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date: 18 February 2020

Communication Skill and Competence

Summary and Keywords

Longstanding interest in communication skill and communication competence is fueled by the facts that people do differ in their social proficiency and that the quality of one’s communicative performance has significant impact on professional and personal success and satisfaction. The related terms “communication skill” and “communication competence” are first defined and distinguished. With this conceptual framework in place, consideration is then given to: (1) taxonomies of interpersonal communication skills, (2) properties of behavior associated with greater effectiveness and appropriateness, (3) the process of adult communication skill acquisition, (4) barriers and impediments to competent communication, (5) essential elements of skill-training programs, and (6) methods of skill and competence assessment.

Keywords: communication competence, communication skill, interpersonal communication, message production, skill acquisition, skill training, social skill


At the outset it is important to specify the focus of this article (and, by extension, to identify topic areas that are either not addressed or only peripherally addressed here). Briefly, the primary concern here is with message-production and -processing abilities among so-called “normal” adult populations. Thus, issues of children’s language acquisition and skills deficits among groups with various physiological and cognitive disorders are not addressed. Moreover, primary attention is given here to spoken and nonverbal components of message behavior and less to written communication skills. Beyond this, emphasis is given to message production and processing in face-to-face, interpersonal contexts, with lesser attention to public speaking, mediated exchanges, and so on. Finally, even though portions of this treatment do bear upon adult second-language acquisition, that literature is not reviewed here.

Even when restricting the focus along these lines, as will become apparent, the literature on communication skill and competence remains enormously broad. This extensive body of research and theory has been motivated by a pair of straightforward observations: first, that message production and processing may be carried out well or poorly, and second, that the quality of one’s message-related activities has very real implications for both immediate and long-term outcomes (in short, communication skills matter). These two simple facts have given rise to a fascination with studying what constitutes superior communication performance, and with techniques for enhancing performance, that has thrived for millennia (see Hargie, 2006).

The first foundational premise (i.e., that there are differences in communication performance quality), is explored in detail below, but for now, suffice it to say that doubtless every person has experienced interactions where what they did and said went well as well as those unfortunate instances that they wished they could “do over.” And there is a corollary of the variation-in-quality observation of particular note—this being that there are individual differences in the propensity to perform well or poorly. That is, there are some individuals who rather consistently perform well (in at least some communication contexts or tasks) and there are their counterparts who struggle in those same situations. These individual differences in ability are, of course, at the very heart of what it means to possess “communication skills” (see Greene, in press), and again, that topic is the focus of much of what follows.

Turning to the second basic observation—that communication skills matter—it appears true beyond gainsaying that communication skills are associated with more positive interaction outcomes: more skillful salespersons are more likely to close a deal, better public speakers to sway a crowd of listeners, and a “smooth talker” more likely to succeed in wooing the object of his or her affection. And in point of fact, considerable evidence supports such intuitive conclusions. For example, in the context of securing employment and subsequent career success, studies show that communication skills are associated with more positive hiring decisions (e.g., Ugbah & Evuleocha, 1992; Waldron & Lavitt, 2000), job performance (e.g., Penley, Alexander, Jernigan, & Henwood, 1991; Riggio & Taylor, 2000; see also Ferris, Witt, & Hochwarter, 2001; Witt & Ferris, 2003), and promotion and career advancement (e.g., Reinsch & Gardner, 2014). Not surprisingly, then, employers rank communication skills among the most valued attributes of potential hires (see, e.g., Gabric & McFadden, 2001; Maes, Weldy, & Icenogle, 1997) and judge such skills to be “essential for success” in the workplace (Patterson & Ritts,, 1997). In a similar vein, college graduates view their undergraduate courses in communication as primary influences on their career success (Stevens, 2005).

Moreover, the impact of communication skill is not limited to job and career success. With regard to the social arena of life, more skillful communicators enjoy greater dating success, higher levels of relationship satisfaction (see Buhrmester, Furman, Wittenberg, & Reis, 1988; Burleson, 1995; Burleson & Denton, 1997; Flora & Segrin, 1999), and less self-reported loneliness (e.g., Segrin & Flora, 2000). And, given that communication skill is associated with more positive experiences in work and relationship contexts, it should not be surprising to find that such skills are associated with psychological, and even physiological, well-being (see Riggio, Watring, & Throckmorton, 1993; Segrin, 1999).

As a final point in setting the stage for what is to come, the reader should note that the juxtaposition of the two foundational premises described above constitutes something of a “communication skills paradox”: although possessing communication skills has far-reaching implications for people’s lives, message making and processing is often far from optimal and skill deficits are common. And there is yet one additional element to this paradox: just as we might expect that people would excel in activities that have so much impact on their lives, we might also expect that they would be good judges of their communication abilities. But this, too, is often not true. In one widely cited survey, for example, 60% of high-school seniors judged themselves to be among the top 10% in leadership ability, and only 2% judged themselves to be below average (see Baumeister, 1998, p. 690).

The Nature of Communication Skill and Communication Competence

Given the enduring and extensive nature of the scholarly study of communication skill and competence noted above, it might be reasonable to expect that basic definitional issues would have long since been resolved (i.e., that we would have some consensus about the very meaning of “communication skill” and “communication competence”). That, however, is not the current state of affairs. Indeed, one writer likened defining competence to “trying to climb a greased pole” (Phillips, 1984, p. 25), and other authors have questioned whether an adequate definition of “social skills” will ever be developed (Segrin & Givertz, 2003, p. 136).

Fully recognizing that there are differing definitional perspectives, and attendant conceptual difficulties (see Hargie, 2006; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2011; Wilson & Sabee, 2003), in the context of the present project, certain definitional conventions have been adopted. First, although the terms “communication skill” and “communication competence” are used interchangeably in some treatments, it is useful to make a distinction between the two. At the same time, while it is possible to differentiate “communication skill,” “social skill,” “interpersonal skill,” etc., those distinctions are not particularly important in the current context, and no effort is made to maintain them.

Regarding the overarching distinction, then, between “skill” and “competence,” the approach here is to identify “skills” as specific behaviors and behavioral abilities and “competence” as the perceptions or evaluations of those behaviors and abilities. This approach borrows from Spitzberg (e.g., 2003, p. 95), who defines communication skills as “actual behaviors manifested in the attempt to accomplish some goal” and communication competence as “the evaluation of the quality of the performed behavior.” The present treatment departs slightly from Spitzberg’s formulation in that “skill” is taken to include not just “actual behaviors,” but “behavioral abilities”—just as a master woodworker would be considered to possess a certain set of skills even when those abilities are not in evidence at any particular moment. It is also significant to note that, on the present view, “behaviors” need not be overt in that the term is taken to encompass thought and cognition, including powers of observation, interpretation, inference, and planning.

A third feature of the current construal of the term “skill” is that the focus on behavior (i.e., things that people do) makes it distinct from personality traits, or relatively enduring, general behavioral dispositions. Thus although “Big Five” personality traits (see Wiggins, 1996) such as extroversion and agreeableness might be associated with more adept social behavior, the traits themselves are not taken to constitute skills. A final attribute of the concept of skill as it is used here is that skills are acquired, that is, they develop over time through utilization and refinement—just as a child learns to read over a period of years. The process of skill acquisition is addressed in detail below.

Turning, then, to “communication competence,” as noted above, and again, following Spitzberg (e.g., 2003), the concept of “competence” centers on the evaluation of the quality of a person’s behavior. “Quality,” of course, can be established with respect to any number of criteria (e.g., clarity, ethics, efficiency; see Spitzberg & Cupach, 2011), but most commonly competence has been taken to involve considerations of effectiveness and appropriateness (see, e.g., Rubin, 1990; Segrin & Givertz, 2003; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984; Wiemann, 1977). That is, the competent communicator is one who is able to accomplish his or her interaction goals while also adhering to situational standards of proper conduct. It is certainly possible for a person to achieve the desired ends by bullying or threatening, and a person may be so socially polite and respectful that personal goals go unmet, but in neither case would such behavior be perceived as optimally competent.

Taxonomies of Fundamental Interpersonal Communication Skills

Given that communication skills are “behaviors and behavioral abilities,” the next obvious point is to ask precisely what “abilities” are in question (i.e., what skills does the competent communicator possess?). On this point there are any number of lists and compendia, derived in various ways, some more (and others less) exhaustive and some more (and others less) parsimonious.

Perhaps the most obvious, and common, approach to identifying interpersonal skill domains involves construction of ad hoc lists of skills relevant to particular contexts. An example is found in Burleson’s (e.g., 1990) specification of eight communication skills pertinent to interpersonal relationships: (1) comforting, (2) ego support, (3) conflict management, (4) persuasion, (5) conversational skill (i.e., the ability to initiate, carry on, and terminate casual conversations), (6) narrative ability (e.g., gossip, telling stories and jokes), (7) regulative skill (i.e., modifying another’s nonnormative behavior while helping to repair that violation), and (8) referential ability (i.e., conveying information in a clear, unambiguous way). Of note is that subsequent research (e.g., Burleson & Samter, 1990) has indicated that, of these, ego support is rated most important for same-sex, college-aged friendships, and persuasive skill is rated least important. Moreover, while there may be some slight sex differences in ratings of skill importance, the same general patterns also hold for romantic relationships (Burleson, Kunkel, Samter, & Werking, 1996).

Other formulations are less ad hoc, grounded instead in an analysis of communication functions or processes. Greene and McNallie (2015), for example, sought to describe the various types of knowledge resources that a person would need to possess in order to communicate in an appropriate and effective manner. They identified five general knowledge domains that communicators draw upon in interactions with others: (1) message production and processing—this category includes basic understandings involved in encoding and decoding verbal and nonverbal behaviors (e.g., word meanings, rules of syntax, Grice’s [1975] conversational maxims, norms governing nonverbal behaviors), scripts for routine sorts of interactions, and content knowledge of specific topic domains (e.g., Major League baseball, Ethiopian cuisine, mathematics); (2) social coordination—knowledge of how to carry out greetings and turn-taking, active listening and appropriate responsiveness, how to make meaningful and intelligible contributions to a conversation, etc.; (3) self-regulation—including knowledge of how to manage one’s behavior in socially appropriate ways, beliefs about one’s social roles and abilities, etc.; (4) negotiation of “social reality” (i.e., individual identities, relationships, and situations)—including such things as face-saving strategies, conceptions of relationship types (e.g., parent—child; teacher—student), assertiveness and conflict management, etc.; and (5) pursuit of task goals—including such things as knowledge pertaining to appropriate goal setting, planning steps to achieve those goals, anticipating possible responses on the part of one’s interlocutors, and evaluating potential messages in advance of actual production.

A third method for specifying skill domains is to ground the analysis in some particular conceptual or theoretical framework. For example, Parks’s (1994) treatment is grounded in Powers’s (1973) seminal discussion of cybernetic control systems, which identifies nine hierarchical levels of increasingly abstract perceptual control that Parks extends to the realm of interpersonal interaction. At the lowest levels of Powers’s hierarchy (i.e., “intensity control,” “sensation control,” “configuration control,” “transition control”), Parks includes basic sensory and motor abilities involved in accurate perception of the environment and skilled motor control. Parks relates the fifth level of Powers’s framework, “sequence control,” to the ability to smoothly integrate and coordinate one’s behaviors with those of his or her interlocutors. “Relationship control,” Powers’s sixth level, is construed by Parks to encompass people’s ability to perceive, and make use of, relationship information of various types (e.g., cause-effect, set-subset, probabilities, etc.). Specific ties to research in communication pertinent to this level include the ability to adapt one’s message behavior to the characteristics of the other and the situation, the ability to arrive at inferences and attributions (as well as tendencies to commit common attributional errors and biases), and the ability to lie and equivocate. Level seven, “program control,” encompasses familiar conceptions of “scripts,” “schemata,” “plans,” and so on, that the actor can draw up in guiding his or her own behavior and in making sense of the behavior of others, the upshot here being that a broader, better suited, and more accessible repertoire of “program-relevant” information is more likely to lead to appropriate and effective behavior. Level eight, “principle control,” includes abilities related to goal-setting, behavioral monitoring, and abilities related to addressing failures and social errors. Finally, at the top of Powers’s hierarchy is “system concept control”—in essence, the level at which self-relevant ideations (e.g., self-concept, self-esteem) are brought to bear in regulating and guiding one’s actions.

Other approaches to identifying fundamental interpersonal skills are more empirically driven. An example of an almost wholly empirically based treatment is found in Heggestad and Morrison (2008), which relies completely on existing operationalizations (i.e., self-report scales and other measures) to arrive at a specification of the components that make up the domain of “interpersonal effectiveness.” These researchers administered a number of potentially relevant measures, consisting of more than 500 individual items, to a group of respondents and then conducted exploratory factor analysis on those data.

This analysis produced a four-factor solution, which the authors identified as: (1) social potency—comfort and confidence, a desire to exert control, and an ability to adapt one’s behavior to the situation, (2) social appropriateness—being courteous and well mannered and evidencing a concern for others, (3) social emotion expression—experiencing and expressing emotion, and (4) social reputation—a concern with impression management and acting to protect or enhance one’s image. Additional analyses conducted on this same data set indicated that measures of “emotional intelligence” did not load on these four factors but, instead, tapped a fifth, separate dimension only slightly correlated with the first four.

Yet another approach to developing a taxonomy of interpersonal skills is a hybrid of the ad hoc and data-based approaches discussed thus far. An example is found in Buhrmester, Furman, Wittenberg, and Reis (1988), where the authors began by surveying the relevant literature to identify “task domains” associated with competence in peer relationships. On the basis of this review the authors identified five competence domains: (1) initiation of interactions and relationships, (2) negative assertion (i.e., assertion of personal rights and displeasure with others), (3) self-disclosure, (4) emotional support, and (5) conflict management. Buhrmester et al. then developed a battery of self-report scale items designed to tap these dimensions and conducted confirmatory factor analyses on subject responses. Results of these analyses generally supported their five-factor model for both same-sex friend and romantic-partner relationships. Of note is that these dimensions were moderately correlated, indicating that people strong in one area also tended to report that they were good in other domains, but by the same token, the fact that these correlations were only moderate in size suggests that individuals may be more skilled in some domains than others.

A pair of concluding points concerning the preceding review of various methods employed to derive lists of interpersonal skills, and the specific results of those projects, merit note here. First, although the individual treatments do differ in their focus, assumptive foundations, and methodological approaches, there is a marked convergence on identification of certain skill sets. Although not completely uniform, across a number of treatments certain skills do emerge again and again, including: (1) fidelity/accuracy in message production and input processing, (2) interaction regulation/management, (3) self-presentation and self-control (including emotional control and expression), (4) social support, and (5) conflict management.

Second, no review of projects aimed at identifying essential interpersonal skill domains would be complete without mention of the analysis presented by Spitzberg and Cupach (2011). These authors offer a relatively comprehensive listing of more than 100 skill-related constructs that, based on factor-analytic results, they group into four subsets: (1) attentiveness/altercentrism, (2) composure, (3) coordination, and (4) expressiveness. This list is augmented by three additional sets of skill-relevant constructs: (5) “contextual competencies” (e.g., heterosocial contact, relations with authority figures), (6) “macrolevel competencies” (e.g., awareness, similarity), and (7) “outcomes” (e.g., appropriateness, effectiveness). Beyond the breadth of their survey, the second noteworthy contribution in Spitzberg and Cupach is their emphasis on the idea that “interpersonal skills” can be apprehended at three levels of abstraction. At a “microlevel” are specific behavioral abilities and tendencies (e.g., head nods, vocal volume); at their “mezzolevel” are the aforementioned behavioral domains (i.e., attentiveness, composure, etc.); and, finally, at a “macrolevel,” and borrowing from Horney (1945) and others, Spitzberg and Cupach suggest that skills can be classified in terms of their use to move “with or toward,” “away from,” or “against” another person.

Principles of Communication Competence

As noted above, it is useful to make a distinction between “communication skills” (taken here to refer to “behaviors and behavioral abilities”) and “communication competence” (i.e., evaluations of behavioral quality). With the preceding review of interpersonal skills in place, then, attention can be turned to a consideration of the link between skills and competence. In essence, the issue is one of mapping from behaviors to evaluations.

One approach to this “mapping problem” is strictly empirical—that is, to examine statistical relationships between various behaviors and social evaluations. Perhaps the best example of such an approach is found in a meta-analysis reported by Spitzberg and Dillard (2002). Without attempting to recapitulate their readily available results here, suffice it to say that mean correlations, where significant, tend to be moderate in size (on the order of .2–.4) and in the expected directions (i.e., positive for behaviors such as gaze, smiling, asking questions, paying compliments; negative for adaptors and response latency).

Other approaches to the behavior → competence mapping problem draw upon reviews of relevant literature to arrive at general principles of communication competence. The earliest, and best known, of these efforts is that presented by Wiemann (1977). Based on a survey of relevant research and theory, Wiemann posits five behavioral attributes that contribute to effective and appropriate interactions: (1) affiliation/support, (2) social relaxation, (3) empathy, (4) behavioral flexibility, and (5) interaction-management skills (this last he terms the sine qua non [“without which there is nothing”] of communication competence). In an initial test of his model, Wiemann found that competence ratings of videotaped interactions in which confederates demonstrated increasingly adept interaction management were correspondingly more positive.

A more recent project aimed at specifying behavioral features associated with perceptions of social competence is found in Greene (2009a). Greene notes that although it is certainly the case that the behaviors that are most appropriate and effective will vary from situation to situation, it is still possible to arrive at certain general principles that pertain to perceptions of communication competence. He identifies seven of these, which he divides into two groups: five “basic” principles and two “overarching” tenets. Greene’s basic principles, then, are:

  1. (1) Behavior that reflects an “other orientation” tends to be perceived as more communicatively competent. On balance, behaviors that convey interest and responsiveness to one’s conversational partners are perceived more positively than actions that appear to convey boredom, disinterest, or self-absorption.

  2. (2) Behavior that reflects a higher level of energy tends to be perceived as more communicatively competent. Behaviors that are more animated, expressive, and energetic tend to be associated with more positive evaluations than behaviors that are lethargic, muted, and sluggish.

  3. (3) Behavior that is interpersonally rewarding tends to be perceived as more communicatively competent. Again, on balance, expressions of respect and appreciation, paying compliments, provision of social support, and so on, result in more positive evaluations than actions that are caustic, sarcastic, and punishing.

  4. (4) Behavior that reflects an appropriate understanding of the relationship between the interactants tends to be perceived as more communicatively competent. Interpersonal relationships are thought to vary along certain dimensions (particularly “affiliation” and “dominance”), and the parties to those relationships may not perceive them in congruent ways (see Greene & McNallie, 2015). The point here, then, is that individuals whose behavior seems inappropriate in the context of their relationship with another (e.g., too affectionate, too domineering) tend to be perceived as less socially competent.

  5. (5) Behavior that reflects a lack of composure or decorum tends to be perceived as less communicatively competent. A prime example of this principle is losing one’s temper and other “emotional meltdowns,” but other instances would include actions that indicate that one “simply doesn’t know how to act in polite society” and behaviors associated with a lack of personal hygiene.

    Again, in addition to these five basic principles, Greene (2009a) adds two “overarching” principles that “trump” the others and that take precedence in the sense that they establish scope conditions and qualifications on the first five.

  6. (6) “Moderate” levels of behavior tend to be perceived as more communicatively competent. This principle suggests a curvilinear relationship between the amount/degree of some behavior and social perceptions—the idea that either “too little” or “too much” of something may result in less positive evaluations. Thus, individuals may disclose too little or too much, speak too slowly or too quickly, or even offer handshakes that are too limp or too vise-like. In the specific case of the five basic principles, behavior may be too “other-oriented,” animated, or rewarding.

  7. (7) Behaviors that are adapted to one’s interlocutor, the relationship, and the situation tend to be perceived as more communicatively competent. This principle makes explicit that in certain situations failing to adhere to, or even flaunting, basic tenets may lead to positive evaluations of one’s behavior. Failing to follow basic guidelines for personal conduct and hygiene may, for example, cement a close interpersonal bond.

To Greene’s (2009a) original list of competence principles, review of the literature suggests one additional “overarching” point:

  1. (8) Behaviors that are judged to be “authentic” tend to be perceived as more communicatively competent. The idea here is that behaviors that are seen to be “genuine” rather than feigned will result in more positive evaluations. Certainly a person can make efforts to appear to be “other-oriented,” energetic, and so on, but unless their interaction partners sense that such behaviors are “real,” they may not result in positive social impressions.

Adult Communication Skill Acquisition

Inherent in the very notion of “skills” is that they are acquired and refined over time. Consider that even rudimentary skills like encoding and decoding facial expressions of emotion emerge over a period of years during childhood (and that, even in adulthood, people differ in their abilities to produce and interpret such cues). Beyond studies of the time course of verbal and nonverbal skill development in children, and excluding examinations of adult second-language acquisition, research on communication skill acquisition is rather sparse. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that skill acquisition is typically a very protracted process that is not easily studied in laboratory or instructional settings. By way of illustration, studies of skill acquisition in domains other than interpersonal communication (e.g., air-traffic control) suggest that attaining even moderate proficiency requires a minimum of 100 hours of instruction and practice (see Schneider, 1985). Perhaps even more striking is that researchers interested in skill acquisition often refer to the “10-year rule” to describe the period of training required to achieve expert performance in a variety of skill domains (see Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Compare these figures, then, to what might be expected of adult learners in a typical laboratory study of communication skill acquisition or a semester-long course on public speaking, group discussion, conflict management, etc.

Even if the literature on adult communication skill acquisition is somewhat limited, it is possible to draw upon the much more extensive body of research on skill acquisition in other domains to arrive at some general principles that are applicable to communication behaviors. The most fundamental of these principles centers on the question of precisely what changes as a person becomes increasingly adept at some communication skill (in essence, what distinguishes the expert from the novice?).

The cognitive and behavioral markers of skill acquisition are discussed in detail in other sources (e.g., Greene, 2003), but a partial listing includes the following: (1) increased speed—experts are faster than their less experienced counterparts (in the context of communication skills, this speed advantage is manifested in shorter speech-onset latencies, higher speech rates, and so on), (2) fewer mistakes and errors (e.g., dysfluencies and other speech errors), (3) more reliable implementation—it is not uncommon for people just learning some skill to fail to remember or use what they have been taught, (4) greater flexibility—with experience comes the ability to adapt and improvise in the face of the novel or unexpected, (5) reduced cognitive load—individuals in the early stages of acquiring a skill typically have to think about the details of what they are doing, which places considerable demand on a limited pool of processing resources; with experience many behavioral routines can be executed virtually automatically, (6) multiple-task performance—as a corollary of reduced cognitive load, when people no longer have to attend to the details of certain aspects of their behavior, processing resources can be allocated to other activities, and (7) a more abstract conception of one’s own behavior—virtually any activity can be apprehended at a range of levels of abstraction; novices tend to understand what they are doing in very low-level, concrete ways; with experience people acquire a more abstract, “big-picture” view of their actions.

The fact that performance improves over time (becomes faster, less error-prone, less cognitively demanding, etc.) raises the obvious question of why this is so. Turning again to the more general literature on skill acquisition, it is commonly held that the process involves three stages. This three-stage depiction is based on the distinction between two different types of information held in long-term memory (LTM). A portion of LTM is termed “declarative information,” (or “knowledge that . . .”)—in essence, this is the collection of facts one has acquired over the course of his or her life (e.g., her mother’s middle name, the capitol of Delaware). In contrast to declarative memory, “procedural memory” (or “knowledge how . . .”) is the store of information about how to carry out various motor and cognitive activities (e.g., riding a bicycle, speaking one’s native language). These two types of information can be distinguished in several ways; for example, declarative information is available for verbal report (i.e., we can declare the facts we know), whereas procedural information often is not. A second difference is that declarative information can be acquired all at once (as when someone tells you something new), while procedural knowledge is acquired over time through practice.

The declarative/procedural distinction, then, is the basis for the three-stage model of skill acquisition. In the first, or “cognitive” stage, via instruction or observation individuals learn a set of facts about how to carry out some activity. By keeping these principles in mind (i.e., in short-term memory, STM), it is possible to carry out the activity, but performance tends to be slow and error-prone, and demands on the limited capacity of STM are high. With continued practice, a person enters the “associative” stage of skill acquisition where he or she begins to acquire procedural memory structures for carrying out the skill, and these are refined and enhanced. As a result, performance quality improves, and it is no longer necessary to tax STM by keeping in mind the rules for what to do. Finally, through continued implementation or practice, perhaps extending over a period of years, during the “autonomous” stage, procedural memory structures are refined and strengthened so that performance continues to be characterized by incremental improvement.

Changes in performance quality as a function of practice are typically characterized by a power function where improvements in the early stages of skill acquisition are substantial, but with continued practice, performance gains gradually diminish and approach an asymptotic limit (see Greene, 2003). This function is given by the equation:


where P is a measure of performance quality, A is the asymptotic performance limit, B is the level of performance when practice is equal to zero (i.e., the Y intercept of the function), N is the number of practice trials, and α‎ is the learning-rate parameter representing the steepness of the skill-acquisition curve.

This general power function has been shown to apply to a wide range of perceptual, motor, and cognitive skills, leading various authors (e.g., Lane, 1987; Newell & Rosenbloom, 1981) to conclude that it stands as the best description of the relationship between practice and performance. More importantly in the context of the present review, where relevant evidence exists, it also appears to describe the relationship between practice and performance quality in communication-based activities. For example, in one study Smith (1989) found that, over a series of 200 trials, speed in making social judgments did, indeed, reflect a power function. With respect to message-production processes, Greene, Sassi, Malek-Madani, and Edwards (1997) reported that, over the course of 150 practice trials using a simple organizing sequence for describing geometric arrays, time to complete each trial was characterized by a power function.

Of considerable significance to communication scholars is the fact that the terms in the skill-acquisition equation above vary from person to person. That is, people differ in their initial performance levels (B), their asymptotic performance quality (A), and their learning rates (α‎): Some people start off better, improve more quickly, and “max out” at higher levels of performance than others. That there are differences in the specific values of the parameters that define skill-acquisition curves suggests the role of various person-factors (e.g., cognitive processing abilities, personality traits), and there is evidence that such influences are at work in the process of skill acquisition (see Greene, 2003). Moreover, age (i.e., young adults versus older adults) has been shown to impact the course of skill learning (with older adults often exhibiting lower initial levels of performance and lower learning rates), and these effects are particularly pronounced when target skills are more complex (Caplan & Greene, 1999). Beyond relatively enduring person-factors (e.g., traits, age), certain state variables have also been shown to affect skill learning. Of particular interest is the role of state communication anxiety where highly anxious people have been shown to be slower in initial skill-learning trials (values of B) and lower rates of improvement (values of α‎)—and not only this, but to be more erratic in their performance from trial to trial (Greene, Rucker, Zauss, & Harris, 1998).

Barriers and Impediments to Communication Competence

One of the points made at the outset of this entry was that people often fail to communicate in an optimal fashion. A key question, then, centers on the nature of the factors that impede appropriate and effective behavior. This turns out to be a multifaceted problem that can be approached in several different ways. Some of the essential lines of thought about this issue are traced in what follows.

Almost certainly the most common approach (what might be termed the “standard view”) to thinking about the locus of communication skill deficits centers on the role of two factors, knowledge (or ability) and motivation. The specific conception of these two factors varies widely from formulation to formulation, but at root the idea is that, on one hand, people possess some store of knowledge (be it information about social rules, compliance-gaining strategies, topic domains, etc.) and, on the other, various motivational factors (e.g., approach-avoidance forces, interaction goals, self-efficacy) are at work in driving their behavior. The upshot of standard-view approaches is that optimal performance requires both ability and motivation and that behavioral deficits arise when either (or both) element(s) is wanting. Thus, a person who doesn’t know what to do, or who is not motivated to utilize the knowledge he or she does possess, is not likely to act in a socially competent fashion.

Again, the class of standard-view formulations is very large (see Greene & Geddes, 1993), and such treatments have proven enormously useful in furthering insights about the nature and locus of skill deficits. At the same time, there is a fundamental limitation in ability-motivation models that suggests a need for other sorts of approaches. The crux of the issue is that it is not uncommon for individuals to possess appropriate knowledge, and to be sufficiently motivated, but still fail to demonstrate commensurate behavior. This phenomenon manifests itself in various ways, but one obvious example involves instances of lack of skill-training transfer. It is not uncommon for people to participate in training sessions to develop job skills, conflict-management techniques, and so on, and yet fail to utilize what they have learned when that skill is needed (see L’Abate & Milan, 1985; see also Singley & Anderson, 1989).

This observation led Greene and Geddes (1993) to propose that sources of performance deficits might usefully be explicated by recourse to design-stance (see Dennett, 1987) models of cognitive processing. Specifically, Greene and Geddes drew upon action assembly theory (AAT; Greene, 1984) and that theory’s conception of “activation” and “assembly” processes to identify several mechanisms that give rise to suboptimal performance. Among these mechanisms, and of particular note here, are those that pertain to why skill-relevant information acquired in one setting may not “come to mind” or be applied in different physical surroundings, relational contexts, or even physiological states.

Beyond the AAT-based mechanisms identified by Greene and Geddes (1993), there are other factors bearing on communication performance that merit explicit mention. Along with AAT, a second, complimentary theoretical perspective, the goals–plans–action (GPA) framework, sheds light on other loci of performance deficits (see Berger, 1997; Dillard, 1990; Wilson, 2002). According to GPA, goals (or objectives) give rise to plans for accomplishing those ends, which, in turn, result in actions to carry out those plans. Behavioral deficits, then, can occur as a result of any of these processes: setting inappropriate goals, faulty planning (as in failing to accurately anticipate the responses of others), or being unable to actually execute planned actions.

Also related to goal setting, planning, and behavioral enactment are a pair of constructs of a different sort. “Self-efficacy” refers to an individual’s perception or belief that he or she is able to successfully accomplish some course of action (Bandura, 1977), and the related conception of “social self-efficacy” refers specifically to expectations for success in pursuit of social objectives and activities (Sherer et al., 1982). In both cases, low self-efficacy is associated with less effort in planning and carrying out interactions and with higher levels of social anxiety (see Patterson & Ritts, 1997).

Finally, in addition to the individual difference variables, self-efficacy, and social self-efficacy, there is the very large class of relatively enduring, general behavioral dispositions (i.e., personality traits) that bear upon social performance and thus require mention here. Prominent examples include empathy (see Jolliffe & Farrington, 2006; Weaver & Kirtley, 1995) and emotional intelligence (see Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004), but every dimension of the “Five-Factor Model” of personality (see Wiggins, 1996) has demonstrable implications for the quality of one’s social conduct.

Communication Skills Training

The twin elements of the “communication skills paradox” outlined above (i.e., that communication skills matter, but skill deficits are common) serve to highlight the importance of enhancing people’s message-production and -processing abilities. It is not surprising, then, that any number of training programs designed to foster or improve various aspects of people’s social performance have been developed for counseling, educational, and business/professional contexts—some informal, small-scale, intuitively driven, and others professionally marketed and delivered, and ostensibly theory and/or data driven (and doubtless, some of either sort are more effective in achieving their training objectives than others).

From the welter of endeavors aimed at some aspect of communication skill enhancement, it is possible to winnow certain essential elements of skill-training programs (see Beebe, Mottet, & Roach, 2013; Greene, 2003; Segrin & Givertz, 2003). Specifically, communication skill training for adult learners should incorporate six key components:

  1. (1) Assessment. As it is used here, assessment encompasses two distinct considerations. On the one hand, the term refers to an analysis of what the learner needs to be able to do at the conclusion of the training program. So, for example, what should sales representatives or retail personnel be able to do when addressing various sorts of customer concerns? The second aspect of assessment involves review of what learners are already able to do prior to the onset of training. If learners possess necessary skill elements, training programs can be streamlined and delivered with minimal demands on time and other resources.

  2. (2) Orientation. One of the key points raised by Beebe, Mottet, and Roach (2013) in their treatment of “andragogy” (i.e., teaching adults, as opposed to “pedagogy,” or teaching children) is that adult learners need to understand why they are being asked to learn some particular set of skills. Orientation in business, professional, and educational contexts, then, may require illustrating the importance or usefulness of the target skills.

  3. (3) Instruction. Doubtless the most obvious element of skill-training programs is providing learners with information about what it is they are to do. Instruction, however, can be delivered in many different forms, including written materials and training manuals, visual media, and oral presentations. Importantly, in addition to providing an understanding of what “ideal” behavior should involve, instruction may also profitably include presentation of models of what not to do.

  4. (4) Practice. As the discussion of skill-acquisition functions above suggests, practice at implementing target skills is a key determinant of behavioral proficiency. Indeed, early on in the history of social-skill training, Trower, Bryant, and Argyle (1978, p. 71) noted that “practice is essential” in the acquisition of such skills. Practice can take many forms, but not all practice is equally effective. It is not enough that a person simply “go through the motions” in enacting a skill; rather practice needs to be focused—that is the learner needs to attend to the details of what he or she is doing. Such focused practice, however, can be difficult to sustain, and for this reason practice sessions may need to be spaced over time. Additionally, practice should involve variation to guard against boredom and inattention. Finally, in cases where target skills are complex, it is typically necessary to focus on developing various subcomponents before trying to achieve mastery of the entire activity.

  5. (5) Feedback. In the course of carrying out some skill, learners need feedback about their performance. Such feedback can serve multiple purposes. Most obviously, feedback can be corrective in the sense that sources of error and deviations from optimality are identified and models of ideal behavior are reiterated. Feedback can also serve the function of highlighting what the learner is doing well, again to reinforce models of what is desired. Beyond providing information about an individual’s performance, feedback can also serve motivational functions—spurring or encouraging the learner to persist in his or her efforts. A pair of final points regarding feedback are that feedback should be timely (i.e., not delivered after too long a delay) and that it should be tailored to the learner’s own understanding of what he or she is doing. This last point follows from the fact (noted above) that novices tend to apprehend what they are doing in fairly low-level, concrete ways, but with increasing expertise people acquire more abstract understandings of their activities. The idea, then, is that feedback that is most meaningful and useful may change as the learner becomes more proficient.

  6. (6) Assessment. A final element of skill training again centers on assessment, where such assessment may involve multiple considerations. Most obviously, posttraining assessment should involve examination of whether learners are actually implementing the target skills outside the training environment (i.e., is skill transfer in evidence?). Beyond follow-up analysis of whether individual trainees are actually doing what they were taught to do and say, other aspects of assessment center on evaluation of the training program itself. A second assessment objective, then, is to ascertain the impact of target skills on criterial outcomes (e.g., sales effectiveness, customer satisfaction). A striking illustration of the importance of this assessment objective is seen in a study by Kassin and Fong (1999), which found that students taught to detect deception using a very popular training program actually performed worse than a control group that had not received the detection training. Yet a third aspect of training assessment involves learners’ perceptions and evaluations of the training program itself (e.g., did they find it “a waste of time”?). Trainers (and training programs), either internal to an organization or external consultants, who fail on this criterion may be forced to revamp their methods or pursue other lines of work.

Methods of Skill and Competence Assessment

As might be expected in view of the breadth of the domain of communication skills, methods of assessment are correspondingly broad. A useful and comprehensive review of the area is available in Spitzberg (2003; see also Spitzberg & Adams, 2007). Assessments of skills typically involve scaling (i.e., assigning numbers) techniques of various sorts, and thus, issues of reliability (i.e., stability and consistency) and validity (i.e., is the measure truly assessing the target skill?) come to the fore. Beyond these fundamental measurement concerns, three orthogonal methodological considerations are particularly germane.

The first issue is, in reality, two-pronged, but essentially it centers on what aspect(s) of communication performance are selected for examination. As noted earlier in this article, in their review Spitzberg and Cupach (2011) distinguished more than 100 features of behavior identified in the literature on communication skills and competence. Just a smattering of examples from their list includes such things as “listening,” “managerial ability,” “conversational skills,” “wit,” and “facial expressiveness and vocalic behavior.” So, the first, obvious, assessment issue is that of determining what aspect(s) of the broad sweep of social and communication activities is (are) of interest (e.g., providing social support, leadership, clarity of verbal expression). But even within some particular domain of interest, there is a second methodological issue stemming from the fact that virtually any aspect of behavior can be apprehended along a molecular-to-molar continuum. To illustrate, consider that “social attentiveness” could be assessed at a molecular level by timing seconds of other-directed gaze, number of backchannel responses, etc., and, at the molar end of the continuum by seven-point, Likert-type ratings of “attentiveness.”

The second methodological issue concerns whether assessments are dispositional or episodic in nature. That is, are assessments focused on an individual’s general tendencies, or is the focus on his or her performance in a particular situation? Consider that someone might generally be an adept conversationalist but, for whatever reasons, might not exhibit those skills in a particular interaction. To a considerable degree the dispositional-episodic distinction is important to keep in mind when addressing skill assessment because very often dispositional inferences are made on the basis episodic performance (e.g., judgments of managerial ability on the basis of a job interview).

The third assessment issue is that of who will make the skill or performance judgment(s), and three primary candidates present themselves: self, interaction partners, and third parties, each of which has attendant advantages and weaknesses, both in research and “real world” applications. Very often measures of communication performance involve self-ratings, be they episodic or dispositional. Self-evaluations are easily administered and might be justified on the basis of the argument that no one is as familiar with his or her own abilities as the person him- or herself, but it is also the case that self-ratings are commonly characterized by bias, rationalization, and self-deception (see Baumeister, 1998). Interestingly, while people may often tend to overestimate their social skills, in some cases (e.g., Spitzberg, 2011) self-ratings have actually been shown to be lower that corresponding ratings made by one’s close associates.

Partner evaluations, as the term suggests, involve ratings or judgments of other sorts made by one or more persons on the basis of actual interaction with the individual whose behavioral proclivities and abilities are of interest. Skill assessments of this type find instantiation in a surprising variety of forms, as when undergraduate participants are asked to make judgments about a stranger with whom they have been paired, but doubtless far more common examples are seen in employment interviews, course/instructor evaluations, and teacher evaluations of students’ public-speaking performance. As with all methods of assessing communication ability and performance, partner evaluations have certain strengths and weaknesses. In contrast to biases inhering in self-evaluations, one might assume that partner evaluations, as in cases of course/instructor evaluations (to choose just one ready example) would be less bias-laden, but in fact, course evaluations are notoriously poor measures of actual instructor performance (see Clayson, 2009; Stark & Freishtat, 2014). Even in dyadic situations, any number of biasing factors can be at work, as is made evident in analyses of job interview evaluations (e.g., Howard & Ferris, 1996).

Finally, skill assessments may be made by individuals who are not a party to the interactions of interest, very often by means of viewing recordings of those interactions. Doubtless the most common example of third-party evaluations in research contexts is seen in cases where judges are asked to make ratings (or objective assessments) of the behaviors of unknown others. One advantage of such third-party assessments is that, freed from the cognitive demands of actually participating in an interaction, judges can devote greater attention to the task at hand. And, of course, in research applications, third-party assessments may involve judgments by individuals who are “blind” with respect research hypotheses, experimental manipulations, and so on.

Further Reading

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Greene, J. O. (in press). Oral communication skills. In L. de Saussure & A. Rocci (Eds.), Handbooks of communication science. Vol. 3: Verbal communication. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Greene, J. O., & Burleson, B. R. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Hannawa, A. F., & Spitzberg, B. H. (Eds.). (2015). Handbooks of communication science, Vol. 22: Communication competence. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Hargie, O. (Ed.). (2006). The handbook of communication skills (3d ed.). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Spitzberg, B. H. (2009). Interpersonal communication competence and social skills. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), International encyclopedia of communication (pp. 2486–2492). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2011). Interpersonal skills. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 481–524). Los Angeles: SAGE.Find this resource:


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