Competent and Incompetent Communication Research Paper

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For as long as human beings have been communicating, they have tried to figure out how to communicate well, that is, with competence. In modern times, communication scholars and teachers have worked hard to understand and describe what it means to be a competent communicator. These attempts to better understand competent communication are in part a result of a large body of research indicating that the ability to communicate competently is critical to a person’s personal and professional success in life. A 2008 analysis of 93 journal and newspaper articles, reports, and surveys provides evidence of the centrality of communication and the importance of communication instruction to developing as a whole person; improving the educational enterprise; being a responsible social and cultural participant in the world; succeeding in one’s career and in business; enhancing organizational processes and organizational life; and even addressing emerging concerns in the 21st century such as health communication, crisis communication, and crime and policing.



Given the importance of competent communication in contemporary society, this research paper first describes the historical development of the most significant theories and models of communication competence over time.An illustrative list of advanced communication competencies for college graduates and several popular definitions of competence are included. Then, both effective communication and appropriate communication are described, and competent communication is compared with incompetent communication. Thinking about incompetent communication suggests the need to discuss the role of ethics in communication competence. This research paper concludes by exploring the consequences of communication competence in specific communication situations and across time and relationships.

Theories and Models of Communication Competence

The history of competent communication dates back many centuries. Early Greek and Roman philosophers, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, were some of the first writers to attempt to describe what competent communication looks like and how it works. In fact, communicative competence (or the outward appearance thereof) was held in such high regard among the aristocracy of both Greece and Rome that an entire industry, sophistry, arose out of a need for communication instruction, particularly in public speaking, dialectics, and public debate. As this discussion of communicative competence unfolds, we will see how the centuries-old concepts about communication have reached fruition in some of the theoretical models of what now is referred to as competent communication. We begin our discussion, however, with a popular model of learning that did beget other models of communication competence.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning

At times, people around us exude an outward appearance of innate communicative competence; they have the “gift of the gab,” so to speak. Others have to work at it. While there may be some component to people’s personalities that makes them more effective communicators, most scholars agree that communication behaviors and skills are learned. Therefore, any discussion of communication competence first should consider how people learn to communicate. Some of the popular models of communication competence appear to have their roots in a widely used and oft-cited model of learning developed by Benjamin Bloom in 1956.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning holds that human learning occurs as a result of three activities. The three types of learning or domains are psychomotor, affective, and cognitive.

Psychomotor learning is probably the most basic component of Bloom’s taxonomy and also the most basic level at which a human learns to communicate. The psychomotor domain includes physical movement, coordination, and use of the motor-skill capacities. For example, infants as young as 7 months can learn to use gestures such as pointing and waving to greet others or indicate recognition of a parent or other relative. Many parents even choose to teach their children sign language as a stopgap method of communicating until their infants and toddlers can communicate verbally. Later on, many people effectively (or ineffectively, in some cases) accentuate their verbal communication with nonverbal gestures.

Affective learning refers to what has now come to be called “emotional intelligence,” or the ability to not only express one’s emotions and opinions but to effectively gauge those of others. The affective domain includes the manner in which we deal with things emotionally, such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasm, motivation, and attitudes. Bloom divided the affective domain into five categories: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing, and characterizing. When we work to actively receive, interpret, and respond to communicative messages from others, we are taking our first steps toward communicative competence.

The third type of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy occurs in the cognitive domain, which involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. This includes the ability to recall or recognize specific facts, procedural patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of intellectual abilities and skills. Bloom’s cognitive domain is divided into six categories, starting from the simplest behavior to the most complex. Learning is based on a graduated six-step process, where more basic abilities beget new, more advanced abilities: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

For the purposes of this research paper, all three domains in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning are relevant to the discussion of communicative competence. Through psychomotor development, communication skills and behaviors are learned over the years. In a cognitive sense, communication is a learned behavior, something that comes about with the reception, retention, recall, and utilization of information about the communication process.

Equally important is the affective ability to appreciate the impact of our words and actions and the need to respect what others have to say and how they feel. As we now will see, Bloom’s taxonomy provided the foundation for other researchers to develop their models of what it means to communicate competently.

Early Models of Communication Competence

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many scholars sought to empirically examine communicative competence. An early study of competent and incompetent communication behavior found that people who are judged as more competent demonstrated significantly more of the following behaviors than their incompetent counterparts: affiliation/ support and empathy, social relaxation, and smooth management of their interactions through the use of more management cues. Later on, researchers advanced the idea that competence not only relates to possessing the necessary skills for effectively creating and sharing meaning with others, it also is about doing so “responsibly.” Thus, communication scholars introduced a previously absent “ethical” element to the discussion of competence. These researchers, notably Stephen Littlejohn and David Jabusch in 1982, proposed a theoretical model of competence with four principal components: process understanding, interpersonal sensitivity, communication skills, and ethical responsibility. The relationship to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is apparent. Process understanding is similar to the cognitive domain of learning, interpersonal sensitivity to the affective domain, and communication skills to the psychomotor domain.

Process Understanding

Process understanding is the extent to which one comprehends the elements of a given communicative event and reacts to them appropriately. Proper comprehension of an interaction’s dynamics, according to the researchers, allows us to effectively reflect on our ability and/or willingness to participate in that interaction. Effective comprehension and reflection on an interaction in turn lead to greater behavioral flexibility, which in turn allows us to recognize and select socially appropriate behavior for the communication interaction at hand as well as for future communication events. In other words, effective understanding and evaluation of a communication situation not only provide participants with the tools they need to successfully navigate a given interaction, they also provide a template that one may call on the next time a similar situation presents itself.

Interpersonal Sensitivity

Interpersonal sensitivity refers to our ability to effectively gauge the impact of our views, opinions, feelings, and meanings on a given communicative interaction; it also includes our sensitivity to and awareness of the views and feelings of others. Some studies have discovered that the more cognitively complex the participants of an interaction are, the more interpersonally sensitive they are likely to be. Studies also point to a relationship between interpersonal sensitivity and the ability to empathize with others, to relax in a given communication situation, to manage interactions effectively, and to choose appropriate responses to the communication behaviors of others.

Communication Skills

Communication skill is the ability to use our physical and mental faculties and previously learned conceptual frameworks about communication to move toward the accomplishment of a given objective or goal.

Communication skills fall into two categories: initiating and consuming. Initiating communication skills include asking and answering questions, adapting language, and speaking in public, to name a few. Consuming skills, on the other hand, consist of activities such as active listening, reading, or overall critical evaluation skills. At the request of numerous future employers, many communication researchers and university administrators have compiled lists of communication skills and worked to develop reliable and valid methods of evaluating the presence or absence of these skills. One such illustrative list of communication competencies for all college graduates, developed by Rubin and Morreale (1996), is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Advanced Communication Competencies and Expectations for College Graduates

Competent and Incompetent Communication Research Paper Table 1

Ethical Responsibility

As stated earlier, this model of communicative competence was among the first to include a discussion of ethics and responsible communication. Ethical responsibility means that communicators effectively balance their goals, interests, and desires with those of others for the maximum benefit of all involved in a given interaction. Three factors determine whether a communication interaction is ethical: (1) all participants receive positive outcomes as a result of the interaction (caring), (2) enough information sharing occurs among the participants of the interaction to allow all involved to equally share “responsibility for the outcome of the transaction” (openness), and (3) the situation in which the interaction occurs has a positive impact on how one chooses to interact with others in the future (generalizability).

Using the four components just outlined, Stephen Littlejohn and David Jabusch (1982) generally defined communication competence as the ability and willingness of an individual to participate responsibly in a transaction in such a way as to maximize the outcome of shared meaning. This early model of competence played an important role in opening up a crucial dialogue about ethics and communication competence. But the discussion was far from over, with several other researchers building on and expanding understanding of what these communication scholars had begun.

A Relational Competence Model

Early research into communicative competence viewed it as a quantifiable, measurable, and observable characteristic of specific human behaviors. However, another theoretical perspective eventually emerged that viewed competence as situational or state specific instead of a static characteristic or trait that an individual possesses and that can be measured. This relational perspective advanced five new assumptions about communication competence.

First and foremost, competence is contextual; you may be perceived as competent in one context but not in another. Levels of context include the type of communication that is occurring and the number of participants in the interaction (dyad, group, public speech, etc.). You may be fairly competent in a dyadic discussion with one other person but not as effective giving a public speech. Other types of context that may affect communication competence include the time, physical space, or other circumstances of the situation in which a communication event occurs. Culture and cultural differences and the degree to which we feel an affiliation with others in the setting also affect perceptions of competence, as does the status relationship of the communicators in the event.

The second assumption is that competence can be viewed in terms of the effectiveness and appropriateness of a given communication act. In other words, communication can be effective but not appropriate; or it can be appropriate but not effective. Worse yet, it can be inappropriate and ineffective. Truly competent communication is both effective and appropriate. This assumption is discussed in further detail later in this research paper, but the third assumption is that effectiveness and appropriateness exist on a continuum and are not absolute. This concept harkens back to the idea of context and that what may be appropriate or effective in one context may not be so in another.

Functionality is the basis of the fourth assumption; communication does not exist or take place for no reason. Rather, it occurs to accomplish some relational function or a desired outcome. The responses of the other participants help determine whether or not that outcome is achieved at the end of the interaction. If a communicator is unable to effectively accomplish a desired function or outcome or if the response provided bears no relation to what was communicated, then neither communicator in the interaction is considered competent.

The fifth and last assumption is that competence is an interpersonal impression based on participants’ perceptions of the outcomes of a communication interaction. Different people will reach different impressions about communication, but it is the participants themselves in any relational interaction who need to decide if the interaction was competent or not. Competence cannot be ascribed to a specific communicator or communicators by a third party who had no part in the interaction.

In sum, the focus of the relational competence model is on context and outcomes as a method of evaluating communicative competence.A communicator is relationally competent if he or she is perceived as communicating in the given context in a way that accomplishes the desired outcome, function, or purpose of communicating.

Motivation, Knowledge, Skills Model of Competence

The assumptions of the relational competence model led to the development by Brian Spitzberg (1983) of another highly respected framework for understanding communication competence. Specifically, this model holds that communication competence is constituted of three basic factors that bear direct resemblance to Littlejohn and Jabusch’s components of competence and Bloom’s earlier Taxonomy of Learning. Spitzberg (1983) describes competence as constituted of motivation (affect), knowledge (cognition), and skills (psychomotor abilities).


Motivation is concerned with the reasons we choose to communicate, or not, with others. Motivation may be thought of as positive and negative.A person who possesses a positive motivation to communicate (a) makes an active effort to communicate with others and (b) engages in communication that results in positive outcomes and perceptions of the interaction for all the communicators involved. For example, naturally extroverted people have a tendency to seek others with whom to communicate and share experiences and are thus positively motivated. Someone in a sales position who completes a transaction that is mutually beneficial to all parties involved (e.g., needs/wants met and commissions paid) is positively motivated to communicate. Conversely, a person who possesses negative motivation to communicate (a) finds every reason to avoid communication with others and (b) does not communicate for the mutual benefit of others. Negative motivation typically arises from communication apprehension, poor self-esteem, a negative self-image, or negative self-talk (e.g., “No one at this party is interested in talking to me” or “I’m not good-looking enough to walk up and talk to that person”). Additionally, if someone is inclined to communicate to achieve some sort of self-serving or socially unacceptable goal, he or she is negatively motivated. Using the sales example, if someone in a sales position completes a transaction that only benefits the salesperson but offers little or no benefit to the client or customer, this person is negatively motivated to communicate.


Knowledge in communication guides us about what to say and do and tells us the procedures by which we can do it. We have to learn how to form and interpret cultural signs, symbols, and cues in order to effectively share meaning with others. Therefore, communication competence is partially determined by our knowledge of not only how to communicate but also the steps necessary to communicate well in a given context. Knowledge about communication may be thought of as content or procedural. Content knowledge is what we know about communication; how to form words by speaking or writing, how to gesture, vocal control, physical proximity, and so on. Procedural knowledge comes into play the moment we find ourselves in a communication situation. If we use the correct language and gestures, maintain proper volume and pitch of our voice, and remain conscious of appropriate physical distance, we have displayed procedural knowledge of how to communicate in that situation. When viewed in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, it can be argued that content knowledge and procedural knowledge lie in the realm of psychomotor and cognitive learning. From a psychomotor perspective, we learn from our parents, teachers, and peers how to physically form words, symbols, signs, and gestures. Cognitively, we have to remember what certain words, symbols, signs, and gestures mean. Furthermore, from a cognitive perspective, procedural knowledge of how and when to use words, symbols, signs, and gestures in a particular context must be stored away for later use. Without the benefit of our content and procedural knowledge of communication, we would simply plod through life repeating the same communicative mishaps and social blunders again and again.


Skills are deliberate, repeatable, goal-oriented behaviors that manifest both one’s knowledge of how to communicate and the motivation to do so. Deliberateness and repeatability are important characteristics of skill; for an action or behavior to be considered a skill, it must be performed with intent, and the communicator must be able to duplicate the action and, hopefully, its outcomes. A chef who haphazardly mixes ingredients together to create a bad-tasting confection and who cannot concoct that culinary atrocity a second or even third time would not be considered skilled in his craft. However, the gourmet who takes care to select, measure, and mix ingredients as well as arrange them in such a manner as to appeal to both the eye and the palate would indeed be considered skilled in his art.

Based on the three factors just described, Spitzberg (1983) generally defines communication competence as the use of verbal and/or nonverbal behavior to accomplish preferred outcomes in a way that is appropriate to the context, situation, and the communicators. The motivation, knowledge, skills model played and is playing an important role in contemporary discussions of communication competence, particularly because it achieves two things: (1) it seamlessly includes ethics in the discussion instead of assigning it to a separate category as did the Littlejohn and Jabusch model and (2) it shows us how to evaluate communicative competence by considering what factors constitute appropriateness and effectiveness in a particular situation.

Effective and Appropriate Communication

Spitzberg (1983) and other researchers agree that judgments about communication competence are based on perceptions of effectiveness, the extent to which communication accomplishes valued outcomes, and on appropriateness, the extent to which communication fits the given context. It is important to discuss these characteristics of competence in detail.

Effective Communication

We enter many interactions with goals in mind. Salespeople do so with the intent of generating a commission. Job hunters do so with the goal of obtaining employment. Whatever the case, an important consideration in judging the effectiveness of communication is to determine whether or not a specific goal or outcome is achieved. Did the salesperson close the sale? Did the job candidate secure employment? If the answer is yes, then we can reasonably assume that the communication probably was effective. That said, there are other considerations when evaluating the outcomes of a communicative event.

While a goal may be achieved, some outcomes may occur by complete accident rather than as a result of effective communication. The car may have been purchased simply because it was the best bargain available. The candidate may have gotten the job because all other applicants were unacceptable. So we cannot assume that effective communication is always responsible for achievement of desired outcomes. Also, while we tend to view effective communication in terms of “valued outcomes,” the means through which we achieve these outcomes may not always be to our liking. A salesperson with a high level of communication apprehension may find it arduous to call people on the phone or approach them at their doorsteps. However, if the salesperson closes a sale or two and gets paid, the salesperson has created a valued outcome for himself or herself and hopefully his or her client. At the end of the day, making a judgment about communicative effectiveness is a subjective judgment that relates directly to whether the communication acts or events also are appropriate.

Appropriate Communication

As mentioned earlier in the paper, how we evaluate communicative competence has to do with the situation or context in which the communication occurs. To say that communication is appropriate is to say that it did not violate the rules and norms of the given context. Rules are prescribed behaviors for what should or should not be done in the particular situation. Some examples of rules would be “Don’t yell fire in a movie theater” or “Don’t raise your voice and speak disrespectfully to the professor in class.” Norms, by comparison, are recurring patterns of behavior and sets of expectations in the particular situation. The norm at a rock concert dictates that attendees will show up in their Saturday rags instead of their Sunday best. One could elicit quite a few odd stares from other attendees by showing up in a business suit or fancy dress when everyone else is in a T-shirt and jeans. We easily can determine if we have broken a rule or violated a norm. If we have violated a norm, the worst consequence is the perplexed stares from others because of our inappropriateness. If we have violated a rule, we typically elicit a negative sanction or feedback from others, which lets us know that a rule has been broken. Sanctions can vary in severity from a polite suggestion to lower your voice in class to being asked to leave the classroom. When we encounter sanctions from others as a result of our communicative behaviors, it should be clear that our communication, in some respect, is inappropriate.

A Communication Competence Grid

Communication can be complicated, which makes it difficult to accurately categorize an event as effective and appropriate or ineffective and inappropriate. Recently, Spitzberg and other researchers (Morreale, Spitzberg, & Barge, 2006) developed a grid, which simplifies this concept visually. The grid, depicted in Figure 1, describes four possible types of behaviors related to effective and appropriate communication and achieving goals: (1) minimizing, (2) sufficing, (3) maximizing, and (4) optimizing.

Figure 1. A Communication Competence Grid

Competent and Incompetent Communication Research Paper Figure 1

Minimizing communication is ineffective and inappropriate; it occurs if an individual fails to attain a goal and elicits a negative sanction from others, which is completely incompetent. For example, a manager who yells at and berates his employees may see a reduction in productivity and may even be reported to upper management for his tirades. He accomplishes little and may evoke sanctions in the form of a reprimand.

Sufficing means that an individual’s communication is appropriate but ineffective, so it is partially competent. No rules or norms are violated, but no goals are attained, and the communication serves no function. A businessperson who puts on a nice suit and attends a networking event with the local chamber of commerce may meet all the expectations for appearance, but if personal reticence prevents the person from making any new contacts, the purpose of attending the event is negated.

Maximizing communication is effective but inappropriate or, again, partially competent. This type of communication occurs when your own goals are accomplished but without concern for the goals, feelings, or beliefs of others. An example would be the salesperson who generates more commissions by going behind coworkers’ backs and stealing their clients. The short-term gain is a larger paycheck, but the long-term impact is the loss of friendships, mistrust, and a reputation for deviousness that may have a negative effect on the salesperson’s career.

Optimizing communication is effective and appropriate, so it is highly competent. When communication is optimized, an individual’s goals are attained in a manner appropriate to the context and not at the expense of others. The salesperson who sells a product or provides a solution to a client with the firm belief that it will benefit the customer is optimizing. The salesperson has met the goal of generating a commission, the customer’s needs and wants have been satisfied, and all this was accomplished in the most appropriate manner possible.

This grid is a useful tool in helping us determine a communicator’s competence, but it bears noting that this grid is not an end-all method for evaluating competence; rather, it is but one more way to think about the nature of communication competence. It also is important to realize that as much as we might strive to optimize our communication, the context sometimes dictates that we must merely suffice. Ultimately, communication competence comes from a balance of appropriateness and effectiveness, which in turn comes about from honest and accurate self-reflection about our own communication competence or incompetence.

Comparing Competence and Incompetence

Early research into communication competence seemed to suggest that competence is simply possessing and using more of the effective communication skills than a less competent person. However, researchers more recently are thinking about competence and incompetence in other ways. Is incompetence just a lack of competent communication behaviors and skills, or is there a darker side to incompetence? As we think about the competence of ourselves and others, there are several important distinctions to keep in mind, which have ramifications for evaluating communication competence. What follows is a discussion of these comparisons and distinctions.

Competence Versus Proficiency

First and foremost, it is important to draw a clear distinction between communication competence and proficiency. While a proficient communicator possesses critical communication skills and knowledge, by comparison, a group/team communication, interpersonal communication, and written communication. However, any method or model that purports to effectively evaluate a person’s competency based only on communicative skills or knowledge of communication is only assessing proficiency. A comprehensive evaluation of competence should assess knowledge, skills, and motivation. When we also consider an individual’s motivation to communicate, we obtain a clear picture of a person’s communication competence and potential to optimize communication appropriately and effectively.

Ends Versus Means

When making any attempt to evaluate communicative competence, another good start point is an evaluation of how the ends or goals of the communicative event were achieved. We need to judge our competence and that of others through an examination, at the conclusion of the encounter, of the means through which the ends or goals were reached or achieved. For example, if a salesperson uses deceitful persuasive strategies to entice a customer to buy a product or if a political leader uses biased evidence to promote a new program, we would not categorize these individuals as competent. These individuals are incompetent because they used their motivation, knowledge, and skills effectively but toward a socially undesirable and inappropriate end. If any of the participants walks away from a communication interaction with a negative impression of the event, it is safe to assume that one or more of the participants did not communicate competently and perhaps used inappropriate communicative means or methods to accomplish their goals.

Incompetence Versus the Dark Side of Competence

To clarify further, some researchers do view incompetence simply as a lack of competence, a state of affairs wherein a communicator does not possess the necessary motivation, knowledge, and skills to communicate competently. This mode of thinking also permits us to categorize, as incompetent, those who lack one or more of the three components of competence. In contrast to viewing incompetence as a lack of motivation, knowledge, and skills, more recently, other scholars have identified what they call “the dark side of competence.” They point to the use of communication to achieve dark or undesirable ends, citing examples such as sexual predators or the salesperson or political leader just discussed in the previous section. These individuals possess the necessary motivation, knowledge, and skills to communicate effectively; but they repeatedly use their knowledge and skills to accomplish goals deemed inappropriate or even reprehensible by society.

The continuum of communication competence presented in Figure 2 simplifies this notion visually and suggests a need to think more about what ethical communication is and how it works.

Figure 2. A Communication Competence Continuum

Competent and Incompetent Communication Research Paper Figure 2

Ethics and Communication Competence

Exploration of the dark side of communication suggests a need to more closely examine one of the most important factors in judging true communication competence.As discussed earlier, the concept of ethics entered contemporary discourse regarding competence within the past 20 or so years. Prior to that time, the focus of communication scholars was on whether or not a person possesses the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective abilities to “speak well.” But, as Cicero so aptly put it, competent communication must be about a “good man speaking well.” To be a good person speaking well suggests that good character is relevant to communication competence. What follows is a discussion of how ethics affects our communication behaviors and our interactions with others.

Self-Interest Versus the Interests of Others

Earlier in the paper, an imperative of competence was described as the balance of appropriateness and effectiveness. We defined effectiveness as attaining a specified goal or outcome through communication. Competent and ethical communicators accomplish their own goals and serve their own interests while fully respecting the goals, needs, and interests of all those involved in or affected by the communication event. The ability and willingness to balance self-interest and the interests of others is one ethical dimension of competence.

When choosing to engage in communication, it is important to examine our motivation to do so because our motives often affect how we choose to achieve the goals.At times, our motives may cause us to forget to strike a balance between our own interests and those of others. Recall the earlier discussion of maximizing versus optimizing communication. Those who engage in maximizing communication achieve their goals and desires at the expense of the interests of others and thus are only partially competent. Those who engage in optimizing communication, which is truly competent, achieve their goals as well as those of others. Interestingly, researchers have found that people tend to judge the communicative competence of others not only by how well they communicate but also by whether they are respectful of the other person’s goals. This is not to say that we should be completely selfless in our interactions with others, but it is a fair assumption that we should not be completely self-centered either.

Information Sharing Versus Manipulation

As we consider the balance between self-interest and the interests of others, we often find ourselves in a quandary as to what and how much information to share with others. The ability and willingness to share information appropriately with others is another critical ethical dimension of competence. When we maximize and choose to disclose information very selectively with others in an effort to attain only our goals, we are not engaging in ethical or competent communication. When we disclose information to others in an effort to deceive them and lead them to believe that their goals will be met, we are manipulating information. Manipulative communication appears to be optimizing and concerned for the goals of all those involved; in fact, it is actually maximizing and only serves our self-interests. A sexual predator who uses verbal language and nonverbal cues to deceive and lure a child into an inappropriate encounter is a prime example of manipulative communication behavior. While the stated need of the adult and child may be “friendship,” the pedophile has only one goal in mind, a goal, that if attained, can only be to the detriment of the child. This is an extreme example but one that serves to drive the point home. A competent communicator must be cognizant of whether or not his or her actions in a communication event in fact are for the benefit of all involved.

To summarize and clarify, ethical communication means sharing sufficient and appropriate information with other people so that they can make fully informed choices about any matters of significance or consequence to themselves.

Consequences of Communication Competence

All participants in any communication interaction must accept responsibility for the consequences (and rewards) that may come about as the result of the interaction. The consequences or effects of any communicative act may be short-term and only affect the specific situation in which you find yourself. Or the impact may be long-term and have a permanent effect on one or more relationships.

Short-Term Effects in Specific Situations

The outcomes and effects of any communication interaction are often the best indicator of how competently the participants communicated in a specific situation. However, we are not always mindful of the impact of short-term effects of communication competence on our interactions with others. It is said that the spoken word, once spoken, cannot be taken back. Therefore, attention to competence, to both effectiveness and appropriateness, is called for in all communication situations. Communication competence is the primary determinant of whether you optimize positive outcomes and experience positive shortterm effects in any interaction or relationship.

That said, in our earlier discussion of appropriate and effective communication, we noted that circumstances sometimes dictate that optimized communication is not always possible. There are times when the situation is so awkward, the people so in disagreement, the context so stifling, that we must settle for an outcome that is short of optimum results. A significant part of competence is recognizing opportunities to optimize but also recognizing when a situation is unworkable. In those situations, thinking in terms of long-term effects and possibilities is better advised.

Long-Term Effects Within and Across Time and Relationships

Relationships are built slowly over time, and each communication interaction makes a positive or negative contribution to the strength of a relationship. Communication competence, or the lack thereof, can have a profound impact on the quality of our relationships over time and on how others perceive us. However, we rarely enter communication situations thinking about the long-term impact of our communication motivation, knowledge, and skills on others and on our relationships, personal or professional. While the old adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” holds true for new relationships, incompetence or a lack of communication competence will prove more detrimental to long-term relationships than anything else.

There are many factors that can influence how competently we communicate in relationships and how others perceive our communicative competence. Our levels of relaxation, our ability to empathize, and our ability to adapt quickly to a situation all have an effect. More specifically, researchers recently found that the more complex the messages you convey, the higher your perceived level of competence. This is not to say that employing a thick, multisyllabic vocabulary in all our conversations will ensure that others perceive us as competent; but effectively relating and discussing complex concepts, problems, and solutions with others is an important relational skill. Additionally, it takes a certain degree of motivation and communicative awareness to be able to consider the other person’s point of view and then communicate in the best interest of the relationship. Researchers have found that the more our goals appear to align with the goals of our relational partners, the more competent a communicator others perceive us to be. While these are but a few of the communication behaviors that characterize competent communication, they should serve to illustrate the potential long-term consequences of competent communication on relationships over time.

Conclusion and Future Directions

This research paper calls attention to the various theories and models of communication competence that have evolved over time. The history of the study of competent communication dates back many centuries to the early Greek and Roman philosophers. More recent theoretical models of communication competence appear to have their foundation in Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy of Learning, which says that human learning occurs in the psychomotor, affective, and cognitive domains. For example, Stephen Littlejohn and David Jabusch proposed a theoretical model of communication competence with four principal components: process understanding, interpersonal sensitivity, communication skills, and ethical responsibility.

Several years later, other researchers developed lists of communication competencies for college graduates, and a model of relational competence emerged that viewed competence as more situational or state specific. These scholars advanced several new assumptions about communication competence. Competence is contextual, and it should be viewed in terms of effectiveness and appropriateness. Effectiveness and appropriateness exist on a continuum. Functionality is an important aspect of competence because communication does not exist or take place for no reason. Finally, competence is an interpersonal impression based on people’s perceptions of the outcomes of a communication interaction. Brian Spitzberg used these assumptions to develop a model of communication competence that is constituted of motivation (affect), knowledge (cognition), and skills (psychomotor abilities).

Spitzberg and other contemporary researchers agree that perceptions of communication competence are based on effectiveness, the extent to which communication accomplishes valued outcomes; and on appropriateness, the extent to which communication fits the given context. Effective and appropriate communication may be understood based on four types of goaloriented communication behavior. Minimizing communication is ineffective and inappropriate. Sufficing is appropriate but ineffective so it is partially competent.

Maximizing is effective but inappropriate so it also is partially competent. Optimizing communication is effective and appropriate so it is completely competent.

More recently, scholars have begun to compare and draw distinctions between competent and incompetent communication. For example, a proficient communicator possesses the needed communication skills and knowledge but, by comparison, a competent communicator also is motivated to use those skills and knowledge to achieve desired outcomes. Another important distinction, when comparing competence and incompetence, is to examine the means through which the ends are reached. When people use inappropriate means or communication methods to achieve their goals, then that communication is not considered competent. Finally, while incompetence may be viewed simply as a lack of competence, there also is a dark side to competence. When people use their knowledge and skills to accomplish goals deemed inappropriate or undesirable by society, that communication is not considered competent.

Thinking about incompetent communication suggests a need to consider ethics and communication competence. Competent communicators serve their own self-interest while fully respecting the needs and interests of others. They share sufficient and appropriate information with others so that those others can make fully informed choices about matters of significance or consequence to themselves. Communication competence is the primary determinant of whether you optimize positive outcomes and enjoy positive short-term effects in any relationship or interaction. Similarly, communication competence, or the lack thereof, can have a profound impact on the quality of relationships over time and on the way people interact and perceive one another.

Over time, communication scholars and researchers have gained great insight into the nature of communication competence. As these scholars look to the future, the changing nature of communication in the 21st century is taking on greater importance. The impact of technology and of globalization on how people communicate in contemporary society is being taken into account and is informing the development of new communication theories and models. Some scholars, for example, are advancing models of computer-mediated competence. Others are discussing the impact of increased diversity on communication in a global economy.

Indeed, humans are communicating using forms of technology that earlier researchers never imagined. We now need to consider what communication competence means when we are communicating using cell phones, e-mail, blogs, and video conferences. Do the earlier models of communication competence still apply, or do they need to be reconsidered in our technologically driven and highly diverse global communities? Do they satisfactorily explain our capacity to use technology to communicate instantly across countries, around the globe, and with people very unlike ourselves? These and other questions need to be raised and addressed as we move with greater rapidity than anyone ever imagined into the communication world of the 21st century.


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