Communication Models

The Basics of Formal Communication
Communication involves two parties: a transmitter and a receiver. Although
to hear some people you would think it was a one-way process! It’s certainly
not a simple process. Breaking the process down, there are a number of key
ingredients, or decisions, which we shall now look at one by one.
The first decision the transmitter makes concerns the 'channel' of
communication. Our choice will depend upon the whereabouts of the
receiver, the nature of the message, the availability of different channels and
the ability of the channel to accurately convey the message. Faxes, memos,
emails, face to face meetings, telephone conversations - all of these are
channels and we need to be careful that we choose the right one to convey
our message.
Next, the transmitter has to choose what to say, he/she has to 'encode' the
We use codes all the time, without giving it a second thought. Speech is a
code. The language we use to describe an object or feeling is a code. All we
need to do is to 'code' our message in such a way that it can be 'decoded' the
other end. How simple, yet how often we get it wrong. The problem is that
we tend to express ourselves using language and content, that make sense
from our perspective - life as we see it from our 'hill top'. To be 'decoded'
correctly, however, the message must make sense from the receiver's 'hill
top'. Therefore, before composing what we want to say, we first need to put
ourselves in the shoes of the receiver. After-all...
... communication is what 'B' receives, not what 'A' sends!
Even when we have tried hard to express our message in a way which will
make sense to the receiver, other factors may have modified the message or,
as the information theorists say, 'diminished the integrity of the signal'. This
we can call 'noise'. There are three types.
Channel Noise. This is static on the line, physical interference. A hoarse
voice, a radio next door, too much illumination, etc.
Psychological Noise. A message which intimidates or an act of superiority
which irritates the 'receiver' when it should inform. These are examples of
psychological noise. The nature of the message is affected by the feelings of
the recipient.
Body language, of course, is psychological noise when it counteracts the
message. On the other hand it may reinforce the message. In which case it
is 'sound' rather than noise. We can't hear it. We simply accept it, intuitively
interpreting a non-verbal code. Communication experts tell us that 'the
spoken word is never neutral'. It is always affected by the nature of our
Language Noise. Language noise is the result of a mismatch of code
between transmitter and receiver. A's signals may not be understood by B.
For instance, the sign in an American car park which reads 'FINE FOR
PARKING'. Is it an encouragement or a warning?
Another element of language noise is redundancy. Redundancy is an overkill
of information. But redundancy sometimes aids accurate decoding and helps
to overcome 'channel noise'. We can decipher bad handwriting because
sufficient information remains in the words and characters we can recognise
to enable us to decipher the words and characters we cannot read.
Here then is the model of the communication process we have discussed so
far. One element is missing. Feedback.
Feedback is evidence of communication. Or, to be more exact, evidence of
the signal having been received. The decoding of the feedback, in turn, tells
us whether the signal has been correctly interpreted (always assuming that
we, for our part, have correctly interpreted the feedback signal). The
possibilities for misunderstanding are endless.
Without feedback there is no communication.
Feedback is the
contribution of the receiver but this has to be earned, or if necessary, invited.
Having a conversation with someone who gives no indication that they are
following what you are saying - no words or grunts or looks - can kill the
communication. Looks, especially. Since we all tend to look more at people
we like, it can be very disconcerting not to be looked at.
People are different. Because they are different, they see, or perceive, other
people differently. They may, therefore, behave differently towards different
people and in different situations. We say they have different personalities
and different perceptions.
What then are these factors - personality and perception - that make people
Perception is the process by which we select, organise and interpret external
stimuli and information into terms and categories which are meaningful and
consistent with our own frames of reference. We all need a selection
mechanism as we are incessantly exposed to a multitude of stimuli and have
to filter out extraneous 'noise' to find and identify those which are relevant and
important to us as individuals. Listening to music on the radio, we know the
baby is asleep upstairs. When she cries, we screen out the music and
concentrate to hear whether the cry is a pain cry, a hunger cry, or a temper
cry, to help us decide what action to take. Selection enables us to avoid
distracting or unimportant stimuli.
We then organise this filtered information into clusters and categories that,
through remembered experience, enable us to make interpretations in relation
to our internal frames of reference. We might classify someone who accepts
all information as true, without checking, as trusting. Past experiences of
ourselves and of others who were trusting may have shown that the
information given was not accurate - even in some cases, was deliberately
inaccurate - and that acting on the assumption of accuracy has led to
unexpected and negative outcomes. We therefore link together the concepts
of trust, unqualified acceptance of information, deception, and negative
consequences. We say that people who are trusting are prone to deception
and unexpected pitfalls. This may not be objectively real, but it is subjectively
'real' for the person described in the example, and it therefore influences their
attitude and behaviour toward people they perceive as 'trusting'.
Filters and Stereotypes
Effective understanding of other people depends very much on interacting
and communicating with them, 'getting to know' them.
Figure 1
In figure 1, A's and B's perceptions and impression of person C are different,
even though the information passed from C to A and B is the same, because
A and B have different values, beliefs, attitudes and remembered experiences
- different filters.
Figure 2
When, as in Figure 2, A and B communicate to each other their perceptions of
C, and a process of disclosure and feedback occurs, A and B are more likely
to understand each other's perception of C.
Figure 3
Greater common understanding develops when A, B and C share and
feedback perceptions of each other.
Figure 4
And even greater empathy and understanding occurs when, as in Figure 4, A,
B and C share some common values, beliefs, attitudes and remembered
Too often, however, in organisations, we have to make judgements of other
people based on limited information. In these situations we face the conflict
of needing to be as accurate as possible in our perceptions while needing
also to make-up our minds as quickly as possible. In these cases where time
or information is short, we often tend to stereotype people into categories
which fit the aggregation of the limited information available, within the
parameters of our past experiences. Prejudice occurs by simply categorising
people on incomplete information, or by simply refusing to accept evidence
about individuals which conflicts with previous experience.
However, we often have to rely on 'first impressions' in such situations as
selection interviews, or in making a sale to an unknown customer. This brings
in the third factor which influences perception - the situation - together with
the other two - the perceiver, and the perceived.
Dealing first with the 'perceived'. Our perception and categorisation of, and
our behaviour towards other people, are influenced to a certain extent by their
apparent characteristics.
Some of these which affect our interactions with them are:
Physical appearance
'Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such
men are dangerous'.
There are many old adages that link personality characteristics to
physical appearance. Gestures, demeanours, and facial expressions
are also important influences on our perception. Two fingers raised in a
Victory sign by Winston Churchill in 1940 evoked admiration for his
courage and defiance. Two fingers raised in vulgar contempt by an irate
driver, generate entirely different feelings in us when we have to form
impressions based on public behaviour. We may infer characteristics of
strong self-discipline from the ramrod figure of a Sergeant Major, while
feeling that a person who is unkempt and mooches around is lazy and
unmotivated. A scowl makes us unhappy, while a smile makes us want
to smile back. Dress also affects our evaluation of other people - we
dress smartly for an important interview in order to make a good
(b) Verbal and Social Cues
One of the most influential factors in our perception of other people is
their verbal behaviour - how people speak, and what they say. We all
have our own pictures of someone who speaks with a broad Yorkshire
accent, or a Scouse accent, or a Scots, Cockney or German accent.
Grammatical exactitude and the use of long words may influence us to
see people as very intelligent, though this may not be the case. People's
education and status are often categorised by their manner of speech. If
you went to a public school, and were happy there, you could tend to
attribute positive characteristics to someone with a strong public school
accent. People who speak loudly are often considered extrovert - or
even vulgar - while people with soft voices are thought to be shy and
Motor Behaviour
'People who won't look you in the eye are shifty and unreliable'.
'Strong handshake - strong character'.
Certain personality traits are often inferred from people's motor
These various cues - physical appearance, verbal, social and motor
behaviour - help us to form impressions of other people in a first social
interaction. Some may be valid, others not. There appears, however, to be a
low correlation between most of these factors and personality traits. How,
and which, cues are selected, depends on the values, attitudes and beliefs of
our particular culture and society, as well as on those of ourselves, the
Some of the factors specific to us, the perceiver, which affect the perception
of other people are:
Our own values, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices and remembered
Our level of awareness and knowledge of, and confidence in, ourselves.
People with accurate perceptions of themselves are likely to be more
accurate in their perceptions of others. Positive attributes are also more
likely to be given to people perceived to be like ‘us’, and vice versa. If
the perceiver is loyal and committed to his organisation, he is likely to
discount people who are not.
Our current needs, feelings and state of mind. People's perceptions are
likely to be affected by immediate past and current events - those events
which are currently influencing their feelings and behaviour. A person
seriously worried about his finances is not likely to take kindly to
someone who is trying to sell him an expensive continental holiday.
Our expectations about other people. If told someone is brilliant, we
tend to see brilliance - at first. If told that someone is a cold fish, we
expect to see someone who meets this description, and this influences
our initial perception of, and behaviour towards that person. People
seem to see what they expect to see, and often the conflicting evidence
needs to be overwhelming before it is accepted.
Situational factors can be very influential when forming first impressions of
people. Since we have few behavioural cues to help us, the context (a board
meeting or a car accident), the environment (a police station or a football
match), and the perceived value of the other person to ourselves (the
Managing Director or a disliked neighbour) all affect our perception.
When meeting new people we have to rely on inadequate information to form
impressions about them. This information may be reliable or not, but on this
slender basis we tend to predict their future behaviour. First impressions, of
course, don't last. As we interact more with other people we are collecting,
selecting, categorising and interpreting more information about them, and we
can more easily understand their behaviour and predict it more accurately.
But we can improve our ability to understand other people and their behaviour
by being aware of these three influencing factors - the perceived, the
perceiver, and the situation. Of these three we have most control over
ourselves, the perceivers. The more we understand and have confidence in
ourselves, the more likely we are to understand others.