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The Communication Process
Since success in most aspects of living today is directly related to
communication process is a valid concern. Communicating in itself is
complex. Communicating as instructors is even more so because of
the variations and complexities in the teaching-learning process:
however, an analysis of the four basic elements in the
communication process – sender, message, receiver, and feedback –
should lead to a better understanding of the communication process.
Improvement in communication, therefore, rests, in large measure,
on an understanding of the communication process.
Basic Elements
In its broadest sense, communication results when reaction to stimuli
occurs. More specifically, communication takes place when there is a
meeting of meaning between the person sending the message and the
person receiving it. Effectiveness of communication is determined by
the similarity of the meaning intended by the sender and the meaning
attached by the receiver.
The process of communication consists of four essential elements:
the sender, the message, the receiver, and feedback from the receiver
to the sender. These elements are dynamically interrelated, and that
which affects one influences the other. If a listener has difficulty in
understanding a speaker's message and if he shows his confusion, the
speaker may become uncertain and lose selective control of his own
meaning. Thus, communication effectiveness is diminished. On the
other hand, when a listener reacts favorably, a speaker is encouraged,
and force is added to communication. The relationship between the
communicative elements is not only vital and dynamic, but also
reciprocal. Communication is a complicated, two-way process.
The communicator's effectiveness is related to at least three basic
factors. First, the facility that he has developed in selecting and using
language will, in large measure, determine his ability to select
symbols that are meaningful to his listeners or readers. Second, the
communicator, as a person, consciously or unconsciously reveals
attitudes toward himself as a communicator, toward the ideas that he
is trying to transmit, and toward his receivers. These attitudes must be
positive for him to communicate effectively. He must be confident. He
must indicate a belief that his listeners have a vital need to know his
ideas. Third, a successful communicator speaks or writes from a broad
background of accurate, up-to-date stimulating ideas. Far too often,
speakers and visitors with highly technical backgrounds use words
and terms that are meaningful only to people with similar
backgrounds. Reliance on technical language to convey ideas to any
receiver often impedes effective communication.
energetic, vigorous,
forceful, tending
toward change and
productive activity
At its basic level, communication can be achieved through the use of
simple oral and visual codes. The letters of our alphabet constitute a
basic code when they are combined into words. Common gestures and
facial expressions form another. Words and gestures are seldom
projected in isolation. Ideas are communicated only when symbols are
combined in meaningful wholes and complete messages. Each part of
the whole then becomes important for effective communication.
The speaker must select messages carefully in order to convey ideas
to which receivers can react and which they can understand. The
ideas must be analyzed to determine which are most suited to starting
and concluding the communication and which can clarify, emphasize,
define, limit and explain. These elements form the basis for effective
transmission of meaning from source to receiver. Finally, the
development of messages from simple symbols culminates in a
determination of the medium best suited for their transmission. Most
frequently, communicators select the channels of hearing and seeing.
Occasionally, the channel of feeling — actually touching or
manipulating objects — can be used effectively. The most successful
communicator, however, probably uses a variety of channels to
communicate his ideas.
The effective communicator always remembers a basic rule of thumb:
communication succeeds only in relation to the reaction of the
receiver. When the receiver interprets the symbols to mean what the
sender intends, then, and only then, has true communication taken
For effective communication, the sender must understand at least
three characteristics of receivers: they have abilities, attitudes, and
experiences. First, they exercise their abilities to question and
comprehend the ideas that have been transmitted. The communicator
can capitalize on these abilities by providing an atmosphere that
encourages questioning. Readers do read; listeners do listen.
Understanding receivers' abilities is necessary and vital in the
process of communication. Second, the receivers' attitudes may be
those of resistance, willingness, or passive neutrality. Whatever the
attitude, the source must first gain his receivers' attention and then
retain it. Probably, the more he varies his approach, the more
successful will be the communication. Third, the receivers'
background, experience, and education frame the target at which the
communicator must aim. The latter assumes an obligation to assess
his receivers' knowledge and to use it as his fundamental guide for
the selection and transmittal of ideas. He must first reach his
receivers before he can obtain their reaction.
to reach the highest
Feedback from the receiver to the sender is the fourth and final
element of the communication cycle. Only through the interpretation
of receiver reactions can the sender know what he has communicated
to his readers or listeners. Feedback can vary from formal written
replies concerning written messages to nonverbal reactions in face-toface communication. Feedback for the speaker begins as soon as he
faces his audience, and it continues throughout his speech, providing
him a chance to alter and adjust his speech to meet the needs of his
particular audience.
Barriers to Effective Communication
The nature of language and the ways that it is used often lead to
misunderstandings. These misunderstandings stem primarily from
three barriers to effective communication: the lack of a common core
of experiences, confusion between the symbol and the thing
symbolized, and the overuse of abstractions.
Lack of a Common Core of Experience
Probably the greatest barrier to effective communication is the lack of
a core of experience common to a communicator and a receiver.
Communication can be effective only to the extent that the
experiences (physical, mental, or emotional) of the people concerned
are similar.
Many people believe that words transport meanings from speaker to
listener in the same way that a truck carries bricks from one location
to another. But words do not function in this fashion because they do
not carry meaning from the mind of the communicator to that of the
receiver. Both spoken and written words are mere stimuli that the
communicator sets forth. As stimuli, they arouse a response of some
kind in the receiver's nervous system. The receiver's past experiences
with the words and the things to which they refer determine the
nature of this response. These experiences give the words their
meaning — meaning in the receiver's mind and not m the words
themselves. Since a common core of experience is basic to effective
communication, a communicator's words cannot communicate
meaning to listeners or readers unless they have had some experience
with the objects or concepts to which these words refer.
Confusion between the Symbol and the Thing
Words are simply representations. They represent, or correspond to,
anything that exists, that is experienced, or that people discuss. At
best, language serves as a map. Just as a useful map accurately
represents some specified territory, language should correspond to the
objects or concepts that it represents. Like a map that contains errors,
a statement that contains inaccuracies implies a relationship that does
not exist. Nothing in the nature of language prevents words form
being used as the speaker wishes to use them.
Communicators, however, must realize the danger in confusing
symbols with the things that they symbolize. Effective speakers and
writers should carefully differentiate between symbols and the things
that they represent.
Overuse of Abstractions
Concrete words refer to objects that human beings can experience
directly. Abstract words, on the other hand, stand for ideas that
cannot be experienced directly, for things that do not call forth mental
images in the minds of receivers. Suppose that a certain space shuttle
is named Atlantis. The space shuttle Atlantis is concrete. It can be
touched, seen, and heard. Since it is concrete, its name represents a
concrete reality. The name immediately brings a particular image to
mind. If, however, a communicator who has seen the Atlantis says, "I
saw a space shuttle," his listeners do not form a mental image of the
Atlantis because there are space shuttles of many different names. If
the communicator says, "I saw a space vehicle," he is using a phrase
so abstract that his listeners are likely to form mental images that etc
not resemble the Atlantis in any way.
Abstract words are necessary and useful. Their purpose is not to bring
forth specific items of experience in the minds of receptors but to
serve as shorthand symbols that sum up vast areas of experience. The
abstraction of "Air Force Management." for example, cannot be
directly experienced, but the term causes the receiver to think of
certain related Air Force activities. For the sake of convenience, the
catchall label "Air Force Management" is applied 10 these related
activities. If communicators were forced to use only concrete words,
they would soon bog down in details.
Although abstractions are convenient and useful, they can lead to
misunderstanding. The danger in using them is that they will not
evoke in a listener's mind the specific items of experience that
communicators intend. The receiver has no way of knowing what
experiences the speaker or writer intends an abstraction to conjure. A
common practice in the military is to use such abstract terms as
"proper measures" and "corrective action." These terms alone fail to
convey the communicator's intent. When abstractions are used in
communication, they should be linked with specific experiences
through examples and illustrations. Even better, the level of
abstraction should be reduced by using concrete and specific words
as much as possible. By using concrete words, the communicator
narrows, and gains better control of, the image produced in me minds
of listeners and readers.
something that
covers a variety of
bog down:
to sink and become
stuck in, as in a mire
The Communication Gap
The communication process begins with some meaning that the
sender wishes to communicate to one or more receivers. The meaning
is "private" to the sender because only he knows exactly what he is
trying to communicate. He puts the meaning into messages that are
interpreted by the receiver. The interpretation of the message is
"private" to the receiver because he, and only he, knows the meaning
that he • attaches to the symbols. The difference between the intended
meaning of the sender and the interpreted meaning of the receiver is
known as the communication gap. As the barriers to communication
increase in number or intensity, the communication gap widens.
Feedback occurs in communication when the receiver, through verbal
or nonverbal means, indicates his interpretation of the original
message. Through careful attention to feedback, the sender can best
estimate the communication yap that exists between him and his
receiver. Effective communication requires that both the sender and
the receiver work to reduce the barriers to communication as much as
possible, and the receiver must provide feedback to the sender. In this
sense, effective communication is a circular process; that is, as a result
of feedback, the sender revises his message as many times as
necessary to achieve a meeting of meaning between himself and the
An understanding of the communicative process is essential if a person
wishes to become a more effective communicator. Recognition of the
four basic elements in the process — the sender, the message, the
receiver, and feedback — is the beginning of understanding.
Recognizing the characteristics of each element and using this
recognition as a basis for increased understanding can help a
communicator to overcome inherent barriers in transmitting ideas and
feelings. Military instructors need to be effective communicators if they
expect to teach well and if their students are to learn.
Source: "Individual and Group Communications," from Air University Staff
Communications Course (AU - l, Vol. 1). Reprinted by permission.