Communication Theory: Key Concepts and Models

Elements of the Transactional  Communication Model

Environment: fields of experience that help make sense of others’ behavior. Sender: one trying to get message across. Receiver: the one getting message. Noise: prevents message from being sent (types: external, physiological, psychological). Message: what’s  being communicated. Channel: the medium where messages are exchanged.

Insights from the Transactional Communication Model

1. Sending and receiving are usually simultaneous (Since both people are sending and receiving during face to face conversation, can’t really distinguish roles).

2. Meanings exist in and among people (always possibility for many interpretations). 3. Environment and noise affect communication4. Channels make a difference 

Characteristics of Competent Communication

1.A large repertoire of skills. 2. Adaptability 3. Ability to perform skillfully

4. Empathy/perspective taking5.Cognitive complexity:  ability to construct a variety of different frameworks for viewing an issue. Produces greater conversational sensitivity and therefore satisfying results.. 

6. Self-monitoring: paying attention to one’s behavior and using observations to shape it; viewing yourself from detached viewpoint (ex. “I’m making a fool out of myself”).

6 Assumptions of Social Construction

1Everything could be otherwise 2 Meanings are relational 3 Language regenerates meaning 4 Constructions are consequential 5 If language is creative it is also destructive (disruptive) 6 We are never stuck.

Process of Social Construction

1Habituation2Routinization: habits that persist 3Institutionalization (social control): other people start to police based on habits (reward or punishment) 4 Objectivation: routines seem natural; “buying” into system 

5Socialization: transmit to new generations 6Universe maintenance: keep things a social norm w conversation

CMM– how individuals create, coordinate and manage meanings in their process of communication.”how individuals establish rules for creating and interpreting meaning, and how those rules are enmeshed in a conversation where meaning is constantly being coordinated.”

4 Tenets of CMM:  1 The experience of persons-in-conversation is the primary social process of human life

2 The way people communicate is often more important than the content of what they say 3 The actions of persons-in-conversation are reflexively reproduced as the interaction continues 4 As social constructionists, CMM researchers see themselves as curious participants in a pluralistic world

CMM Theory Key Concepts: Coordination: people collaborate in an attempt to bring into being their vision of what is necessary, noble, and keep away what they fear, hate, or despise. Coherence: stories told; reflection. How we make sense of the world. Resources: anything we utilize to recreate social systems (Ex: stories, concepts, language, conversations) Logical force: the sense of “oughtness”; feeling impelled to interpret or respond to events in specific ways Relationships: higher level of meaning, where”relational boundaries in that parameters are established for attitudes and behaviors”This building block is fairly easy to understand as it is the dynamic of what connects 2 (or more) people during exchange of information. Culture: shared meanings, showing that people won’t interpret same messages the same. Speech act: any verbal or nonverbal message of an interaction; the basic building block of the social universe people create; threats, promises, insults, compliments Episode: a “nounable” sequence of speech acts with a beginning and an end that are held together by story; an argument, interview, wedding Identity: crafted through the process of communication and our self-images become a context for how we manage meaning. 

Paths of Least Resistance: Patterns of interaction that meet the least resistance from others. The more they are followed, the stronger they get. It may be problematic to follow PLRs because: 1. It could be immoral (ex. Nazi Germany) 2. It could be exclusive of disenfranchised groups

Four Aspects of the Nature of Language (Type = blue. Subtype = purple)

Language is Symbolic: Language is made of arbitrary symbols that have no meaning in themselves Language is Rule Governed: Since words are arbitrary a set of rules must be in place to regulate meaning Phonological rules – govern how sounds are combined to form words Syntactic rules – govern the way symbols can be arranged Semantic rules – govern the meaning of language as opposed to its structure. Language is subjective: Even with the rules in place language is still somewhat left up to interpretation. Ex. Meaning of the words Love, excitement, excitement Language and Worldview:Linguistic Relativity: language both reflects and shapes the worldview of those who use it. Ex. French-Americans were more likely to describe a picture romantically when speaking in French but not in English. Ex.2 A native American language does not differentiate between verbs and nouns, therefore the people who speak it describe the entire world as being constantly in process

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Linguistic Relativism, and Language

S-W Hypothesis: The idea that language structures, thought, and that ways of looking at the world are embedded in language.In other words,  the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. structure of a language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world. Best known declaration of linguistic relativity

Co-Cultures and Co-Cultures in the U.S.

Co-culture: the perception of membership in a group that is part of an encompassing culture. Examples: age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, geographic region, physical

disability, religion, activity

different cultural values/norms/influences (grouped together by color): High context: cultures that rely heavily on subtle, non-verbal cues to maintain social harmony. Low context: cultures use language to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas as directly as possible. Individualism: individualist cultures view their primary responsibility as helping themselves Collectivism:feel loyalties and obligations to in-groups, like extended family, the community, or organizations. power distance: Describes the degree to which members of a society accept an unequal distribution of power. uncertainty avoidance: Reflects the levels of discomfort or threat that people feel in response to ambiguous situations and how much they try to avoid them. Achievement culture describes societies that place high value on material success and a focus on the task at hand 

Nurture culture regards the support of relationships as an especially important goal 

Johnson’s Theory of Privilege

Johnson’s Theory of Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity available only to a particular person or group of people. Unearned advantage: when something that every human should have is restricted to certain groups

Conferred dominance: when one group actually uses some tangible power over another group

Symbolic Interactionism: (Term = blue. Within the term = purple)

Symbolic Interactionism: Meaning, language, and thought interact in ways that lead us to form conclusions about our self and community. Social Acts:Gesture: word or action demanding a response Adjustive response: (purely mental) figure out what the other person’s gesture means Resultant: (purely mental) decide how to appropriately respond. Minding: inner dialogue allowing us to test alternatives and anticipate reactions Perspective taking (taking the role of others): mentally imagining ourselves as if someone else is viewing us Reflective appraisals: mental image of self that arises from perspective taking Social comparisons: compare selves to others to form self-evaluation. Generalized other: composite sketch of what we think our collective thinks of us. Self Fulfilling Prophecy Occurs when a person’s expectations of an event and her or his subsequent behavior based on those expectations, make the outcome more likely to occur.

Dramaturgy Key Concepts: performance, front (including setting, appearance, manner),personal front, social front and sign equipment. 

The Perception Process

The Perception Process: Selection: process of determining what we pay attention to in the world Organization: process of arranging sensory information in a way that makes sense Interpretation: process of attaching meaning to sensory information (Influenced by: expectations, assumptions, experiences, needs, values, world views, culture). Selective attention Attending to certain environmental stimuli while ignoring others perceptual accentuation Seeing what we expect/want to see selective exposure Tendency to expose self to people/info that reinforces our opinions selective retention Tendency to remember that which reinforces our worldview. The four rules of organization: Focal point, contrast/similarity, Closure, Proximity. 

Steps in the perception process:

Selection:determining which data we will attend to

Organization: arranging it in some meaningful way (into schemas)

Interpretation: attaching meaning to sense data (smile = romance or politeness?)

Negotiation: process by which communicators influence each other’s perceptions

6 Common Tendencies in Perception

1.We make snap judgements. 2. We cling to first impressions. 3. We judge ourselves more charitably than we do others. 4. We are influenced by our expectations 5. We are influenced by the obvious. 6. We assume others are like us.

Perceiving and Judging Others

Social Identity Theory

6 Premises –

  1. Categorize ourselves and others based on cognitive schemes.

  2. Identify with our categorization and internalize our own social group

  • We strive to be prototypical group members

  • Accept social identity categories as real and natural not as constructed.

  1. Motivated to view our own groups positively bc we desire positive self image.

  • Group becomes an extension of self.

We compare social categories

  • Exhibit in-group bias by valuing our categories above others.

Social hierarchies created through ranking social categories.

  • Popular kids typically proto-typical.

We react to a person’s group rather than their individuality

  • Depersonalization

Attribution Theory 

We constantly try to explain our own and other’s behavior.

  • Internal Attribution: Locates cause of behavior to internal attribute of actor.

  • External Attribution: Locates cause of behavior to external attributions of scenario.

  • Fundamental Attribution Error: Overestimating internal attributions and underestimating external ones. (Evident when judging people we don’t know)

  • Overattribution: Singling out one or two characteristics and attributing everything a person does to those characteristics.

  • Self-Serving Bias: Overestimate external attributions.

Nonverbal Communication

Immediacy principle – people are drawn towards persons and things they like and avoid or move away from things they dislike.

Approach behaviors: non-verbally approaching thinks we like

  • Sustained eye contact, smiling

Avoidance behaviors: non-verbally distancing ourselves from things we dislike.

  • Looking away.

Abbreviated non-verbal movements of departure and approach are done through micro-expressions.

Emotional labor – consciously using non-verbal expressions to create and maintain positive feelings especially at work. (Two types: surface acting: modify non-verbals to express emotion without feeling it. Deep acting: modify feelings to match emotional display.

Emotional dissonance: Tension felt when our emotional displays do not match actual feelings.

Functions of Non-Verbal Communication

  1. Creating and maintaining resources (communicating our attitudes toward people)

  2. Regulating Interactions (regulators: drawl on last syllable, drop in vocal pitch, signal you are done talking.

  3. Influencing others: How we look and act increase likeability and credibility.

  4. Influencing ourselves: sitting up straight can improve memory. Fake it till you make it.

  5. Concealing/Deceiving: Saving face, acting happy even if we are bored. Deceivers tend to stutter in speech. Overestimate our ability to catch a lie.

  6. Manage Impressions

Emblems: culturally understood substitutes for verbal expressions. Regulators: see above.

Types of non-verbal communication

  1. Body Movement – kinesics – study of how people communicate through bodily movements. Oculesics – study of how eyes communicate.

  2. Touch – haptics – study of touching. E.x. Waiters who tap typically get bigger tips.

  3. Voice – paralanguage- describes the way a message is communicated. E.x. Sarcasm changes the meaning of what you say. – Unintentional pauses: save face. Verbal pauses: like disfluencies (um,like…) reduce credibility.

  4. Distance – proxemics – study of how comm is affected by perception of distance.

    1. Intimate distance – 18 inches

    2. Personal distance – 18 inches to 4 ft – get alert

    3. Social distance – 4 ft to 12 ft – distance plays powerful role

    4. Public distance – 12 ft and onward

  5. Territoriality

  6. Time – chronemics – how humans use and structure time. Monochronic countries emphasize punctuality. Polychronic cultures don’t.

  7. Physical Attractiveness – E.x. Can lead to higher expectations in a relationship.

  8. Clothing

  9. Physical environment – E.x. Neighborliness higher in clean environments.


Listening Misbehaviors

  • Pseudolistening

  • Stage hogging

  • Rehearsing 

  • Selective listening

  • Insulated listening

  • Filling in gaps

  • Defensive listening

  • Ambushing

  • Distracted listening

Terror Management Theory: The uncertainty/chaos of life makes us cling to our worldview for stability and purpose

Worldview Threat and Backfire Effect: Facts going against our beliefs threaten our worldview, creating “fight or flight”:  area of brain handling reason and logic shuts down (defensive strategy).

Identity and ideas are conflated: Ego keeps us from being open to other meanings 

Ego is tied to our definition of reality; thus, we fear if our reality “dies” then we “die”

How to encourage Listening

  • Must be open-minded, yourself

  • Can’t trigger defensiveness 

  • Discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominems!) 

  • Must understand audience’s perspective 

  • Must separate ideas from identities 

Steps to bypass the Backfire Effect

1) Find common ground

  • Do not abandon your position

2) Demonstrate curiosity through questions

  • Demonstrates interest

3) Articulate their position accurately

  • Demonstrates understanding

4) Reframe problem by looking at it differently

  • Demonstrates that new perspective doesn’t necessarily require changing worldviews 

5) Present new solution (i.e. introduce your facts or arguments as a solution) 

6) Provide a way to “save face” 

  • Offer them a dignified way to change their mind

  • Remind them idea has nothing to do with them as a person

Mindless Listening: When we react to other’s messages without mental investment

Mindful Listening: Giving careful and thoughtful attention and responses to the messages we receive.

Listening Styles –

Task Oriented Learning: Concerned with job at hand ignores feelings.

Relational Listening: Concerned with building emotional closeness with others.

Analytical Listening: Attending to full message. Want to hear all the details and perspectives. Time consuming.

Critical Listening: Want to evaluate message. Go beyond just understanding topic. Annoying.

Challenges of Listening-

  • Information Overload

  • Personal concerns

  • Rapid Thought

  • Noise

Types of Listening responses

  • Silent Listening

  • Questioning – Sincere – want better understanding. Counterfeit Questions – trap speaker.

  • Paraphrasing. E.x. “You though these jokes were offensive right”

  • Empathizing – Show you identify with the speaker. E.x. “I know that must hurt.”

  • Supporting – Giving solidarity. E.x “You will do better next time” “You were right”

  • Evaluating – Appraises behavior. E.x. “Not a good idea”

  • Advising

  • Analyzing – offers interpretation – E.x “Maybe she got mad at you because…”


What is Conflict?

An expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and[or] interference from the other party in achieving their goals.

Five Conflict Styles-

  1. Avoidance (Lose-Lose). Ignoring conflict. Use when relationship does not matter.

  2. Competition (Win-Lose). Getting your way. Use when the goal is more important than relationship.

  3. Accomodation (Lose-Win). Neglecting own concern to satisfy another.Use when issue matters more to other.

  4. Compromise (Half-Way). Finding middle ground. Doesn’t resolve root issues.

  5. Collaboration (Win-Win). Everyone is happy. Time consuming.

Rethink Conflict –

  • Conflict is inevitable!

  • Conflict brings problems to the table!

  • Helps people clarify their goals!

  • Helps bring people together!

Key Skills –


  • Separate the people from the problem

  1. Problem is in the situation, not the people

  • Re-frame situation: Us vs. Problem 

  • Realize conflict is about unmet needs

  • Conflict resolution requires communicating

Focusing on the Other Person

  • Listen to the other person

  • Rephrase what the other person tells you to ensure you understand them

  • Acknowledge the other’s feelings 

Focusing on Yourself

  • Be self-aware: Am I being unreasonable?  

  • Define your needs: What do I really want/need?

  • Be flexible!

  • Recognize destructive behaviors 

  • Invite collaboration (if appropriate)

Key Skills—Focusing on the Goal

  • Remember TRIP

  • Topic/Content Goals: what do we want?

  • Relational Goals: Who are we to each other? How do we want to be treated? What do we want from each other? 

  • Identity Goals: who am I in this conflict?

  • Process Goals: what communication process will most successfully resolve this conflict?

Toxic Conflict –

Four Destructive Signs: 

  • Criticism

  • Defensiveness

  • Contempt – E.x. “Wow you are so smart”

  • Stonewalling

Conflict ritual – Unacknowledged but very real repeating patterns of interacting behavior.

E.x Child whines until parents gives in.