Communication Competence:
The Essence of Aligning Action

Communication competence is the ability to send messages which promote attainment of goals while maintaining social acceptability. Competent communicators attempt to align themselves with each otherís goals and methods to produce a smooth, productive, and often enjoyable dialogue. Competence includes a number of important attitudes and abilities:

(1) Commitment and good faith: Distrust of others can lead us to expend great energy verbally pushing and pulling or more subtly manipulating them, while attaining only minimal or mixed results. Often the harder we push, the harder the others resist. When we win, we do so at an expense to the relationship. Competence entails caring about the other person and the relationship, accepting his or her perspective and needs as legitimate, and making sure that the results of communication are as satisfying as possible to all involved. In the diagram below the heavy arrow illustrates the alignment created by two communicators. The amount of alignment differs depending on the choices they make.

(2) Empathy: Empathy is the ability to view a situation from another personís perspective and experience how that perspective feels. Alignment with the other person is highly unlikely when we do not appreciate where the person is coming from. We must have a realistic understanding of what is possible to achieve with another person; in other words, which of our goals are compatible with the goals of the other person. When we show empathy for the other person, he or she is more likely to act in good faith toward us.

(3) Flexibility: A competent communicator has developed a wide range of communication abilities, each of which may have a differing amount of value in any given situation. The diagram below shows that any communication choice has a component which advances mutual goals and another component which attempts to pull the outcome in other directions. Flexibility means being able to choose a response which maximizes attainable mutual goals.


Competence of Choices Model

(4) Sensitivity to Consequences: Any given communication choice may have brilliant success in some circumstances, while failing miserably in others. Through experience, competent communicators gain greater accuracy in understanding the potential effects of different skills in a complex situation. This understanding leads to more competent choices. In the diagram above, Choice 1 is highly ineffective in advancing the mutual goals of the dialogue. Each succeeding choice contributes more to a mutually satisfying outcome with Choice 4 being the most competent.

(5) Adeptness: Although we are born with the potential for language and communication, all the skills which seem to come so naturally to us today were learned at one time. As we gain experience using them, we become more proficient. The effectiveness of a communication choice is partly related to how adept we are in enacting it spontaneously. Timing, word-choice, emphasis, inflection, and rhythm must all be integrated in a comfortable and spontaneous way if the skill is to be accepted as it is intended. A message will call motives into question if it seems too awkward and contrived, on the one hand, or so smooth, on the other, that it looks pre-planned.

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Copyright 1999, Richard D. Rowley.
Last revised: January 21, 2002 .