Interpersonal communication can be defined as the process of exchanging messages between people whose lives mutually influence one another. This kind of communication involves two or more people who are interdependent. For example, the communication you engage in with family, friends, and peers is considered interpersonal communication, as illustrated in Figure 3.1. Interpersonal communication builds, maintains, and evolves relationships, so it is foundational to many aspects of everyday life.
Figure 3.1: Example of interpersonal communication
Interpersonal communication is interactive and structured by social expectations, including unspoken norms that are assumed or taken for granted during language exchange. These norms are often culturally influenced and contextually relevant, but although they are instituted early in life, they are not immutable – they change and evolve over time. For example, how you greet people (vocal intonation, whether you address someone by their prefix, whether you shake hands or bow) can change over the years. Furthermore, social expectations are shaped by the parties involved, so how you speak with friends will be different from how you speak with a professor, for example.
Interpersonal communication is also usually goal-oriented and fulfills instrumental and relational needs.
- Instrumental needs are focused on the goal of achieving a specific outcome. For example, you may speak with your roommate about what to cook for dinner, or speak with a professor about how to position yourself for success in a course.
- Relational needs are focused on the goal of evolving a relationship or communicating the uniqueness of a specific relationship. This goal usually involves meeting the needs of an individual person as well as the shared needs of the parties involved. For example, two nurses may have a conversation to resolve a conflict they have been having.
One type of interpersonal communication that will be important in your work as a healthcare professional is interprofessional communication. Let’s move on and explore this type of communication!
Activity: Check Your Understanding