What is Communication?

By | May 9, 2013

A Brief Introduction

To begin to answer the question, what is communication?, I guess the first thing we should do is get clear on what we mean by communication and the consequences of when it doesn’t work – as in the famous scene from Cool Hand Luke.

What is Communication?

The Purpose of Communication

Let’s look at the purpose of communication.  At a root level, communication means to share.  We’ve come in contemporary time to view the purpose of communication as an exchange of information.  Being a bit more philosophical and going back to the roots of the word we might say that the purpose of communication is to have brought something in common such as a common meaning or simply having information shared in common.  But that still doesn’t give us purpose, at least in the realm of leadership.  If leadership is about the future, then the purpose of what communication is must be something about facilitating that purpose.

Steps in the basic communication process

Lets start with a break down of what communication is, or at least one view on it.  What are the principles of effective communication?  Could we agree for our purposes that communication involves more than one person and secondly that there is some form of intent?  Without intent, why communicate?  But we’re ahead of ourselves, first a structural breakdown of the communication process:


Step one:        Forming an intention – what we want to accomplish
Step two:        Encoding the intent into language resulting in the message
Step three:     Transmitting the message via a medium that might include – the written word, speech, signals, symbolism, art, body language or other means, even more subtle


Step four:       Attending to the message – opening and hold our receiver open
Step five:        Decoding the message – translating the raw sounds, symbols etc.
Step Six:         Interpreting the message – Interpreting the meaning of what we’ve decoded
Step Seven:    Responding to the message  – our internal response to the meaning we’ve made from the message, which may or may not lead to an external response i.e. a reply, reaction…

These seven steps alone give us a host of variables to deal with, each of which could become a barrier if not addressed successfully, or a key to successful communication if we get it right.  If we want to make it really complicated, we can add more to the pot, i.e. what happens before, after and around these 7 steps.   Then, we can add the variation that is possible inside each of the steps.  With all these variables to manage, it’s a wonder that our intended messages even remotely resemble the outcomes.  Neither should it be surprising, that the word “precision” isn’t often used when we describe normal communication.  Fortunately, our brains do a great deal of processing, making the whole communication process a bit less formidable than it might seem.

What is Communication? In Summary:

  • Communication is about sharing, bringing something like understanding or meaning into a common space with others.
  • We assume that communication requires at least one other, giving us at least one sender of a message and one receiver
  • Communication is linked to some form of intent, something we wish to accomplish
  • Communication, broken down, goes through a basic set of steps on the part of both sender and receiver
  • These steps show us how many variables there are to a communication process, giving us an insight into both the barriers and key success factors for communication

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