Nine Principles of Human Communication


“Generally, when verbal and non-verbal messages contradict each other, people tend to believe the non-verbal more than the verbal messages”

New Horizons

courtesy of De Gruyter publishing


In my previous blog, I looked at 7 Myths of Human Communication, and how they relate to leadership & management. In this blog, I will focus on 9 Principles that underpin effective communication.

The source of information for both of these blogs is an excellent book that I have recently read called “New Horizons in Patient Safety: Understanding Communication by, Hannawa, Wu & Juhasz (published by De Gruyter).

These principles remind us just how difficult it is to achieve a shared understanding with another person. One has to wonder if we ever really understand what is intended by another person.

Principle 1: Communication varies between thought, symbol and referent

According to Annegret Hannawa, human communication is “fundamentally an interactive meaning-making process”. Put simply, we use the joint creation and interpretation of symbols (words, gesture, images etc) to try to achieve shared understanding. So, our thoughts are encoded into symbols and behaviours (which have no intrinsic meaning of their own). This leads to the first challenge of “making meaning”, as there needs to be enough “common ground” for both parties to achieve a shared understanding.

Principle 2: Communication is a non-summative process

“Human communication is an interpersonal process that involves much more than the mere sum of its components” (Hannawa).

The assignment of symbols happens within an individual, but the meaning-making process (i.e. communication) happens between people. Because of this, communication cannot “breakdown” as it was not guaranteed in the first place. However, it can malfunction and the wrong meaning can be attributed to message being transmitted.

Principle 3: Communication is functional

Communication works best when it is purely factual but the nature of human relationships is such that often people are not interested in communicating purely factual information. The introduction of humour, sarcasm, persuasion etc. makes it more challenging for a true “shared meaning” to be achieved.

Principle 4: Communication is more than words

It is often said that “the meaning of the communication is the response it produces”.

Communication is more than just an exchange of words. We cannot “not” communicate. Silence can communicate just as much as words. In everyday interactions, we are interpreting both verbal and non-verbal symbols or signals. Generally, when verbal and non-verbal messages contradict each other, people tend to believe the non-verbal more than the verbal messages (Sellers & Beall, 2000)

Principle 5: Communication entails both factual and relational information

“In the same way that verbal messages are always accompanied by non-verbal messages, factual messages are always accompanied by relational messages” (Hannawa). The relationship between those communicating (social, status etc) plays a crucial part in how the communication is interpreted. It is not just what is said, and how  it is said, but the relationship between the individuals that will impact upon the “meaning” for the recipient

Principle 6: Communication is contextual

The meaning of a communicated message largely depends on the context in which it is encoded and received. This builds on Principles 4 & 5. Hannawa describes 5 different contexts that can come into play:

  • Functional (the goals of the interaction)
  • Relational (see Principle 5)
  • Environmental (the physical setting)
  • Chronological (the timing and sequencing as well as the timeliness)
  • Cultural (including beliefs)

These factors are particularly significant in interactions between line management and their reports

Principle 7: Preconceptions and perceptions vary among communicators

“Our individual life experiences contribute to idiosyncratic preconceptions and perceptions of communicated messages and behaviours” (Hannawa). Communication is an interactive negotiation to bridge these idiosyncrasies and establish “common ground”. This is the foundation for co-constructing a shared understanding.

Principle 8: Redundancy in content and directness in channel enhance accuracy

The appropriate repetition of content (see relevancy, primacy and recency) can enhance communication. Choice of communication channel can also have an impact, with direct face-to-face communication being superior to more indirect channels. It seems that having access from as many senses as possible can have an impact on achieving a shared understanding. this is un-surprising, given that we tend to trust non-verbal over verbal messages.

Principle 9: Communication is equifinal and multi-final

Reading principles 1-8 you might conclude that communication is random, but it is not. In fact, these principles tell us that there may be many different ways to achieve a shared understanding. With experience we can learn to choose the best route to achieve the desired result. For instance, sometime a person in authority needs to use that authority (tell assertive) to avert disaster (e.g. the chief surgeon in the operating theatre). However, in a different context a more persuasive (ask assertive) approach may be better (e.g. as a supervisor helping a junior with their career plan). No single tactic works all of the time.

There are many possible paths to the same outcome (equifinal) and many possible outcomes to the same path (multi-final).

Excellent communication requires us to be as aware of, and as open minded as possible to these 9 principles.

Mark De Cosemo is a Consultant, Trainer & Coach teaching influential communication across a variety of business sectors.


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