Understanding Effective Communication

Understanding Effective Communication

3 individuals communicating
Interpersonal communication is defined as an exchange of messages to generate shared meanings and accomplish goals. (15) Effective interpersonal communication can be perceived as communication where shared meanings are understood and goals are accomplished. Goals for communication include understanding and influencing others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as well as being understood by others. (16, 17) Effective communication refers to both verbal and non-verbal communication; in fact, non-verbal communication conveys more information regarding individuals’ thoughts and feelings than verbal messages. (18) Therefore, competent communicators must successfully relay both verbal and nonverbal messages. Furthermore, competence in interpersonal communication is reflected in the communicator’s ability to understand the social context in which the messages were communicated. (20) Taking the social and relational contexts of youth and their family into consideration when communicating with youth can help youth program staff to understand different approaches to communication, to interpret messages, etc.

Introduction to theories

Throughout adolescence, youth’s communication skills improve as they develop cognitively (21, 22) and experience increasingly complex interpersonal relationships within a variety of contexts, and these are the factors at the core of many interpersonal communication theories. One type of interpersonal communication theory is relationship-centered theories, which are based on the study of how interpersonal communication helps to develop and maintain relationships and how the nature of the relationship further influence communication. (31, 32) Interpersonal communication between youth program staff and youth is best understood in the context of relationship-centered theories because they best embody staff’s goals of building supportive relationships while using communication skills to manage youth’s behaviors. Two relationship-centered theories will be reviewed that provide background for how interpersonal communication develops in a relational context.


Select each focus theory to learn more.

The differences in people’s communication styles and reactions to communicated messages can be explained in the context of attachment theory. Attachments are formed in infancy through communication with a primary caregiver (34) , which provide a template for later relationships through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. (35, 36)

One of the ways attachment occurs is through interpersonal communication. In addition, interpersonal communication can represent the nature of the attachment. For instance, when parents communicate anxiety-based or passive messages, children may form fearful or dismissive attachment. (33) On the other hand, individuals with secure attachment tend to communicate in ways that promote healthy relationship development. (39, 40) How an individual communicates may indicate their level of attachment to the recipient of the communication. (41) Research has shown that more intimate modes of communication are used in more attached relationships, and more detached modes of communication in less attached relationships. (41)

Youth program staff who use a firm and warm communication style may help foster positive attachment and relationships with youth who demonstrate aggressive or avoidant communication behaviors. In sum, healthy attachment in relationships creates a positive context for effective verbal and nonverbal communication to develop, which is the basis for relational communication theory.

There are several perspectives that help to inform relational communication theory, including ecological system theories, social learning theories, and relational-developmental theories. Human development theories suggest that an interconnected network of systems influences human development and growth. Furthermore, social learning theories proposed that individuals’ interpersonal communication competence is influenced by social interactions within their environment (44). Lastly, relational-developmental theories emphasized bidirectional influential relations between individuals and their context, meaning the individuals influence their environment and vice versa.

Relational communication theory is a systemic approach to interpersonal communication. The theory suggests that relationships (e.g., parent-child, etc.) and systems of relations (e.g., between families and schools) are formed and maintained through individuals’ communication processes. (47) In addition, communicated messages can inform how people in the interaction regard each other, their relationship or themselves within the context of the relationship. (48) A components of this theory is the concept that messages have two levels of meaning: content (what the message is about) and relational (how the message is interpreted). Relational meaning of messages is most often communicated through non-verbal communication, which provides context for the content of the message. (49)

Both meanings of interpersonal communication are important for youth program staff for two important reasons: they are significant for building supportive relationships with youth and for understanding the impact their communication may have on youth with whom they have a close relationship versus youth with whom they may not know as well.