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1.2: The Process of Communication

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    I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

    – Robert J. McCloskey, former State Department spokesman

    Learning Objectives

    1. Define communication.
    2. Identify and describe eight elements of the communication process.
    3. Explain the meaning of Worldview as well as its importance in communication.

    Many theories have been used to describe, predict, and understand communication. In this course, we are less interested in theory than in making sure our communication leads to communication competency. But in order to achieve this result, it can be valuable to understand what communication is and how it works.  Communication is a relatively complex process.  If it were simple, we would have fewer misunderstandings.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): We only THINK communication is simple!  What the customer REALLY Wanted. (Original Author of Cartoon Unknown--Cartoon Recreated by Merrisa Carter)



    A Definition of Communication

    The root word of communication in Latin is the word communicare, which means to share or to make common  (Weekley, 1967). Thus, we will define communication as the process of sharing information and feelings in such a way that understanding takes place.  According to our definition, the speaker or source of the message conveys the message he or she intends to share, and the receiver interprets the message in the manner the speaker intended; thus, the two “share” meaning. (Pearson &  Nelson, 2000).  If you have ever thought you communicated something clearly only to find out later that your message was interpreted completely differently than you intended, you realize that "sharing meaning" can be complicated.  Let's look at two important keywords in this definition.


    The first keyword in this definition is "process." A process refers to a series of steps that lead to a specific outcome. This definition is accurate but a bit misleading.  The communication process is dynamic, ongoing, and constantly changing.  (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). In fact, things often happen so quickly that the sender and the receiver are communicating simultaneously.  Or, in conversation, the sender and the receiver may switch roles over and over, with the source becoming the receiver, and so on.  Although it is useful to look at communication as a series of elements and steps, as we are doing here, we need to realize that the process of communication is not always neat and tidy, nor does it have a distinct beginning and end.  For example, we don't begin communicating when we open our mouths to speak.  Nor does communication END when a conversation or speech ends only to start afresh at the next encounter with our receiver.  Future communication will be influenced by any previous communication.  


    A second keyword is understanding.  If the receiver does not understand what the sender means to convey or misinterprets the sender's message, communication has not occurred (McLean, 2003). The sender of the message is ultimately responsible for assuring that understanding happens.  However, because humans come from a variety of cultures, life experiences, and worldviews, understanding often takes patience and persistence.  The source must do his or her best to convey a message in a manner that the receiver will understand.  But as receivers, we also can play a role in understanding.  For example, before becoming angry over something we think a speaker or writer is saying, we can attempt to make certain our understanding of the message is accurate. As the cartoon at the beginning of this section illustrates, communication is complex. 

    A Model of the Communication Process 

    Since communication is a complex and ongoing process, it is difficult to determine where or with whom a communication encounter starts and ends. Models of communication simplify the process by providing a visual representation of the various aspects of a communication encounter. Some models explain communication in more detail than others, but even the most complex model still doesn’t recreate what we experience in even a moment of a communication encounter. Models still serve a valuable purpose for students because they allow us to see specific concepts and steps within the process of communication. When you become aware of how communication functions, you can think more deliberately through your communication encounters, which can help you better prepare for future communication and learn from your previous communication. (Communication in the Real World). We will examine a visual representation of the communication process (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\):) and discuss its components

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Communication Process


    The source imagines, creates, and sends (encodes) the message either through speaking, writing, conversation, or another communication channel.  In public speaking, the source is the person giving the speech. In written communication, the source is the person who sends the email or writes the essay.  Since humans are the source of communication we are studying in this course, it is very important to realize that we are all influenced by our worldview, sometimes called frame of reference, which is the overall framework through which an individual sees, thinks about, and interprets the world.

    It is very important to realize that we are all influenced by our worldview because our worldview influences how we see, think about, interpret, and interact with others. Our worldview is influenced by our gender, age, education level, religion, culture, nationality, socioeconomic background, life experiences, and every other aspect of our lives that makes each of us unique.  To communicate successfully, it is essential for us to become aware of our own worldview and to consider and respect the worldview of those with whom we are communicating. Chapter Two, Culture and Communication, has more to say about worldview.


    The channel is the means or medium through which a message is sent.  In business or social situations, common channels are face-to face (conversation, interview, public speech); written (email, text message, letter); social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram); and mass media (television, radio, newspapers).  Different channels may use different codes or symbols to convey the message.  The primary codes are verbal (words) and nonverbal (anything other than words, such as our attire, posture, hand gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on). We will discuss verbal and nonverbal communication in subsequent chapters.

    The channel can have a profound impact on the way a message is interpreted. Listening to a recording of a speaker does not have the same psychological impact as seeing that speaker in person or on television. One famous example of this is the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. (Figure 1.2.2) Those who listened to the debate on radio thought the debate was a tie or that Nixon won the debate, but those who watched the debate in person or on television thought Kennedy won.  According to, Kennedy, knowing that his face would be beamed to millions of black and white TV sets, took a long nap and worked on his tan on the roof of his Chicago hotel. When he finally arrived at CBS studios on the evening of September 26, he was rested and ready for action. During the debate, Kennedy looked into the camera,  wore a dark suit that made him stand out from the background, and appeared to be calm after spending the entire weekend with aides practicing in a hotel room. In contrast, Nixon looked at the reporters asking him questions instead of at the camera, was sweating and pale, had facial hair stubble, and wore a grey suit that faded into the set background.  Debate producer Don Hewitt would later say the Republican candidate’s pale complexion and gaunt face made him look “like death warmed over." (Evans)

    Kennedy and Nixon before a panel.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\):"The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960" by scriptingnews is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    One key to effective communication is to match your choice of a communication channel with the goal of the message (Barry & Fulmer, 2004). As you will see when you examine Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\), channels vary in their “information-richness." Information-rich channels convey nonverbal as well as verbal information and allow for immediate feedback from the receiver.  Research shows that effective managers tend to use more information-rich communication channels than less effective managers. For example, a channel that is medium in communication richness such as a letter or email is a good choice when the sender wants a record of the content, does not need an immediate response, is physically separated from the receiver, doesn’t require a lot of feedback from the receiver, or when the message is complicated and may take some time to understand. Face-to-face, on the other hand, is an information-rich communication channel and makes more sense when the sender is conveying a sensitive or emotional message, needs feedback immediately, and does not need a permanent record of the conversation. (Organizational Behavior)  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Channels differ in their information richness.


    The message is the meaning conveyed to the receiver, whether intended or unintended. (McLean, 2005)  Do not make the mistake of thinking the message is created only through words. Sometimes we convey a message without words or speech. When we do write or speak, words are just the beginning. The words are brought together with grammar and organization; thus, these will become part of the message. The message also consists of the way you say your words; in a speech or conversation, your tone of voice, your body language, and your appearance will affect the receiver’s interpretation of your message.  In an email and other written communication, your writing style, spelling, punctuation, and the headings and formatting you choose become part of the message.  Our goal as competent communicators is to make certain the message received by our listeners or audience is the message we intend to convey.


    The receiver is the individual for whom the communication is intended.  It is he or she who analyzes and interprets (decodes) the message in ways both intended and unintended by the source. (McLean, 2005) To better understand this component, think of a receiver on a football team. The quarterback (source) throws the football (message) to a receiver, who must see and interpret where to catch the ball. The quarterback may intend for the receiver to “catch” his message in one way, but the receiver may see things differently and miss the football (the intended meaning) altogether.  Like the source, the receiver’s interpretation of a message is influenced by his or her worldview. And just as the source has the responsibility to consider his or her receivers when encoding a message, a wise receiver will consider the source's worldview and how that worldview may have informed or shaped the message. 


    Feedback is the receiver’s response to the source and his or her message.  Feedback may be in the form of words (verbal) or body language (nonverbal). Some feedback, particularly nonverbal, may be unintentional.  Feedback is an important part of the communication process since it allows the source to see how accurately (or how inaccurately) the message was received. Feedback also provides an opportunity for the receiver or audience to ask for clarification, to agree or disagree, or to indicate that the source could make the message more interesting. As the amount of feedback increases, the accuracy of communication also increases (Leavitt & Mueller, 1951).  


    “The environment is the atmosphere, physical and psychological, where you send and receive messages.” (McLean, 2005) The environment can include the tables, chairs, lighting, and sound equipment that are in the room. The room itself is an example of the environment. The environment can also include factors like formal dress, that may indicate whether a discussion is open and caring or more professional and formal. People may be more likely to have an intimate conversation when they are physically close to each other, and less likely when they can only see each other from across the room. In that case, they may text each other, itself an intimate form of communication. The choice to text is influenced by the environment. As a speaker, your environment will impact and play a role in your speech. It’s always a good idea to go check out where you’ll be speaking before the day of the actual presentation.


    “The context of the communication interaction refers to the expectations of the individuals involved.” (McLean, 2005) A professional communication context may involve business suits (environmental cues) that directly or indirectly influence expectations of language and behavior among the participants.

    A presentation or discussion does not take place as an isolated event. When you came to class, you came from somewhere. So did the person seated next to you, as did the instructor. The degree to which the environment is formal or informal depends on the contextual expectations for communication held by the participants. The person sitting next to you may be used to informal communication with instructors, but this particular instructor may be used to verbal and nonverbal displays of respect in the academic environment. You may be used to formal interactions with instructors as well, and find your classmate’s question of “Hey Teacher, do we have homework today?” as rude and inconsiderate when they see it as normal. The nonverbal response from the instructor will certainly give you a clue about how they perceive the interaction, both the word choices and how they were said.

    Context is all about what people expect from each other, and those expectations are likely formed by our culture or the society we live in. Traditional gatherings like weddings or quinceañeras are often formal events. There is a time for quiet social greetings, a time for silence as the bride walks down the aisle, or the father may have the first dance with his daughter as she is transformed from a girl to womanhood in the eyes of her community. In either celebration there may come a time for rambunctious celebration and dancing. You may be called upon to give a toast, and the wedding or quinceañera context will influence your presentation, timing, and effectiveness.

    Effective communicators understand the importance of the context and adapt their communication accordingly. 


    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Context plays a very important role in communication, particularly across cultures. "Marriage Matrix of Shirakawa-go : 白川郷の嫁入り" by Dakiny is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


    Interference, also called noise, is anything that blocks or interferes with the communication process.   Noise interferes with normal encoding and decoding of the message and can affect both the source and the receiver. External interference can come from our surroundings, such as a student's cell phone ringing in class, a car horn blaring, conversations in the hallway, or talking in the back of a classroom. Internal interference comes from the inside. Perhaps the source or receiver is hungry or distracted by bad news he or she received earlier in the day.   


    Key Terms

    • channel
    • communication
    • context
    • external interference
    • information-rich channel
    • internal interference
    • message
    • nonverbal
    • receiver
    • source
    • verbal
    • world view

    Exercises and Discussion

    Communication and Understanding

    1. Have you ever engaged in a conversation where, after a while, it appeared that the two of you were talking about two completely different things or were completely misunderstanding one another? How did you resolve the misunderstanding--if you did. Turn to a classmate and share your experience.


    Since each of us has a different worldview, what steps can we take to see that our message is understood by others?

    Environment and Context

    1. Have you ever seen a movie about a courtroom trial that shows the jury deliberating?  Perhaps you have served on a jury.  How is the seating arranged?  Why?
    2. How are products in a grocery store displayed?  Why?
    3. How does the physical environment of a fast-food restaurant differ from the environment of an expensive, more elegant restaurant?
    4. What are some settings or occasions that have unwritten rules of contact connected to them?  Explain.



    Cronen, V., & Pearce, W. B. (1982). The coordinated management of meaning: A theory of communication. In F.  E. Dance (Ed.), Human communication theory (pp. 61–89). New York, NY: Harper & Row.  Leavitt, H., & Mueller, R. (1951). Some effects of feedback on communication. Human Relations, 4, 401–410.  McLean, S. (2003). The basics of speech communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.  McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication (p. 10). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.  Pearce, W. B., & Cronen, V. (1980). Communication, action, and meaning: The creating of social realities.  New York, NY: Praeger.  

    Evans, Andrew History Stories. 24 Sept. 2015.

    Organizational Behavior. University of Minnesota.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

    Pearson, J., & Nelson, P. (2000). An Introduction to Human Communication: Understanding and Sharing (p. 6).  Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.  

    Schreiber, Lisa and Morgan Hartranft.  The Public Speaking Project, Chapter 1. Millersville University, Millersville, PA. Located at The Public Speaking Project. LicenseCC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

    Weekley, E. (1967). An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (Vol. 1, p. 338). New York, NY: Dover Publications.

    1.2: The Process of Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.

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