From e-mail, to Skype, to Twitter, LinkedIn, to blogs and vlogs, to who knows what comes next, we are increasingly becoming more and more dependent on mediated forms of communication in the workplace.

    Receiver

    While we’ve discussed the receiver a message throughout the entire section, we should note that the receiverThe person interpreting and understanding a source’s message.(s) is ultimately the person interpreting and understanding a source’s message. When a receiver attends to a source’s message, he or she must interpret that message in light of her or his understanding of the message. If the source uses unfamiliar words, the receiver may not accurately interpret the message in the intended way. For this reason, it’s important for a source to consider any feedback the receiver sends about the message to ensure that understanding has occurred.

    A Few Notes About The Basic Model

    While this model presents communication in an easily digestible, linear fashion, we also recognize that in many communicative contexts (like a business meeting) we may be functioning in the roles of source and receiver simultaneously. The definition presented here (as well as the basic model) are starting points for understanding human communication that have been developed and expanded upon since the 1940s.Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.,Wrench, J. S., McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (2008). Human communication in everyday life: Explanations and applications. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, pg. 10.

    Key Takeaways

    • Human communication is the process whereby one individual (or group of individuals) attempts to stimulate meaning in the mind of another individual (or group of individuals) through intentional use of verbal, nonverbal, and/or mediated messages.
    • The basic model of communication examines four basic components: source, message, channel, and receiver. The source of a message is the individual or group who is originating an idea and attempting to transmit that idea to another person or persons. The message is the idea that is attempting to be transmitted. The channel is the specific method of communication an individual uses to convey a specific message: verbal (the use of words), nonverbal (other communicative characteristics outside of the words themselves), and mediated (the use of technology to convey a message). Lastly, the receiver is the individual who is targeted for a message who receives the message and then has to make sense of the message itself.

    Exercises

    1. Look at the definition of human communication provided in this book. Do you think this definition accurately reflects how humans communicate with one another? Why or why not?
    2. Image you’ve been asked to run a meeting consisting of five people. Explain how a meeting consisting of five people would relate to the basic model of communication.