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.


The Call Centre – Smiley, Happy People (Sell)

The Call Centre – Smiley Happy People (Sell)

negotiationWelcome to a new fly-on-the-wall documentary series which follows the staff of a Call Centre in Swansea. This programme is going to split opinion, as 10 years on from The Office, we see that David Brent is alive and kicking in the form of Nev Wilshire, CEO.

Although he claims never to seen The Office, Nev appears to have the same leadership philosophy; “Happy People Sell”. Its hard to know what impact the cameras have, but the staff working for Nev appear to love him. I’m sure his approach is marmite, and those who stay thrive in it. Those who don’t leave. We did see Nev’s “gut feel” approach to recruitment in action, where he is apparently more interested in character and personality than ability. This approach is consistent with Nev’s yellow/Expressive Social Style. That the business is thriving suggests he’s on to something.

What Nev does have is a clear vision of the type of organisation he wants (“Happy People Sell”) and the values that spring from this vision; energy, fun, and loyalty. Each of these values is illustrated in the programme;

  • energy with Nev getting the new recruits to start their training with a compulsory karaoke  of The Killer’s “Mr Bright Side”
  • fun with the speed dating set up to get Kayleigh in admin happy again
  • and loyalty to Hayley, who cannot cut it as a telesales agent, but finds her niche as the tea lady

On the evidence of the programme, it is shown to have some success, but encouraging laddish behaviour is also shown to have its downsides. Witness a prank taken too far with Hayley’s teabags, sugar and spoons being hidden from her. The joke is carried on too long and she ends up going to her line manager in tears. Neve states that HR “totally despair of me” and exist to keep him (and everyone else) on the straight and narrow.

This was a good first episode which soon progressed from The Office to a more meditative essay on management and leadership and the cost of running your own business. Nev has had his up and downs (millionaire at 28, business failure at 38, successful but divorced at 53) . It becomes obvious that his work is his life, and he acts like a benevolent parent to his children/staff. I can’t wait to see how this series develops over its 5 week run.

Sales – the oldest profession

We have all been told what the oldest profession is, but of course, it is actually sales. Think about it, before someone can pay for your services they have to be sold!

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears young salesman (long, long ago), I was introduced to a simple concept that had an amazing effect on my sales success. Here’s how it goes…

The world is full of problems and one way of looking at selling is as a form of problem solving. As sales people we aim to use our products or services to overcome problems the customer may be having.

However, obviously we can’t fix every problem. A problem that our product can fix is called an opportunity in sales and marketing terms. Now, many inexperienced sales people are good at recognising opportunities, and they go straight for the jugular with a feature-benefit volley. But they don’t get the sale. Why not?

Well, successful sales people know that it’s meeting a customer need that persuades the customer to buy. A need is a problem that your product can fix and the customer wants fixing.

So, next time you are in front of your customer and you recognise an opportunity, take a breath and just confirm with the customer that it is actually a need. A simple question like, “and is having that important to you?”, answered in the affirmative tells you all you need to know and now is the time to let rip with the features and benefits. Of course, if the customer says “no” then you will have to find a new angle to explore.

If you are struggling with getting sales, try this approach and you’ll be amazed at the results. If you are still not convinced, why not contact me for some one-to-one coaching or attend my next Sales and Marketing Master Class.

Happy selling!

Influential communication – does body language matter?

The fundamental purpose of influential communication is to persuade others to behave the way you want them to. This has numerous applications in sales, marketing, leadership and management. A key question in trying to do this is “does body language matter?” The simple answer is “yes it does!”

The Social Styles model was developed over 40 years ago and has been refined and expanded since that time. Social Styles can be used to influence the behaviour of others, and at the heart of this model is the reading and adaptation of behaviour; first our own, then that of other people. But where does the evidence come from that adapting body language is important?

Back in the 1970s, a researcher at the University of California in Los Angeles identified the importance of body language to verbal communication. Now, the work of Professor Albert Mehrabian has often been misquoted and used to explain / justify much beyond his original work, but the gist of what he found is as follows: getting our message across to other people is about much more than just choosing the right words.

In fact, Mehrabian showed that words only contribute about 7% to the effectiveness of communication, with tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%) being much more important. In particular, it seems that we need more than just the words to decide whether we believe the speaker (or even to decide if they believe what they are saying ).

That is not to say that the words are unimportant. Change the words and you change the meaning. However, the words are not enough on their own.

Still not convinced? Well, just think about how the intent behind the words becomes more ambiguous as we move from face-to- face communication, to telephone, to e-mail and txt!

Notice that according to Mehrabian, over half of the message we take from verbal communication comes from reading body language. Now, most of this is going on at a subconscious level, but it does make sense. For instance, we are able to discern possible danger to ourselves by interpreting body language, and this has been a vital survival mechanism throughout human evolution. You disagree? Well, next time you see someone coming towards you with a bloody knife and a deranged expression on their face what will you do; take precautions, or wait to confirm your worst fears with a simple verbal, “do you intend me some harm?”

So, body language does matter and Social Styles allows us to maximise the 93% of communication that Mehrabian says is vital to understanding and influencing other people. Clearly this is key to successful sales, marketing, leadership and management.

Learn more about Albert Mehrabian