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Communication Contexts

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Last updated January 28, 2020



Dr. Lane’s Perspective 

“Communication competence is the degree to which a communicator’s goals are achieved through effective and appropriate interaction.”

What is communication?

For most people communication is simply talk.  It is a natural event. Students enrolling in an introductory undergraduate communication course will quickly reference a convenient and aging dictionary when asked to define communication and provide the following: 

“Communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior” (Webster, 1983, p. 266). 

The fundamental problem with defining communication as nothing more than information exchange is that information exchange is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for understanding the complex process of communication.  The naive perspective which allows one to define communication as simple information exchange suggests that one can simply define engineering as “the art of managing engines” – a definition unlikely to resonate with most professionals who study mechanical, electrical, chemical, civil, or  biological engineering. 

The field of communication focuses on how PEOPLE use MESSAGE to generate MEANINGS within and across various CONTEXTS, CULTURES, CHANNELS, and MEDIA.

When we communicate we transmit (as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior) information (thoughts and emotions) so that it is satisfactorily received and understood.  Human beings do not exchange data–we understand information.  Communication researchers refer to the process as “sharing meaning” and prefer to define communication as “the management of messages for the purpose of creating meaning.” 

In other words, the goal of communication is shared meaning and the primary function of communication research is to generate new knowledge about how best to maximize the achievement of goals. 

A goal is nothing more than something you want to achieve.  Communication goals are linked to another person’s thoughts and feelings. There are at least three general types of communication goals: 

 1) Self Presentation Goals (who we are and how we want to be perceived), 

 2)  Relational Goals (how we develop, maintain, and terminate relationships), and 

 3)  Instrumental Goals (how we manipulate others, gain compliance, manage interpersonal conflict,  use and recognize interpersonal influence strategies (anchoring and contrast effects, reciprocity, commitment, liking, social proof, authority, and scarcity), etc.)

It would be a gross misinterpretation of this goals-based perspective (often referred to as functional or strategic) to assume that goal achievement is in some way synonymous with the “darkside” and should, therefore, be criticized and abandoned because it has an evil connotation.  It may be more comforting for some people to substitute “needs” for “goals” as did psychologist Schutz (1966) when he identified three unique interpersonal “needs” that all of us have: 

A. affection (a desire to express and to receive love), 
B. inclusion (a desire to be in the company of other people) and 
C. control (a desire to influence the events and people around us). 

Additionally, goals need not be explicit or premeditated.  The conversation we have with a stranger on an airplane may not be the result of a premeditated explicit goal–but nonetheless serve to fulfill an implicit need for inclusion and thus, be purposeful. 

Communication is, therefore, strategic in as much as it is goal-driven. Craig (1986) writes, "it would be pointless not to assume that discourse is in some sense and to some degree intentionally directed toward goals" (p. 272).   This perspective is shared by many prominent communication researchers (Berger 1994, Canary & Cody, 2000; Kellermann, 1992; Roloff & Berger, 199x).

The primary goal of small group communication is to share meaning which leads to effective decision-making and problem-solving.  But how does one determine the effectiveness and appropriateness of any given interaction?  And even more important, how do we know if communication is competent?

What is communication competence?

Initially,  Spitzberg (1988) defined communication competence as "the ability to interact well with others" (p.68).   He explains, "the term 'well' refers to accuracy, clarity, comprehensibility, coherence, expertise, effectiveness and appropriateness" (p. 68).  A much more complete operationalization is provided by Friedrich (1994) when he suggests that communication competence is best understood as "a situational ability to set realistic and appropriate goals and to maximize their achievement by using knowledge of self, other, context, and communication theory to generate adaptive communication performances." 

Communicative competence is measured by determining if, and to what degree, the goals of interaction are achieved.  As stated earlier,  the function of communication is to maximize the achievement of “shared meaning.” Parks (1985) emphasizes three interdependent themes:  control, responsibility, and foresight; and argues that to be competent, we must "not only 'know' and 'know how,' we must also 'do' and 'know that we did'" (p. 174).   He defines communicative competence as "the degree to which individuals perceive they have satisfied their goals in a given social situation without jeopardizing their ability or opportunity to pursue their other subjectively more important goals"  (p. 175).  This combination of cognitive and behavioral perspectives is consistent with Wiemann and Backlund’s (1980) argument that communication competence is: 

The ability of an interactant to choose among available communicative behaviors in order that he (sic) may successfully accomplish his (sic) own interpersonal goals during an encounter while maintaining the face and line of his (sic) fellow interactants within the constraints of the situation.  (p. 188)

A useful framework for understanding communication competence was designed by Spitzberg & Cupach (1984) and is known as the component model of competence because it is comprised of three specific dimensions: motivation (an individual’s approach or avoidance orientation in various social situations), knowledge (plans of action; knowledge of how to act; procedural knowledge), and skill (behaviors actually performed).

The component model asserts that communication competence is mutually defined by by the interdependency of the cognitive component (concerned with knowledge and understanding), the behavioral component (concerned with behavioral skills), and the affective component (concerned with attitudes and feelings about the knowledge and behaviors) by interactants in an interpersonal encounter within a specific context.  Rubin (1985) explains that communication competence is “an impression formed about the appropriateness of another's communicative behavior” and that “one goal of the communication scholar is to understand how impressions about communication competence are formed, and to determine how knowledge, skill and motivation lead to perceptions of competence within various contexts” (p. 173). 

When applying the component model to organizational communication contexts, Shockley-Zalabak (1988) divides motivation into two separate (though related) elements: sensitivity (the ability to show concern and respect for others) and commitment (the desire to avoid previous mistakes and find better ways of communicating through the process of self-monitoring).  This revised model consisting of four dimensions (knowledge, skill, sensitivity, and commitment) is used by Rothwell (1998) to study communication competence in small group interaction. 

Note that communicative competence is dependent on the context in which the interaction takes place (Cody and McLaughlin, 1985; Applegate and Leichty, 1984; Rubin, 1985). Communication which is successful with one group in one situation, may not be perceived as competent with a different group in another situation. McCroskey (1982) attempts to clarify the importance of competence when he writes, “The domain of communicative competence includes learning what are the available means (available strategies), how they have been employed in various situations in the past, and being able to determine which ones have the highest probability of success in a given situation (p. 5). 

Canary and Cody (2000) provide six criteria for assessing competence which include, but are not limited to, perceived appropriateness and effectiveness. The criteria include adaptability, conversational involvement, conversational management, empathy, effectiveness, and appropriateness.  They are explained in more detail below:


1. Adaptability (flexibility)
     a. The ability to change behaviors and goals to meet the needs 
          of interaction
      b. Comprised of six factors
          1.  Social experience - participation in various social interactions
          2.  Social composure - refers to keeping calm through accurate 
          3.  Social confirmation - refers to acknowledgment of partner’s 
          4.  Appropriate disclosure - being sensitive to amount and type of 
          5.  Articulation - ability to express ideas through language
          6.  Wit - ability to use humor in adapting to social situations;
               ease tensions

 2. Conversational Involvement
      a. Behavioral and cognitive activity
      b. Cognitive involvement demonstrated through interaction        
      c. Assessed according to three factors
          1.  Responsiveness -  knowing what to say, know roles, interact
          2.  Perceptiveness -  be aware of how others perceive you
          3.  Attentiveness -  listen, don’t be pre-occupied

 3. Conversational Management
      a. How communicators regulate their interactions
      b. Adaptation and control of social situations
      c. Who controls the interaction ebb and flow and how smoothly the 
          interaction proceeds
      d. How topics proceed and change

 4. Empathy
      a. The ability to demonstrate understanding and share emotional 
          reactions to the situation
      b. Need not lead to “helping” the other person
      c. Cognitive understanding
      d. Parallel emotions

 5. Effectiveness
      a. Achieving the objectives of the conversation
      b. Achieving personal goals
      c. A fundamental criteria for determining competence

 6. Appropriateness
      a. Upholding the expectations for a given situation
      b. A fundamental criteria for determining competence