Basic Principles of Communication

We’ve been doing it since the first humanoids appeared on the planet, so by now – hundreds of thousands of years into our existence – we have some basic notions about what governs our communication. We understand that our human interactions are purposeful, not random. We observe that we make choices, that there is usually room for another meaning from what we intend (so communication is ambiguous), that any communication has both a content and a relational dimension, that power is usually involved, and that it is inevitable, irreversible, and unrepeatable. Let’s look at those in turn, and also note what the practical (skills) implications are for you.

Communication is purposeful

From the baby’s early cries to get food or comfort, we make utterances with a purpose: in fact, a variety of purposes. The most commonly acknowledged motivations are that we communicate in order to:

  • Relate: forming relationships with significant others, interacting with the people of our lives in order to get our needs met
  • Learn: gaining knowledge of ourselves, others, and the world around us
  • Play: enjoying the moment in all its richness; relaxing; experiencing whatever is happening
  • Help: offering advice, solutions, or assistance to those who may need it
  • Influence: changing the attitudes or behaviours of others or strengthening our position

What this means for skills development

Once we become more conscious about what our purposes are, we can guide both our verbal and our nonverbal messages with greater accuracy. We can also tune in better to the purposes behind others’ communications. There is a note here on gender differences; men seem to communicate more for information and women more for relational purposes (Helgeson, 2012).

Communication means making choices

Every time you are about to open your mouth to speak, put your fingers to the keyboard, or take a pen in hand, you are poised to make a choice. Whether you are conscious of it or not, every communication involves choices such as whether or not – and how – you communicate with someone, what you say (or don’t!), how you say it, and the context in which you deliver your message. Not surprisingly, becoming a skilled communicator means having more choices available, and being more aware of what those choices are. It also means choosing more wisely (Glynlyon, 2011).

You can think of each potential interaction as a problem to be resolved. Thought of in that way, you would first work out what your communicational purpose or goal is (meaning: what do you want to accomplish with what you say?). You would then generate a few solutions. For example if the “problem” is that you need to ask the boss for extra leave, your probable purpose/goal is something around influencing: persuading the boss to let you have the time off. Some possible solutions would be to explain why you need the time (say, your partner is having a baby, or your sister is having surgery?) or perhaps you would just submit an application for leave still owed you. You would analyse the pros and cons of each way of approaching the boss, and finally you would communicate your best choice. Later you may reflect on how appropriately you chose, but the point is that always and forever, you as an effective communicator are aware that you are choosing.

What this means for skills development

As competent communicators, we don’t have to say the first thing that pops into our head; we can consciously direct our communications according to well-reasoned choices. The point for learning is to gain the consciousness.

Communication is ambiguous

When something can be interpreted in more than one way, we say that it is ambiguous (from the word root “ambi-“, meaning both). Language usually involves both content and relationship (more on that in a moment), so we can have both language ambiguity and relational ambiguity in our communications. The former occurs more when we use words that are especially imprecise, such as “soon”, “right away”, or even such words as “pretty” or “useful”. Members of different cultures are especially prone to interpreting general words differently from one another, even if they are both speaking the “same” language. A number of years ago, the Glimpses magazine published in then-Palau (now Republic of Belau, a Micronesian island in the Pacific Ocean) noted that Pacific Time was so slow that the word “tomorrow” lacked “the precision and promptness that ‘manana’ [“tomorrow”] has in Mexico” (Glimpses, ca 1981). Imagine that!

Relational ambiguity occurs when we contemplate what we may say – or not say – to someone with whom we are in relationship, when we note that we may describe the relationship differently to how our partner describes it, and how we may see the future of the relationship differently. For example, let’s say you work at a business that is downsizing; there will be numerous redundancies. You are told that you will “almost certainly” still have a job, but when an email goes out inviting people to re-apply for their jobs post-downsizing, you are not included on the list of those invited to apply. How do you interpret that? Even without communicating in language, the company is communicating through its silence or what it avoids.

Ultimately, all messages and all relationships have some ambiguity; good communication is about reducing this as much as possible (Glynlyon, 2011).

What this means for skills development

We can strive to use terms which are as clear and specific as possible. We can ask if we are being understood, and we can paraphrase complex ideas of others to check that we understand. When someone seems to be avoiding communication, we can explicitly ask about content that is missing.

Communication has both content and relationship dimensions

Communications exist on two levels: a content level, which refers to something external to the speaker and the listener, and a relational level, which is about the relationship between the two people. Most people who have gone to counselling are aware of this distinction. They may have had the experience, for example, of earnestly relating something from their lives to the counsellor (content) only to be asked what they believe that means for their therapeutic alliance (relationship) (Glynlyon, Inc., 2011).

What often happens is a disagreement about whether something is occurring on a content or a relational level, or perhaps a failure to distinguish between the two. When a friend of Mary and Bruce Anderson’s was sick in hospital, they agreed that they would go purchase flowers and then visit her. Bruce stopped off after work and purchased a beautiful bouquet, which – astonishingly to him – Mary was quite upset to see; she had wanted to be involved in selecting the flowers and had thought that that is what they agreed to. To Bruce, the informal agreement was a content transaction; it was agreed that flowers would be purchased and presented to the friend at the hospital. To Mary, on the other hand, it was now a relational issue: that Bruce had purchased the flowers (which they had said they would buy together) without consulting with her. Bruce, by buying the flowers by himself, was defining the action of flower-buying – and their relationship – differently.

What this means for skills development

The more we can distinguish between content and relationship messages – dealing with relationship issues as relationship issues – the more we are likely to succeed in our interactions.

Communication has a power dimension

How powerful are you? Your ability to influence or control the behaviours of another person is your power; it influences the way you communicate, and in return, the way you communicate influences the power you wield. You may have legitimate power, by virtue of your position (think: judge, police officer, manager). You may have referent power, when others want to be like you (not just celebrities here; even your younger sister may want to be like you). You have reward power when you control the material or social rewards that others want (i.e., money, promotion, love, or respect). Coercive power is when you have the ability to administer punishments or remove rewards from people who do not do what you want (for example: parents and teachers). Expert power comes from being seen as having specialised or special knowledge (e.g., doctors and judges). Finally, you have information power (a.k.a. “persuasion power”) when others see you as having the ability to communicate logically and persuasively. Researchers and scientists often have this (Glynlyon, Inc., 2011). Power is not static, as it can go up and down. Think about these. Which types of power do you have more of?

What this means for skills development

Because power levels can change, you can establish your power through effective, ethical verbal and non-verbal communication.

Communication is inevitable, irreversible, and unrepeatable

Anyone who has ever posted something on social media which they later regretted knows about this principle. Messages are continually being sent, they cannot be uncommunicated, and they are always one-off occurrences (because the second or subsequent times you may make an utterance, other things have changed). Inevitability arises from the fact that in interactional situations, communication is usually taking place even when someone does not want or intend to communicate (this in itself communicates something). Let’s take, for example, an attractive woman walking past a construction site. Some of the workers on the roof see her and make catcalls. How does she respond, or does she? She may smile and wave, tell them to stop it, or merely hurry on by, not overtly responding. But even this last behaviour is still, indirectly, communicating a response.

Irreversibility happens the minute you click “send” on the email, drop the letter into the mailbox, or utter the words. You can say, “I didn’t really mean what I said”. You can – as politicians often do – try to reduce or negate the effects of a message, but once it has been made, it cannot be taken back. Sometimes, efforts to “clarify” just cause us to dig ourselves in deeper! Note that, increasingly, material from emails, social media, and other places on our hard drives are being used in court proceedings. Managers and administrators have been able to retrieve messages the senders thought were private or had been erased and were not. Incredibly, only 55 percent of teenagers in a recent survey said that they do not post content which might reflect negatively on them in future; fully 45 percent were doing that (Lenhart et al, 2011, in Glynlyon Inc., 2011).

Unrepeatability arises from the fact that an act of communication can never be duplicated. Even if we intend to say the same thing again, the outer world has changed by the second utterance. The listeners may be different, our mood may be different, or our relationship might be in a different place. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

What this means for skills development

Be very aware of what you say; you can’t take it back! (Framework for principles adapted from Glynlyon Inc., 2011).

This article was adapted from Campus College’s Career Edge course. For more information, visit


  • Glynlyon. (2011). Part One: Foundations of human communication. In The essentials of human communication. Glynlyon, Inc.
  • Helgeson, V.S. (2012). The psychology of gender, 4th Ed. United States of America: Pearson.