Six Critical Interpersonal Communication Skills

While writing is important, it’s really the focus on verbal skills that makes the difference when it comes to leadership. That’s because the written word primarily appeals to reason and logic, however, speaking appeals to logic and reason, AND arouses emotions, motivates and persuades.


First Published June 21, 2014. Last Update: January 21, 2017.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

This page lists 6 interpersonal communication skills essential in being able to influence and conducting interviews. You might say that an interview consists of doing all of these six really well. 

    • Mastering NONVERBAL communication
    • Learning TWO-WAY COMMUNICATION techniques
    • Choosing the type of LISTENING most appropriate to the situation.
    • Using relevant of QUESTIONS
    • Developing sound RELATIONSHIPS. 
    • SELF-TALK. Basically learning to communication between the two biggest parts of the mind—the Ego and The Unconscious
    • INTERVIEWING (which consists of elements of the above)

Effective leaders realize early in life that they must continually improve communication skills. Failure to do so means you can never execute on complex leadership styles or success models such as John Wooden’s Pyramid.

Graphic defining effective interpersonal communication as having the sender and the receivers meaning as the same.
Graphic defining effective interpersonal communication as having the sender and the receivers meaning as the same.

The Importance of Interpersonal Communication

Your Interpersonal communication abilities form the basis both for personal and professional relationships. Not only that, but employers have been saying for years they want employees with stellar communication skills. 

Despite it importance, few people spend the time to really understand it or to improve the component skills of interpersonal communication (see the list below). So you might way, the competition is weak.

Still, at some point in climbing the organizational latter, your skills in this area will either make you or break you. Make the  investment in interpersonal communication skills, it will pay off many times over. For example, having lousy interpersonal communication skills typically keeps the unemployed from getting a job when they bomb the interview.  

What Is Interpersonal Communication

This video is about principles of communication and how those communication principles impact our thinking. For example, what are the implications of calling someone a loser? And can you not, not communicate?

You might ask, what is interpersonal communication? It simply involves sending a message between two people. Looks pretty simple on the diagram below, but the art is in the practice.

Use of Feedback

Image by Murray Johannsen. Essentially a sender can choose between 8 type of interpersonal communication feedback but the receiver can respond only two ways.
Image by Murray Johannsen. Essentially a sender can choose between 8 type of interpersonal communication feedback but the receiver can respond only two ways.

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” — Unknown

“Few managers want to deliver it, most subordinates don’t want to receive it. Yet, there is little improvement without it.” — M. Johannsen

Communicating to provide feedback is necessary if one is to improve performance. Those with a high need to achieve, those who constantly seek to perform at their best and improve their skills, understand the need for feedback. In fact, they often ask for it.

But these are a small minority. The vast majority want to live in the “ignorance bubble” undefined getting an “attagirl” or an” attiboy” on occasion, but deathly afraid of hearing about mistakes and screw-ups.

Cynics might say that at work, we don’t want champions, we want workers. True, True. Still, one shouldn’t keep the workers in the dark about their own performance. Too many times we hear someone at work frustrated with a bad performance appraisal, seemingly blind sided by an arbitrary and capricious manager who seems to be out to get them. In reality, it simply a case that the manager did not give enough feedback. After all, one should not be surprised at what the appraisal says.

In systems theory, there is two types of feedback, positive and negative. Both are absolutely essential if you are to have high levels of performance. But bosses find it difficult to give negative feedback and subordinates find it hard to receive it.

  Interpersonal Communication

The interpersonal communication model looks simple having only six major elements: a sender, a receiver, a medium, encoding and decoding and feedback.
The interpersonal communication model looks simple having only six major elements: a sender, a receiver, a medium, encoding and decoding and feedback.

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.” — Plato

“The mind is like a TV set, when it goes stops working, it is a good idea to shut off the sound.” — Unknown

little girl and a little boy were at day care one day. The girl approaches the boy and says, “Hey Stevie, wanna play house?” He says, “Sure! What do you want me to do?” The girl replies, “I want you to communicate.” He says to her, “that word is too big. I have no idea what it means.” The little girl smirks and says, “Perfect. You can be the husband

Interpersonal communication is the skill set used between two individuals, with one acting as a sender and the other acting as a receiver. Surprisingly, even this relatively simple form of communication is fraught with many types of problems.

Problems include a number of encoding and decoding biases on both the sender and the receiver side. But individuals will also choose the wrong medium, fail to solicit feedback and so on.

This communication skill process is conceptually rather simple, having just two individuals–done acting as a sender and the other acting as a receiver. Besides that, you have a couple of hidden mental processes known as encoding and decoding.

Selection of the medium is another important consideration. In today’s large organizations, you commonly see individuals sending an email, when they should pick up the telephone.

Last but not least, don’t underestimate the importance of feedback. Its one of the most important interpersonal communication processes, but one that typically operates nonverbally and thus out of conscious awareness.

The verbal and nonverbal elements of Interpersonal communication appear to be simple, it has a surprising number of variations. For example, interpersonal communication can be two-way or one-way. If it’s one way, it is sender dominated. The receiver is very passive, in many case, faking it with an occasional acknowledgment statement. In fact, a receiver doesn’t even have to even say anything, they can simply nod from time to time. Faking it comes in handy since one doesn’t have to pay attention to a boring person. As one can see, one-way interpersonal communication creates problems and it has sometimes been called passive listening.

Interpersonal Communication Barriers

Surprisingly, even this relatively simple form of interpersonal communication barrers (compared to what is going on in groups anyway) is fraught with many types of barriers. A short list includes:

* Encoding problems on both the sender side

* Decoding biases the receiver side

* Choose the wrong interpersonal communication medium,

* Bad timing

* Fail to read feedback, and so on.

But there is a longer list of 17 communication barriers


His Master's Voice, Francis Barraud (1856-1924) painted his brother's dog Nipper listening to the horn of an early phonograph during the winter of 1898
His Master’s Voice, Francis Barraud (1856-1924) painted his brother’s dog Nipper listening to the horn of an early phonograph during the winter of 1898

“Every ass loves to hear himself bray.” — Thomas Fuller

“General Eisenhower and I didn’t discuss politics or the campaign. Mostly we talked about painting and fishing. But what I remember most about the hour and a half I spent with him was the way he gave me all his attention. He was listening to me and talking to me just as if he hadn’t a care in the world, hadn’t been through the trials of a political convention, wasn’t on the brink of a presidential campaign.” — Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, April 2, 196

Most people are terrible listeners,but they do know how to fake it pretty well. We do this with techniques such as nodding at the right moment, period acknowledgments such as, “Ah” and “Ah, ha,” and the classic technique present in the marriage, the “Yes, dear.” In fact, we are so good at faking listening, that the average person can’t even tell.

Leaders cannot afford to develop a reputation for unskilled listening, it’s ruinous. Despite this, one of the more common complaints in many organizations is, “My boss doesn’t listen to me.”

Listening is important–it’s hard work–it’s something few people do well. That’s because the interpersonal communication skill called listening requires constant mental energy and it easier to fake it. Technically, faking it involves using certain types of acknowledgement signals to give the sender the impression that we are paying attention when we are not.

Plus there are actually different types of listening. For example, you can listen passively, actively, or emphatically. One can listen to memorize or critically listen as a means of logic checking.

This interpersonal communication skill can be improved, but it requires both knowledge and effort. For many years, I actually did this wrong. I hand thought the fundamental problem was a series of barriers. It turned out, the real problem was one of related of limitations of attention. There are five of these.

    • Serial Information drastically diminishing parallel language processing
    • Capacity Limitations cause that information overload
    • Fatigue counteracts vigilance
    • Short Attentions Spans
    • Attention is selective — it misses more than it processes
    • People focus it internal when they should have it external.

So remember the words of Andre Gide, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and begin again.

Reading Nonverbal Communication Signals


“A newcomer to a certain summer resort was surprised to find a group of men gathered on the lawn one evening shouting numbers at each other. “Sixteen,” one would yell, and all would laugh. “One hundred and thirty-five,” another would say, and all would laugh. “Twenty-seven,” a third would say, nearly choking with glee, and all would laugh. “Two hundred and three,” shouted someone, and this time everyone fell off his chair howling. The laughter continued till some turned blue in the face and had to be pounded to keep them from suffocating. Numbers continued to be called thereafter, and laughter, now more subdued, also continued. Finally the newcomer spoke to one of the men on the fringes and said, “Pardon me, but tell me what’s going on.” ‘Well,” said the other, “this group meets every year at this resort, and night after night we swap stories. Naturally, we all know the stories, so we gave them numbers and save time by calling the numbers.” The newcomer nodded. “I see. But tell me this. When someone shouted, ‘Two hundred and three,’ everyone laughed particularly loudly. Why was that?” His informant chuckled. “Kohl Well, you see, that one we had never heard before.

”The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” — Peter F. Drucker

Nonverbal communication contains meaning than what is embedded in the words. Yet, few individuals pay much attention to it and the average person is rather clueless as to what it all means. Part of this confusion stems from cultural differences. While a smile is universal, the meaning attached to other facial expressions is determined by culture.

Besides cultural differences there are many different types of nonverbal communication. These include: artifacts, haptics, kinesics, facial expressions, paralanguage, gestures, osculesics, chronemics, interpersonal distance, and body movements (Tubbs, and Moss, 2006).

As you know, emotions and mostly communicated though voice characteristics and facial expressions. If you don’t pay attention to these, it is like having the right eye shut and the left one looking left when it should be looking right. You miss so much.

To make matters worse, many people tend to engage in a form of self-talk. This is a special type of self-talk in which the person speaks, but pays not attention to what to the other person. For example, that classic self-talker really doesn’t care whether their words are understood or confusing.

But periodically, they will come out of their mental masturbation to see that you haven’t left. And of course you will nod politely. They in-term will think that you agree with everything they have just said. It’s not that hard to identify the self-talker, all you have to do is look into the eyes. Besides the problem of self-talk, there are many different types of nonverbal interpersonal communication.

 Asking Questions

Image by Murray Johannsen. Image shows nine different types of questions one can experience during a conversation.
Image by Murray Johannsen. Image shows nine different types of questions one can experience during a conversation.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” — Chinese Proverbs

“Any idiot can state opinion as fact, but it takes a creative mind to ask the right questions.” — Unknown

For some reason, many executives assume that they have to dominate everyone. This is typically done is through communicating in loud voice with a fast tempo, for a long period of time to prevent someone from being able to speak or ask questions. If a question does get asked, the executive has a fall back position — the two-minute tirade of irrelevancy.

The power of questions can be seen in TV shows where during a trial, the defense attorney or a prosecutor can enhance or destroy a witnesses credibility simply by the using well structure questions.

Without improving this verbal communication skill, effective counseling, therapy and group facilitation is essentially impossible.

Questions are one of the most powerful methods of verifying and extracting information from another. The key is to ask the right question since most people answer them honestly. Many fail to recognize that questions have the power to same goal as persuasive statements. Rather then use statements, it’s better to use questions to encourage the person to discover the answer themselves.

Skillful communication with questions is subtle and more indirect. It possesses the additional advantage that the person typically doesn’t become defensive as a result of during interpersonal communication.

Without using this interpersonal communication technique, group facilitation is essentially impossible. Other situations such as therapy will suffer as a result.

Communication Skills that Build Relationships 

A message left by a young girl in a common area to get back her cat. It illustrate the importance of using skillful communication to build relationships and so to be able to influence. It's unknown if she ever found her cat.
A message left by a young girl in a common area to get back her cat. It illustrate the importance of using skillful communication to build relationships and so to be able to influence. It’s unknown if she ever found her cat.

“You never get a second chance to make a positive first impression” — American Saying

“When someone’s character seems impossible to fathom, observe his friends.” — Japanese proverb


A number of studies over the years have indicated that interviews have a relatively low correlation when it comes to predicting future job performance. Despite this low validity, organizations everywhere make interviews a must pass initiation ritual to access corporate riches.

So while interviews are not that valuable to the hiring agency, they are super important to the job seeker who must act, must project, must skillfully communicate in a way that meets the interviewers criteria for the ideal candidate.

Good interpersonal communication skills produce good relationships–it’s are simple and as complex as that. While Americans tend to de emphasize the importance interpersonal communication skills in building relationships due to the use of contracts in business, Other cultures follow a different set of rules.

For cultures in Asia, for example, business doesn’t begin until the relationship is sound. So if one has bad communicate skills, if you can’t form strong interpersonal relationships, you are like a dentist without a drill.

Additionally, certain types of influence techniques require this use of this set of interpersonal communication techniques. One cannot expectations for example. It has been shown in the psychological research that communicating expectations are incredibly important.

In this area: one uses interpersonal communication to:

    • Establish trust
    • Build rapport (or being liked),
    • Generate Empathy, and
    • Create a Positive Impression

Self-Talk As An Interpersonal Communication Skill

Image by: Mas Image by: Mas. You might wonder why self talk in an interpersonal communication skill. Western psychology has a consensus that the mind actually has at least two parts. ideally, the Ego and The Unconscious will have robust lines of communication with each other. But rarely is this the case.
Image by: Mas. You might wonder why self talk in an interpersonal communication skill. Western psychology has a consensus that the mind actually has at least two parts. ideally, the Ego and The Unconscious will have robust lines of communication with each other. But rarely is this the case.

 “I frequently lose arguments with myself.” — Explanation used to explain why a person ate another chocolate just after saying that they were not going to eat any more. 

It’s long been known by psychologists there is an internal verbal dialog occurring within the mind that’s incredibly important to improve. Yet, most of us pay it no mind.

Even good communication skills texts rarely mention that importance of improving the communication between the Ego and the Unconscious. They fail to understand that skilled lines of communication need to be cultivated or you see a lot of, “I don’t do what I’m supposed to do; and do what I shouldn’t do.”

The miscommunication between the Ego and the Unconscious means the mind functions like a young child with two legs that can’t work together. Consequently, you see “drunken walks” and frequent falls. And too often, one goes two steps forward, but three steps back.

You might ask, why self-talk is included in leadership communication? Good question. Most would say that leadership is essentially about influence–how we can influence other others. Yet, if we fail to engage in the right kind of self-talk, our ability to lead, to communicate the proper words in the moment will be severely compromised.

Partly this is due to the power of expectations. It has long been known that what we expect tends to occur. The great writer Ovid in his Metamorphosis wrote this into the story of Pygmalion, the poor sculptor in search of true love. In this case, the power of belief was a positive one and there was a typical Hollywood happy ending. However, people sometimes talk themselves into many unhappy endings. And lets face it, people are not going to follow someone who is not in charge of their own mind.

Self-talk is typically what the Ego thinks about. It’s the internal thoughts that we hold inside and don’t share. So while a leader might project an image of self-confidence, in their own thinking they may have many doubts, doubts that prevent them from taking the right actions.

You never get too good at something things, and you never get too good at interpersonal communication. And no matter how good you are now, you can always get better

Interviewing As an Interpersonal Communication Skill  Set

And without these skills, you won’t do well on Interviews.

What makes interviewing so difficult for many is we don’t do it often enough to get really good at it. The other issue, is that a 20 to 30 minute interview is both high pressure and high stakes. It’s so easy not to say the right thing at the right time.The following interpersonal communication skills come into play during a face-to-face interview.

Two-Way Communication. This is not the moment to be introverted, you really have to engage in the moment and practice two-way communication skills.
Listening Actively. You see it all the time, a person providing the wrong answer to a question because they because they didn’t listen effectively to the question asked.
Developing Relationship. One has a very short period of time to make a positive first impression. If you can master this interpersonal communication skill, you have a good chance of interviewing going well.
Asking Questions. Sure you want to sell yourself, but also you want to find out information about the job in the company that would like to hire you. Most interviewers expect questions on the things you can’t find out through the Internet.
Watch Nonverbal Communication. Very few people can receive non-verbal feedback from another. Airport is here lies in being able to read the face of the person you’re talking to. You really want to know whether what you’re saying is understood or confusing, for example.


Burley-Allen (1995).Listening: The Forgotten Skill. 2nd Edition. Wiley. Another textbook that we often use.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2004).The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. New York: Basic Books.

Bate, Barbara & Taylor (Eds.) (1988).Women Communicating. Norwood, NJ: Ablex

Tannen, Deborah (1991).You Just Don’t Understand : Women and Men in Conversation. This is a classic. It contains many patterns men and women have that lead to miscommunication.

Moss, Stewart, and Tubbs, Sylvia (2006). Human Communication, Principles and Contexts, 11th Edition. New York: Prentice Hall., Don (1998).Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tubbs, Stewart (2009). Human Communication, Principles and Contexts, 12th Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. This is one of our teaching texts for our online communication classes.

Cool Stuff on Communication

Jerry McGuire (1996)

Who said the live of a sports agent is easy? Especially one that this one has an ethics, that caused him to give up and a life in the box for that of an entrepreneur. Most famous line, “Show me the money.”

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

Great show if you want to study the fine art of persuasion or marketing of tobacco products. One gets the impression that working as a lobbyist requires a great deal of fast talking and a really low standard of ethics.

Online Information

Think You Can Pitch: Creatives Break Down Their Art.   One of the better descriptions on the art I have ever run across. Definitely one that’s worth listening to.

Communication Skills Test. This site (called Queendom) has many different types of assessments, many offered for free.

This Fast Company article has a number of communication tips — over 55 of them. These form the basis for something called heuristics — the ability to make a good decision based on available.

The Elevator Pitch. We all need a short elevator pitch to explain what we are doing. More art than science, it needs to be practiced. 

Borchers, Tim (1999).Interpersonal Communication. Allyn and Bacon. This is a nice overview of interpersonal communication. You will find scholarly views on topics such as: relationship development, self-disclosure, patterns and interpersonal conflict.

Leadership Skill Development

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