Interpersonal communication is the process of sharing information between two or more people or groups, through verbal, written and non-verbal channels.
While all of us do this on a daily basis, a brief overview of the 6 major components of interpersonal communication and their interplay will go a long way in understanding how people send and receive information.
1) The Communicators
Interpersonal communication requires a minimum of two people, where both persons share information to one another, and react to what the other person has said.
If only one person shares information, while the other only receives it, it’s called a one-way communication.
2) The Message
The message is the actual information that is sent from one person to another, as well as the words and gestures used to formulate the message.
In interpersonal communication, noise makes the sharing of information more difficult by corrupting the message sent from one person to another.
Because of noise, the receiver gets incomplete or false information, which makes communication difficult or even impossible.
Some examples of noise include: a loud environment where people can’t hear each other, poor choice of words, ambiguous gestures, indifference to conversation partner, bad translations etc.
Feedback is the response to the communicated message, and is the receiver’s way of signaling their to the sender’s message, through verbal or non-verbal means.
Context governs how we communicate with people because it contains important underlying information that everybody knows (or should know), but doesn’t talk about because it’s obvious.
The medium through which a communication is conducted is the channel. In most day to day interaction, it’s speech and sight, but technology has opened up new mediums for interpersonal communication such as video, text, speech only and more.
List of science backed interpersonal communication skills
If humans were robots, the whole process of interpersonal communication would be very simple and straightforward. Questions would be always relevant and incisive. Answers would always be 100% honest and to the point.
Fortunately, we’re not robots. However, this means that many of the things we say pass through multiple filters: social, emotional, cultural, poor judgement etc.
Below is a list of science proven tips, backed with the studies in question, that can help you navigate through these filters, and be more persuasive in promoting your ideas.
Interpersonal communication skill #1: The words you use to describe others, others will use to describe you
Gossip is one of those guilty human pleasures everyone likes to indulge in every once in a while. However, bad mouthing or insulting someone can badly backfire on you, because people will actually associate you with the same negative things you talk about others. Some might even respond with devastating comebacks to the insults you have for others.
What the science says: A study by John Skowronski from the Ohio State University at Newark showed 15 test participants video recordings of an actor bad mouthing someone. Among the nasty accusations was “He hates animals. Today he was walking to the store and he saw this puppy. So he kicked it out of his way.”
After watching the video recordings, participants were asked to describe the actor’s personality. According to the test results, participants associated the actor with the negative traits, and not the person the actor was talking about.
The effect is known as spontaneous trait transference, and its ramifications run quite deep. For instance, the effects are persistent and will last a long time. The process is also instinctive, rather than logical. This means people will still associate you with those traits even if it’s crystal clear you’re talking about someone else.
For example, you and Alice are having a chat about Bob. You don’t like Bob at all, so you describe him to Alice as “rude, arrogant and “aggressive”.
Unfortunately for you, Alice will now also associate you with the words “rude, arrogant and aggressive” and will adjust her attitude to you based on those character traits.
Turns out the age old saying: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is very true indeed.
Interpersonal communication skill #2: Losing something is terrifying, winning is meh
Psychologists have discovered that losing something is much more emotionally powerful compared to winning something of equal value. This phenomenon is called loss aversion.
The average person, for instance, will feel more pain about losing 100$ than they experience joy when they win 100$.
What the science says: According to evolutionary psychology, keeping the food you already have is a safer survival strategy than risking it to earn a little bit more food.
However, if the rewards are 2 or 3 times greater than the losses (i.e. you risk 1 day of food to get 2 or 3 days of food), then loss aversion starts to fade and risk-taking takes over.
How you can use this: There are two ways you can use this:
You can take advantage of loss aversion by framing discussions as “if we don’t want to lose X, we need to do this” compared to “let’s do this, to win X”. This would work only if the loss is roughly equal to the reward.
If the reward is 2-3 times greater than the loss, then emphasize that “yes, there’s a chance we’ll lose X, but there’s also a chance we’ll gain 3 times that if we take the risk”.
Interpersonal communication skill #3: When writing, complex words make you look dumb
When writing emails, study papers, tests etc., you might feel a temptation to use big words such as “ameliorate”, “commence”, “deleterious”, in the hopes of coming across as more intelligent and knowledgeable about a subject.
According to research however, that’s a big no-no, and might actually have the opposite effect and make you look dumb!
What the science says: In a series of 5 studies, Daniel Oppenheimer from the University of Toronto wanted to see if the complexity of a text affected a readers opinion on the writer.
He asked test participants to read writing samples from various people, and then rate their intelligence. As it turns out, participants thought that writers using simpler, clearer words were much more intelligent than the bombastic writers. As a bonus, simpler, clearer writers also seemed a lot more likeable.
Also, clearer and simpler words might even prevent some very funny misunderstandings.
Interpersonal communication skill #4: In relationships, make 5 positive comments for 1 negative comment
“Communication is essential in relationships” is an obviously true statement, but the real challenge is knowing how to communicate in a way that is both efficient, and doesn’t hurt the relationship.
What the science says: During his many studies on marriage, John Gottman discovered there was a golden ratio of positive vs negative interactions that could predict with 90% accuracy whether a marriage would last or not.
That positive ratio was 5 to 1, meaning you make 5 positive interactions to every negative one. According to John Gottman, negative interactions carry much more emotional weight than positive ones. As a result, in order to tip the scales in the positive territory, or at least even it out, 5 positive comments is the minimum required to cancel out a negative comment.
So what counts as a negative interaction? Gestures such as rolling your eyes, being emotionally dismissive, critical, stonewalling etc.
Positive interactions are more straightforward and include gestures of appreciation, showing genuine interest, displaying affection etc.
Interpersonal communication skill #5: Be on the lookout for attention bids
Besides the golden ratio of 5 positive interactions to every negative one, John Gottman also discovered another communication behavior that significantly predicted relationship success: turning towards attention bids.
What the science says: According to John Gottman, attention bids are little comments partners make to one another in order to capture their attention, and share a particular moment together.
Examples of attention bids include: “what have you been up to?” , “come cuddle with me while I read”, “how do I look?”, “did you see that squirrel?”, “do you like the cookies?” and countless other variations.
John Gottman discovered that over a 6 year period, divorced couples would turn towards the attention bid only 33% of the time. Couples that stayed married over that period turned towards the attention bid a whopping 86% of the time.
Recognizing attention bids isn’t an easy task, especially if you’ve been oblivious to them. According to John Gottman however, it can be learned!
Interpersonal communication skill #6: Reveal your weaknesses in the beginning, and be open with them
When you’re building a new relationship with someone (this can be either a romantic interest, friendship or just work related), the best approach is to reveal your major weaknesses early, and be open about them. What counts as a major weakness? Being unemployed, having depression, dropping out of college etc. While it may be counterintuitive, people will like you more for it.
What the science says: A pair of researchers from Duke University in the USA conducted a test, where they presented a group of people a tape recording of a man and asked them how likable he seemed.
However, for one half of the group, the man revealed right at the start of the tape that he had been expelled from school for cheating on a test. For the other half, the tape had been edited so this revelation came at the very end of the recording.
The first half of the group (the one with the early reveal) found the man far more likeable than the second half (with the late reveal).
According to further research, showing your weakness early on makes you seem:
- More open.
- A person who assumes responsibility for their actions
- Suggests you have the character traits required to overcome problems.
- To have the ability to learn from past mistakes.
- Trustworthy, because you don’t hide important information.
Interpersonal communication skill #7: Reveal your strengths, achievements and good fortunes as late as possible
Weaknesses should be shown early on, but strengths and achievements should be kept for last.
What the science says: The same Duke University study, showed that you should reveal your strengths and achievements as late as possible. If you reveal them too early, you will come across as arrogant and willing to one-up someone else. The best way to reveal your strengths is to let them come out naturally as part of a conversation.
According to the study, you should treat your weaknesses with honesty, and your strengths with modesty.
Interpersonal communication skill #8: The Benjamin Franklin effect
The Benjamin Franklin effect describes how we like people we have helped in the past, more than we like people who have helped us.
As the story goes, Benjamin Franklin wanted to befriend a hostile politician. The intuitive way to do so would be to do the man favors, but Benjamin Franklin decided to do just the opposite.
He sent the hostile politician a letter asking for one his books. The politician gave Franklin the book, and was very warm to him the next time they met and willing to do even more favors for Franklin.
What the science says: One study by Jon Jecker and David Landy and another one by John Schopler and John Compere have shown that the Benjamin Franklin effect is indeed true. As it turns out, we like people we’ve helped before much more than we like people who have helped us.
That being said, the Benjamin Franklin effect only works if you start with small requests. Bigger ones have a shock effect that can very quickly turn people off and just say “no”.
Interpersonal communication skill #9: Give small unsolicited favors, they will give you back a lot more
Asking for small favors is an effective way to build a new relationship (romantic, work or otherwise). But offering small, unsolicited favors can be just as effective.
The psychology of it is very simple, since humans have an innate need to reciprocate good gestures that are done to us.
An important point however: this technique mostly works with people you don’t know well, or complete strangers.
What the science says: Psychologist David Strohmetz and his colleagues devised an interesting study to test how much (or how little) impact an unsolicited favor had for restaurant clients.
In the experiment, researchers instructed waiters to give clients some candy alongside the bill, and see if this unsolicited favor would increase the tips they received. They then created 4 groups of restaurant clients.
- Control group waiters didn’t give any candy.
- Group 1 waiters gave 1 piece of candy to every client.
- Group 2 waiters gave 2 pieces of candy to every client.
- Group 3 waiters gave each client 1 piece of candy, turned away from the table, but then quickly gave every person another piece of candy, as if changing their minds.
The results were as follow:
- Group 1 waiters collected 3% more tips than the control group.
- Group 2 waiters collected 14% more tips than the control group.
- Group 3 waiters collected 23% more tips than the control group.
Waiters in Group 2 and 3 gave the same amount of candies. However, customers thought waiters in Group 3 did them a favor by giving them an extra candy, so they rewarded them not just for the candy, but also for the gesture itself.
That being said, the favor you provide should be a small one, compared to the favor you would like in return. If the favor you provide is too big, then some undesirable things start to happen:
- The other person feels pressured into reciprocating.
- Helping them too much can damage their self-esteem, since they’ll interpret the gesture as you thinking they can’t do stuff on their own.
Interpersonal communication skill #10: Blow up the tension with a good joke
In high stakes situations, such as business deals, job negotiations or discussions around a delicate romantic subject, a well placed joke can help you blow up the tension and make the other person come to your point of view much quicker.
What the science says: Karen O’Quinn and Joel Aronoff conducted a study where participants had to negotiate the purchase of a piece of art. At the final offer, the seller asked one half of the participants for $6000. For the other half, the seller’s final offer was “Well, my final offer is $6,000, and I’ll throw in my pet frog”.
The little joke at the end with the pet frog made a surprising difference in the negotiation. The group that received it was much more open to compromise and accept the price, compared to the other half of participants that only received the bland $6000 offer.
Interpersonal communication skill #11: Foot in door phenomenon
If you ask people for a big favor out of the blue, chances are they will instantly turn you down. A neat workaround is to first ask them for a smaller favor. This opens the door and establishes a precedent in which the person helps you.
After they’ve completed the smaller favor, you can then move to the original, bigger favor.
You can also do things the other way around. People are much more likely to say yes to a smaller favor, if they first turned down a bigger one.
What the science says: In one very famous study (go here for PDF version), Stanford psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser wanted to explore a new persuasion technique.
The scientists wanted to see if they could convince residents in an area to place a very large “Drive Carefully” sign on their front yard. Residents in group 1 were asked straight away if they could display the sign on their front yard. Nobody accepted.
Residents in group 2 however were first asked to display a much smaller sign, that was only a few inches square. Almost all of them agreed. Two weeks later, the researchers returned and asked group 2 residents if they would accept to display the much bigger “Drive Carefully” sign. This time, 76% of people agreed to place the huge “Drive Carefully” sign.
As the science points out, people are far more likely to agree to a big favor, if they agreed to a smaller one first.
A similar test by Robert Cialdini has shown that the foot in the door technique also works if you ask for a big favor first, get refused, and then ask for a smaller favor.
In his study, researchers asked one group of students if they would mind taking a group of juvenile delinquents to the zoo on that day. Only 20% of students agreed to the offer.
For the second group, researchers asked students if they would be willing to counsel juvenile delinquents for 2 hours a week, over the span of two years. Almost everybody refused. But then, researchers asked the students if they would be willing to go with the juvenile delinquents to the zoo that day. 50%+ of students agreed this time around.
Interpersonal communication skill #12: Replace “sorry” with “thank you”
This is a simple interpersonal communication trick, and it works because it changes how the two people relate to each other.
“Sorry” puts you at the center of the conversation, and emphasizes your own mistake and bad decision making.
Sometimes though, you don’t even make a mistake but by saying the word “sorry” you force the other person to either deny there was a problem, or to just forgive you as a reflex.
“Thank you” on the other hand, is all about recognizing and celebrating the gesture the other person has done for you.
You were late a few minutes, but they patiently waited and didn’t complain one bit. You wanted to vent about a problem, but they carefully listened and actually paid attention.
The words “thank you”, show that you care about their efforts and is a good way to show your appreciation for their efforts.
Interpersonal communication skill #13: Call people by their name (just don’t go overboard)
People’s names are a powerful thing, and using them during communication works for two reasons.
The first reason is that it just feels good. Our names are the first element of our identity and status as human beings.
By using someone’s name, you automatically communicate that you recognize their identity, and that the person is important enough to you to remember their names.
Secondly, people are hyper vigilant to the sound of their names. It can be very tricky to catch the attention of someone’s who is highly concentrated or deep working, but calling them by their names is an immediate attention grabber.
A similar thing happens in conversations. Using a person’s name immediately recaptures their attention and makes them focus on you, and what you have to say.
The only thing you should take into account, is not to overuse names. Pronouns exist for a reason, and using names all the time can feel forced.
Interpersonal communication skill #14: Point your body towards them
People have a natural tendency to point their bodies towards whatever interests them.
Subconsciously, you’re aware of this, so even if a person listens and replies to what you’re saying, you can still perceive them as disinterested if their bodies are directed away from you.
The reverse also works. By pointing your body towards the person you’re talking to, you’re making it clear that your entire attention is focused on them.
A variation of this tip is to watch the direction of people’s feet. This is especially useful in situations such as group discussions, where everybody has their bodies turned in towards the group.
In these situations, the direction of their feet can give you a better idea as to their relationships.
Interpersonal communication skill #15: Do not interrupt, except to complete the person’s sentence
This is one of those lessons parents drill into us as children, but we keep forgetting because hearing ourselves talk can be so fun.
Letting others speak and finish what they have to say is a sign of respect and shows consideration towards them. Even if you don’t agree with the idea they are proposing, having the patience to hear them out demonstrates that what they have to say is important to you. By way of implication, this also means the person is important too.
The only acceptable such interruption is to complete another person’s idea. This shows you are both paying attention to what they’re saying, and that you understand them.
Interpersonal communication skill #16: Brand people’s ideas as theirs
This is especially effective if you happen to have a leadership or managerial position. Whenever people propose ideas, be sure to brand them in public as “X’s idea”. In doing so, you will shoot many birds with just one stone:
- You reward the person’s commitment and involvement, encouraging future such behaviors.
- The person who came up with the idea will be committed to the idea’s success.
- You will earn the person’s respect and trust.
- Branding people’s idea as theirs makes it known that you’re not interested in “stealing” them, and calling them your own.
- You encourage others to come out with their own ideas.
Interpersonal communication skill #17: Be genuinely interested in the other person
It’s rare to find someone that shows a true interest in yourself and your activities. Even in romantic relationships, this isn’t always a given.
A counterintuitive way to become a better communicator is often to become a better listener. When people talk about themselves, make it a point to learn even more than what they are saying.
If they talk about their job, ask more in-depth questions about the field in general and what their part is in it. Be generous with compliments since they cost you nothing. Don’t interrupt, and only intervene with your own life when the other person asks, or if the subject is reasonably exhausted.