Last Updated on May 17, 2022 by Allen Stafford

What is Communication? Communication Defined, and its Three Fundamental Qualities

Audio Version — 7:56

What is Communication?

Some may argue that communication occurs between all living creatures on Earth. Pet owners will testify that their dogs and cats “speak” with them and amongst each other. My point is not that your pets don’t communicate with you, but that the topic of animal and insect communication is beyond the scope of this article. In this context, I will concentrate on human communication. The sharing of information between two people and the three fundamental qualities that make it unique to humans.

Communication is a complex process. It is often difficult to determine when and where a communication encounter begins and where it ends. Think about the last time you verbally spoke with someone. Who started the conversation? Who ended the conversation? Did the conversation begin with the first utterance of words, or did a nonverbal cue or a visual message printed on a billboard or t-shirt start it? Perhaps it was a subconscious nonverbal reaction to a visual message. Despite what triggered the conversation — verbal, non-verbal, conscious, or unconscious — millions of us continue to engage in back-and-forth exchanges every second of every day.

Definition of Communication

In their book, The Functions of Human Communication: A Theoretical Approach, Frank Dance and Carl E. Larson noted that there are over 126 definitions of communication. After all, communication carries many meanings that range from messages printed on T-shirts, to presidential speeches, to non-verbal types such as body language, and visual or symbolic displays designed to “communicate” or incite emotional responses.

However, to establish a working definition for this article and as a reference for all current and future posts on the website that relate to the subject, I define communication as the process of transmitting and receiving verbal and nonverbal symbols and signs influenced by multiple contexts.

Our working definition exposes three fundamental qualities that form the foundation of communication that make it unique to humans. It is relational, it’s a process, and it’s symbolic. A closer look at each quality is required.

Three Fundamental Qualities of Human Communication

Venn Diagram of Human Communication Characteristics

It’s Relational

Communication is an act that we do with others rather than something we do to them. Communication depends on a partner’s involvement. Just like two figure skaters working together, communicators must also work together. Prominent figure skating duos must work to adapt to one another’s abilities or skill levels. If the skaters cannot work together and adapt, their figure skating routine suffers, and the results can be devastating. Like the figure skaters, there’s no difference between two people communicating. Both communicators are in a relationship and, to improve their understanding and communication, they must adapt and coordinate their efforts with one another.

Since communication is relationship-based, it is usually incorrect to assume that just one individual is responsible for a relationship. Two people are responsible for the relationship’s success or failure. Consequently, the two people in the relationship are also responsible for communicating effectively. Instead of blaming one another for a poor outcome, it is better to ask: “How did we handle the conversation or situation poorly, and how can we improve it?”

It’s a Process

We tend to view communication as a series of isolated, discrete, individual acts. However, to the contrary, communication is a process and often a complex process. When you communicate, there are many processes occurring simultaneously that influences the communication process. For example, a co-worker approaches you and compliments you on your presentation at the company meeting. They may something like,

“Roger, you did an outstanding job of addressing all the important issues for our department at today’s company meeting. I like how you used personal stories to convey the message.”

A long history of experiences influences the way you interpret the words of your colleague and the manner you respond to them. For example, you may involve thoughts of how others judge your presentations in your past. How you felt about the presentation yourself? How you feel about the colleague complimenting you? Are they sincere or do they have a record of being insincere? These thoughts, paired with other external and internal “noise” factors, play a part in the process of how you communicate your response to your colleague.

The simplified process illustrates that communication is not one act strung together, but a dynamic and fluid concept that requires many processes before the response is uttered. Most of which are done simultaneously and often subconsciously.

It’s Symbolic

The words we use represent people, ideas, and events, allowing us to communicate about them. Thus, the words we speak are mere symbols which we assign meaning to and accept that meaning as a collective group. The symbols are arbitrary. There is no logical reason that the word doors represents what it stands for. Another word, in English, would work perfectly fine for “door” if everyone agreed upon the word.

We must interpret symbols in the same way in order to understand one another. Communication may become conflictual if we do not interpret symbols the same way. The results of conflict can lead to disagreements, separation, or even war. Take, for example, the two major political parties in the United States. Both interpret symbols differently. They believe differently in the symbolism of freedom or individual rights. There may be similarities in meaning between the two political groups on certain ideas, but on others, the meaning can be different, contributing to the acrimonious atmosphere of American politics.

Final Thoughts

We tend to take communication for granted. We assume communication is a linear process that occurs in isolated, discrete acts with another person. Communication is in fact a complex process that considers many variables from a communicators’ history, the receivers’ history, and external factors occurring at the time of communication.

Despite its complexity, communication occurs every moment of every day, both verbally and non-verbally between humans. While there is an argument for communication with animals, what makes human communication unique is its three fundamental characteristics: It is relational, follows a process, and is symbolic.

Communication Activity: What Initially Triggered Your Conversation?

The next time you engage in a conversation with another person, note what might have triggered the conversation? Was it their gaze or smile? Did you overhear them in another conversation and it triggered a response or question from you? Was it a symbol on their clothing or somewhere else? Also, take note of your thoughts of how the other person is communicating with you and your perceptions of how you may think they are perceiving you. Keeping a notebook of your interactions and thoughts can help lead you to become an effective and consciousness communicator.