I taught inmates in a prison several years ago.  One of the men in my classroom told me that when he was 11 years old, his parents taught him how to cook, cut, and sell crack cocaine.  It may come as no surprise to you the reason he was in prison – drug dealing.

This is the most vivid moment in my brain of connecting what it means to be an interpersonally competent communicator.

Communication can be difficult.  It is especially difficult when one or both people in an interaction aren’t adept communicators.  Few of us are taught how to communicate effectively with co-workers, customers, family, or people we happen to meet.

Arthur Bochner and Clifford Kelly sought to determine what makes an individual a competent communicator.  Through their research in 1974 (yes, this research is still valid) they identified five competencies.  Are you competent in these areas?

Appropriate Self-Disclosure.   On one side, you don’t make anyone feel forced to share anything he/she/they do not want to. On the other side, you get to choose what you disclose and what you don’t disclose. This does not mean silence.  You also have a responsibility to self-disclose so that ideas and relationships progress.

I own my feelings and thoughts.  Blaming others for what you feel and think is the opposite of owning your feelings and thoughts. Using “I” lets you communicate things you want, feel, and believe. “I” language and “You” language sound very different: “I am unable to help when I am being yelled at.” = I language. “If you yell at me again you will make me hang up the phone” = You language.

I have descriptiveness. This is about how you give and receive feedback.  It requires appropriate self-disclosure, owning your thoughts and feelings, and empathy (see below). It means you carry your end of a conversation using specific, concrete, and descriptive statements versus vague, abstract, and evaluative messages.  If you say, “You have a ‘bad attitude’” – ask yourself what does ‘bad attitude’ mean? It’s just not specific or concrete.

Behavior Flexibility/Adaptability.  Adapting your communication behavior to the context of the people and the interaction requires both diagnosis and effectuation. Here is what that means: 1) Diagnosis – your ability to understand your own interpersonal context as well as the context of the other persons involved in the interaction. This can include mood, history, power differences, time of day, preferences in how a person likes to communicate, etc. 2) Effectuation – your capacity to act on your understanding of the context. In other words, are you changing how you interact based on your needs as well as the needs of others?

Empathy.  It is not only putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is making an emotional connection with another person without feeling sorry for them. It is extending genuine goodwill toward the other person(s) because they have value as a human being, all the while not expecting it in return. It means you can disagree with someone, and at the same time, understand and validate their experience or perspective.

That last sentence … It means you can disagree with someone, and at the same time, understand and validate their experience or perspective. That was my epiphany. When I listened to the inmate in my classroom disclose his experience, I was able to understand exactly how he came to be a drug dealer and in prison. I didn’t have to agree with the drug dealing to communicate his worth. Once I showed I openly respected his story without blame or judgment, he became open to listening and learning.

Trust me, the five interpersonal communication competencies can be a game changer in your relationships.

Source: Bochner, A.P. & Kelly, C.W. (1974). Interpersonal competence rationale, philosophy, and implementation of a conceptual framework.