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Communication is a subject widely discussed in the scholarly, professional, and popular literature and a topic that is of central importance to understanding and successfully engaging in leadership. It is also very popular in college and university courses due to its relevance and pertinence in a broad range of personal and professional settings. But, there can sometimes be confusion stemming from the diverse and interdisciplinary uses of the term, communication. Interestingly, much the same can be said about leadership, also a popular subject, as it too can have many definitions and reflect a variety of diverse approaches.

In this Skill, the focus is on communication in professional and leadership contexts, emphasizing factors related to engaging in productive and appropriate communication behaviors and practices. The discussion and materials offer a synthesis of perspectives from both the field of communication and other relevant disciplines.

Communication study generally focuses on two major categories—verbal and nonverbal. Verbal communication includes spoken and written messages which are essential to one-on-one and group discussions, speeches, presentations, writing, and social media within business and other contexts. Because of its importance, we generally devote a good deal of conscious effort to creating and delivering verbal messages in professional and leadership settings. Nonverbal communication refers to gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, attire, and other factors related to unspoken behaviors and actions. While nonverbal behaviors are extremely important to communication dynamics and outcomes, these factors often receive less conscious attention than verbal messages when we plan or engage in communication.

Communication is often viewed as a natural and simple process where a sender creates and sends messages. The process is quite complex, however, and includes not only creating and sending messages—verbal and nonverbal—but also receiving messages, which involves perceiving, interpreting, and remembering messages. Effective communication requires an understanding of the many factors that can affect communication outcomes. It also requires skill in managing one’s communication—as a sender and receiver—to increase the likelihood that others will understand messages as we intended, and vice versa. The importance of message reception is often underappreciated because we tend to be preoccupied with our own communication goals. However, message sending and message reception are two sides of the communication equation—both critical to every communication event and to outcomes that result for us and others.

Adding to this complexity is the fact that communication occurs in a broad array of personal, professional, cross-cultural, organizational, and public contexts, and each of these can have an influence on the message sending and receiving process.

Media and technology of one kind or another often play a role in communication in various settings. When media are involved, the process is referred to as mediated communication. Communication media can enhance and extend the reach of communication in some ways, but it can also be a limitation in some respects as well. For example, some technology allows for the ability to broadly transmit and store messages for future use, like email and messaging, but limit nonverbal communication that can be present in face-to-face communication.

Planning is important when it comes to communication, but the ongoing dynamics of the process brings challenges which are difficult to anticipate. For example, in what you might have expected to be a rather routine request of a friend or colleague may result in a reaction that appears resistant or argumentative. In such a situation, it becomes necessary to make adjustments in your approach, perhaps finding it is necessary to become more assertive or engage in more listening than you had planned.

In addition, to ongoing adjustments as a message sender, in the role of message receiver, ongoing adjustments are also frequently required. Providing feedback in the form of questions or restating what you believe you heard can help in assuring clarity of understanding.

Effectiveness in personal and professional communication requires an understanding and thoughtful attention to the communication process, cultivating the skills and competencies necessary to translate your understanding into practice, and ongoing efforts to both plan and adjust to communication dynamics as they unfold.

Further Reading

Duck, S., & McMahan, D. T. (2020). Communication in everyday life: A survey of communication (
4th ed.
). Sage.
Ruben, B. D., & Stewart, L. (2020). Communication and human behavior (
7th ed.
). Kendall-Hunt.
Gigliotti, R. A., Ruben, B. D., & Goldthwaite, C. (2017). Leadership: Communication and social influence in personal and professional contexts. Kendall-Hunt.
Ruben, B. D., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2017). Communication: Sine qua non of organizational leadership theory and practice. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(1), 1230.