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1.5: Interpersonal Communication Fulfills Our Needs

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    Why Study Interpersonal Communication?

    Studying interpersonal communication is important for several different reasons. First, as we mentioned at the start, we spend a significant amount of time communicating with others. Second, learning about interpersonal communication will help us be more effective communicators in our relationships. Third, exploring something from new perspectives will help us broaden our understanding of ourselves. Finally, improving our interpersonal communication will help us better understand the role that communication serves in our lives. Human beings rely fundamentally on communication to meet various needs. In this section we will talk specifically about physical, instrumental, social, and identity needs.

    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

    We are human and therefore, we are singular. Intrapersonal communication is communication with the self, whereas interpersonal communication is between two people. Interpersonal communication is needed to fulfill our needs. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) showcases Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which describes and explains what our needs are and how they affect and drive our interpersonal communication.

    Triangle showcasing the order of needs from base physiological to self-actualizing needs, described below.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Maslow hierarchy of needs by Tomwsulcer on Wikipedia Commons is in the Public Domain

    We have personal needs and to achieve fulfilling these needs, we use communication. The hierarchy of needs was created by Abraham Maslow. This model shows us ways we approach communication as a way to fulfill our human needs. We start at the bottom with our most prevalent and basic needs, our physiological needs. We need water and food before we can critically think about problem solving or if we are on track to our career of choice. Then we move to security needs. We need to have health (mental and physical) and feel safe before we can move onto social needs. Social needs, or needs for love and belonging, are how we connect to others. We have a physical and psychological need for affiliation and connection. When these needs are not met they may have negative effects on our development. Next are esteem needs. This category has evolved over time as we learn more about what helps us to achieve and be accomplished. Esteem needs have to do with our relationships to others (interpersonal communication) and ourselves (intrapersonal communication). The highest needs are self-actualization needs. These are the deep-seated goals we have for ourselves and are at the core of who we are and become over time.

    In Maslow's model we move through our needs from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. It shows us is how we need to fulfill certain needs before other needs and goals can be attained. Despite the fact that we do not always achieve our needs in a linear fashion, this model shows us how our needs are built on and fulfilled by understanding other needs. In understanding where our needs lie, we can better prepare ourselves to reach achievement. This is predicated on the notion that we are individuals with our individual lived experience and culture. These components of our self-concept drive how we interpret and fulfill our needs.

    Take for instance a scenario where we may be housing insecure. It would be difficult to worry about a career or success at work; however, a successful job would help our housing insecurity. When looking at the model, we start at the bottom of the pyramid and try to focus on how to move toward the top by fulfilling each of our needs. It is important to prioritize our needs. At times it is easy to become hard on ourselves and forget that our needs are unmet, which affects many aspects of our lives.

    In Chapter 2, you will learn how the self-concept is formed and reinforced through interpersonal communication. Culture is a fundamental core of our self-concept. In looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is important to point out that interpersonal communication is not always hierarchical or unidirectional. However, Maslow does provide a framework for understanding our needs. Culture is how we understand ourselves and helps us to address our needs and how they are fulfilled.

    Physical Needs

    Communication is vital to our physical needs. Physical needs are those that keep our mind and body functioning. Communication helps us express our physical needs and identify when they are not being met. When a child tells a parent that they are hungry or tired they are using communication to help fulfill their physical needs.

    Studies show that there is a link between mental health and physical health. In other words, people who encounter negative experiences, but are also willing to communicate those experiences, are more likely to have better mental and physical health. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many articles were written in magazines describing the decline in mental and physical health that people were experiencing due to a lack of communication. Almost all of us at one point or another felt a sense of loneliness or depression due to the lack of social interaction and physical proximity to other people. Research in health communication has shown time and time again that our ability to communicate with others not only benefits our mental health but also our physical health as well. Many health problems—both cognitive and functional—create stress, or are caused because of excess amounts of stress. One way to relieve these tensions and alleviate some of the physical symptoms that may occur is through open communication. It is vital for people to share what they feel, because if they keep their feelings bottled up, then they are more likely to suffer emotionally, mentally, and physically.

    Instrumental Needs

    Like physical needs, communication is fundamental to meeting our instrumental needs. Instrumental needs are those we engage in to complete daily tasks. When you show up to the classroom and ask a classmate if someone is sitting in the chair next to them, you are using communication to meet your instrumental needs. Instrumental needs account for much of our daily communication. Instrumental communication is evident in much of our workplace communication both with coworkers and clients/customers. We can also see it in our academic lives when we ask clarifying questions in class or send emails to instructors. It would not be possible to move through our lives without these instrumental conversations. In addition to the practical needs, communication is also influential to our well-being and sense of self.

    Social Needs

    Humans are social creatures; we need interaction with other humans to survive and thrive, and communication is fundamental to this social engagement. Relationships are communicative. We rely on communication to build, maintain, and ultimately to end relationships. Think about one of your good friends. Can you remember back to when you first met them? Who initiated the encounter? How did they do so? Was it face-to-face or online? Regardless of the setting or circumstance, you are only friends now because one of you initiated communication and the other reciprocated. When we communicate with others, we share a part of ourselves and over time what we are willing to share becomes more intimate. These interactions are what make our relationships. At their core relationships are communicative. We would not be able to have friends or romantic partners without communication, and without this social interaction we would not be fully human.

    Solitary Confinement

    The importance of social interaction cannot not be understated. The ability to engage with other people is fundamental to our physical and mental health. One area where we can see this reality play out is in the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy argued in a 2015 opinion that “years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price … common side-effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The effects of social isolation are lethal. Even though people in solitary confinement comprise only 6% to 8% of the total prison population, they account for approximately half of those who die by suicide” (Herring, 2020). It is because of these effects that recent years have seen a renewed call to ban or severely restrict the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina along with the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services is currently suing on behalf of several prisoners held in cells described as no bigger than a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day (Waggoner, 2019). Another lawsuit was filed by Dennis Hope, who has spent 27 years in solitary confinement in a Texas prison. “His only human contact is with the guards who strip-search and handcuff him before taking him to another enclosure to exercise, alone. He has had one personal phone call since 1994, when his mother died in 2013. He suffers from depression and paranoia and fears he is going insane.” His petition asks the Supreme Court to rule that such prolonged isolation is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment (Liptak, 2022). Some states have already restricted the use of such extreme measures with positive outcomes. For example, “assaults on employees at Colorado prisons dropped when the state reduced the use of solitary confinement and expanded access to mental health treatment” (Waggoner, 2019).

    Discussion Questions
    1. When has a lack of communication negatively affected you in your life?
    2. After understanding the effects of solitary confinement, do you see isolation in our society (and therefore lack of communication) resulting in effects on the human body? Where do you see these effects as prevalent?

    Identity Needs

    Finally, communication is critical to our identity. Our sense of who we are is a reflection of how others see us. When someone tells you that you are funny, or smart, or attractive, you internalize these comments and they become a part of how you perceive yourself. An important part of our identity is being a Communication Studies instructor. We like teaching and we think we are good at it. This perception of ourselves is based on the communication that we have with our students. When students in our class are smiling and engaging, when they write comments on our evaluations, etc. this helps to reinforce our perception of ourselves and our identity as an instructor. Communication is also how we present ourselves to others. The biography that we have in our digital classroom on the university learning management system (LMS) allows us to present ourselves to our students by sharing aspects of our identity that we think will help us connect. We also share our identity nonverbally by posting a picture online and by how we present ourselves in the physical classroom. Communication is influential in both developing and sharing our identities.

    Man writing physics formulas on chalkboard
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Physics Teacher, Tra Nguyen, Unsplash

    Without communication we would not be able to meet our basic needs, so learning to be more proficient with communication will help us in our daily lives and with our relationships. Taking this course will help you become a more competent communicator, and we hope that will help you navigate these needs more easily and successfully. “Communicative competence is the ability to achieve communicative goals in a socially appropriate manner. It is organized and goal-oriented, i.e. it includes the ability to select and apply skills that are appropriate and effective in the respective context” (Kiessling & Fabry, 2021) . You are already on the path to becoming a more competent communicator. As you learn more about the concept you will begin to see changes in your communication skills and behavior. Building communication competence is a life-long endeavor, and this course is just one part of that journey.

    As you can see there are a number of reasons you should be excited to engage with this text and learn more about interpersonal communication. As we begin that process it is important that we have a shared language to talk about communication moving forward. The next section will lay out some of the key concepts of communication so that we can discuss interpersonal communication.

    This page titled 1.5: Interpersonal Communication Fulfills Our Needs is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Multiple Authors (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.