Every act and artifact of communication is open to evaluations of its quality, i.e., how well it was accomplished. Because such evaluations involve individual and social judgments of communicative performance, especially in interpersonal contexts, and because virtually all relevant achievements of interpersonal communication depend on performance and subsequent evaluations, a theory of interpersonal communication competence is tantamount to a theory of interpersonal communication itself. Interpersonal communication competence and social skills are concerned with both the performance of communication and the evaluation of its quality.
Interpersonal communication competence is typically defined either as the ability to enact message behavior that fulfills requirements of a given situation, or as the subjective evaluation of the quality of message behavior. The first conception views competence as a set of abilities that enable repeated, goal-directed behavior that fulfills task demands of a particular communication context. If the context is a job interview, competent communication consists of the ability to perform the various behaviors identified as essential to a good interview. The judgment of what constitutes a good interview, however, brings with it a perceptual dimension that necessarily connects the ability perspective to the subjective evaluation perspective. What distinguishes good from not so good performance will necessarily vary somewhat from interviewer to interviewer, organization to organization, and culture to culture. Social skills are similarly defined as either the ability to perform various requisite behaviors in everyday interpersonal encounters, or the evaluation of the quality of performance in such encounters. These terms have been used as synonyms, and historically the choice of one over another label has been determined more by their disciplinary origin (social skills in psychology, interpersonal competence in communication) than by any substantive distinctions.
History And Social Contexts
The study of interpersonal communication competence and social skills developed as relatively independent literatures until the 1980s, when their mutual relevance began to be recognized. Many related terms evolved, including grammatical competence, referential competence, linguistic competence, conversational competence, social competence, developmental competence, psychosocial competence, interactional competence, literacy, and relational competence.
Both interpersonal communicative competence and social skills reflect highly diverse intellectual origins and research methodologies. Although the rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle (384 –322 bce) was most concerned with public oratory, it was in this tradition that the assumption took root of systematically codifying, learning, and adapting communication strategies to specific contexts, tasks, and audiences to produce desired impressions of the communicator. Some of the ancient rhetorical scholars after Aristotle explicitly took up concern with more interpersonal kinds of contexts. Cicero (106 – 43 bce), e.g., emphasized the importance of tact in ordinary conversation, and Quintillian (35 – 95 ce) emphasized the general art of speaking well.
By the time of the Renaissance and after, stratification in society led to an interest in establishing codes of social conduct. Manuals for instruction in polite society reinforced attention to everyday social behavior as well as social boundaries and the distances between bourgeois and working-class. Parallel to some of these developments, the rediscovery of the ancient rhetorics by scholars in the 1700s and 1800s and the rise of the modern university led to an interest in teaching the art of rhetoric. Around 1900, at the point at which a split occurred between teaching English through writing and teaching it through oral performance, the communication discipline rediscovered its emphasis on performance instruction and evaluation. By the 1960s, traditional interest in public speaking expanded to include the study of communication in other contexts, including interpersonal communication.
In the field of psychology, interest in the nature of personality and its disorders, particularly the nature of mental illness, led to an ongoing interest in the nature of normality (Wine 1981). By the late 1800s, interest in mental hygiene and competence had produced the concept of the intelligence quotient, or a measure of a person’s mental competence. By the 1920s, the concept of social intelligence was introduced as an analog, and early measurement efforts sought to determine its value as an index of deficiencies in basic social functioning. By the 1960s deficit models of social competence began to give room to more positive models of self-actualization and optimum performance. In particular, the assertiveness movement spurred extensive research in the specific behaviors entailed by a model of confident interpersonal self-expression and achievement of personal goals through interaction (Phillips 1985).
Parallel with these twentieth-century intellectual developments, the discipline of anthropology was beginning to identify the nature of different cultural codes of expression, varying across and within tribes, societies, and cultures. In linguistics, an interest developed in identifying the factors that enable coherent construction of grammar and sentences across languages. This interest ultimately split into studies of the psycholinguistic abilities (mental faculties describing potential and actual utterances) and sociolinguistics (linguistic enactments in actual social contexts).
A host of other disciplines independently developed interest in the assessment, instruction, and enhancement of social skills. Child development scholars seek to understand the developmental trends in communicative competence. Education scholars seek better instructional methods for teaching the social skills of students. Business schools seek to better understand the communicative competencies required for employees, and the relationship of such abilities to organizational outcomes.
These diverse disciplines share a common assumption that interpersonal communication competence is integral to desired social outcomes. Individuals, peer relationships, marriages, families, friendships, organizations, communities, societies, nations, and international relationships are all assumed to function more optimally to the extent people are more interpersonally competent. This assumption led scholars to posit social skills as a model not only of individual mental health, but of the transformation of societies into more rational and democratic institutions. A wealth of evidence does indeed link interpersonal communication competence and social skills to manifold social outcomes, including higher intelligence, happiness, psychological adjustment, peer status, educational attainment, marital satisfaction, job satisfaction, socio-economic status, and lower likelihood of depression, drug abuse, delinquency, criminal activity, conflict, stress, morbidity, and mortality (Spitzberg & Cupach 1984, 2002).
Dimensions And Components
Most approaches to interpersonal communication competence vary in the extent to which they attend to affective (motivation), cognitive (knowledge), behavioral, outcomes, or evaluation aspects of competence, or some combination of these. Motivational approaches tend to focus on social anxiety or goals. Whereas anxiety tends to be a factor that leads to communication avoidance and incompetent performance, goals are the terminal objectives communicators approach through their behavior. These factors tend to lie on opposite ends of the approach/avoidance continuum, but both can coexist (e.g., a person can be anxious about a job interview, but approach it nonetheless).
Knowledge approaches tend to focus on the mental processes by which communicative action is produced. One of the early and influential distinctions in studying the knowledge underlying communication was articulated by Noam Chomsky (1965), who argued for a dichotomy between competence (i.e., knowledge of language) and performance (actual use of language in specific contexts). Performance is contingent upon many factors, including motivation, skills, and environment. A theoretical model of language knowledge, in contrast, would describe how an ideal speaker-hearer knows what verbal constructions would make a coherent sentence.
Skills approaches tend to focus on the behavioral contents or abilities that represent quality performance. Two common tributaries of skills approaches have emerged. The coding approach involves quantifying specific behaviors (e.g., gestures, eye contact, questions, assertions, etc.) and examining the extent to which these relate to partner or third-party impressions of competence. The factor-analytic approach analyzes perceptual groupings across behavioral items (e.g., “She or he makes eye contact when interacting with others,” “—— is good at asking relevant questions during interactions,” “I can assert myself and my opinion when I want to,” etc.) that presumably represent underlying skills such as attentiveness, interaction management, expressiveness, or confidence.
Finally, outcomes approaches tend to focus on the extent to which communication fulfills or violates expectancies, or the subjective dimensions by which communication quality is evaluated. The study of communication outcomes highlights the importance of the criteria by which competent performance is evaluated.
Most of the debate about criteria of interpersonal communication competence and social skills has revolved around a relatively small number of evaluative dimensions. Among the candidates proffered are understanding (or clarity, accuracy, fidelity, coorientation), attractiveness, credibility, and efficiency. The two criteria most commonly associated with interpersonal communication competence are appropriateness and effectiveness. Effectiveness refers to the extent to which relatively preferable outcomes are achieved through communication. Appropriateness generally refers to the extent to which communication is viewed as legitimate within a given context. Most scholars accept the importance of both criteria, under the rationale that communication that achieves preferable outcomes through simultaneously appropriate interaction is likely to be optimally competent.
Research Models And Contexts
There is no consensus on a particular organizing theoretical model of interpersonal communication competence and social skills. Michael Argyle (1969) brought together some of the concepts operating in cybernetics and feedback process models of the time into a model of social skills. In this model, an interactant’s motivation or goal instigates a process of translating perceptions into behavioral (motor) responses that effect changes in the social world that provide feedback to the person, who can then incorporate such changes into ongoing behavioral adaptations. This model was later elaborated by McFall (1982) through the addition of decoding skills (reception, perception, interpretation), decision skills (response search, response time, repertoire search, utility evaluation), encoding skills (execution, self-monitoring), and an observer’s subjective evaluation of the resulting performance. This model is more elaborate in contemporary communication models of interpersonal strategic interaction and message production.
Two influential articles posited essential sets of component skills, including empathic communication, descriptiveness, owning feelings, self-disclosure, behavioral flexibility (Bochner & Kelly 1974), and affiliation/support, social relaxation, empathy, behavioral flexibility, and interaction management (Wiemann 1977). Spitzberg & Cupach (1984) popularized a motivation, knowledge, skills, context, and outcomes model to organize the diverse traits and processes necessary to explain competent performance and evaluation.
Exemplary research on interpersonal communication competence examines its role in phenomena such as depression, loneliness, and drug abuse (e.g., Segrin 2001). Other research on interpersonal communication competence in particular contexts examines its role in the intercultural adaptation of sojourners (e.g., Bradford et al. 2000), adapting to interpersonal or group differences, or adapting face-to-face skills to a computer-mediated context (e.g., Spitzberg 2006).
Measurement work is ubiquitous, and illustrates that there is little consensus regarding the assessment of interpersonal communication competence. Over 100 measures have been identified, and depending on the particular purpose of research, there are approximately a dozen measures available with sufficient research traditions to recommend their use (Spitzberg 2003; Spitzberg & Cupach 1989). Examination of the measures of interpersonal communication competence and social skills produces a list of well over 100 distinct skills attributed to competence (Spitzberg & Cupach 1984, 1989, 2002). Efforts to reconfigure interpersonal skills suggest that there may be more parsimonious models (e.g., Benjamin 1996; Spitzberg & Cupach 2002; Wish et al. 1980). Other approaches hope to reduce the lists of skills through the application of factor analysis techniques to identify a set of underlying dimensions (BubaÍ 2001).
For example, any list of behavioral skills could include any or all of the following: topic initiation, open-ended questions, sentence completions, use of verbal reinforcers, intonation, use of gestures, gaze, eye contact, response latency, head nods, interruptions, touching, body posture and orientation, paralanguage, speaking rate, vocal volume, vocal quality, verbal fluency, self-references, facial expression, emotional disclosure, expressing opinions, clarifications, seeking clarification, use of humor, laughing, ownership statements, relative talk time, agreement, disagreement, apologies, and compliments.
Clearly, however, these labels are a gloss on the microscopic details of the composition of such behaviors, and just as clearly, this is only a partial list of potentially relevant skills. Furthermore, these skills are often not the meaningful units people use to make sense of their social interaction. More meaningful units are likely to occur at more molar levels of abstraction, such as adaptability, empathy, disclosure, attentiveness, listening, comforting, immediacy, assertiveness, confidence, aggressiveness, conflict, and so forth. That the former molecular skills map in some systematic way onto the more molar categories or inferences about performances is one of the leading measurement concerns of research (see, e.g., Dillard & Spitzberg 1984; Pavitt 1989).
There are five persistent challenges to assessment of interpersonal communication competence. The first problem is identifying the appropriate domain of skills. If there are over 100 skills, there is no consensual basis to determine which to include and exclude. A second problem is that skills exist at different levels of abstraction, so it is not obvious whether assessment should occur at the level of molecular skills (e.g., eye contact) or more molar skills (e.g., assertiveness). A third challenge to assessment is whether to measure competence as a trait or state. It is not obvious whether interpersonal communication competence is highly variable or relatively stable across different kinds of contexts and times. A fourth problem is identifying the most appropriate judge of interpersonal communication competence. The locus of judgment can be a personevaluated self, a person judging a conversational partner (i.e., an involved interactant), a person being evaluated by an uninvolved third party (e.g., a trained rater evaluating an anonymous interactant), or a person being evaluated by an expert judge (e.g., a client being rated by a counselor or instructor). A fifth persistent challenge is the differentiation between objective and subjective evaluations. There is no consensus on whether to measure behaviors through a coding process for their frequency of occurrence, or to forgo such labor-intensive approaches and rely on interactant subjective reports of their competence.
Future research may show promise from advances in theory development, such as expectancy theories of competence inference or theories of message production, in which the content of competence may be more specifically articulated. Progress may also result from application of the analysis of experts. Individuals identified as expert communicators in certain targeted interpersonal contexts (e.g., managers, negotiators, etc.) could be systematically studied to determine the skills they master that differentiate them from those more novice communicators in such domains.
- Argyle, M. (1969). Social interaction. London: Tavistock.
- Benjamin, L. S. (1996). Interpersonal diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders, 2nd edn. New York: Guilford.
- Bochner, A. P., & Kelly, C. W. (1974). Interpersonal competence: Rationale, philosophy, and implementation of a conceptual framework. Speech Teacher, 23, 279 – 304.
- Bradford, L., Allen, M., & Beisser, K. (2000). Meta-analysis of intercultural communication competence research. World Communication, 29, 28 – 51.
- BubaÍ, G. (2001). Toward competence in interpersonal communication: Constitutive traits, skills and dimensions. World Futures, 57, 557 – 581.
- Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Dillard, J., & Spitzberg, B. H. (1984). Global impressions of social skills: Behavioral predictors. In R. N. Bostrom (ed.), Communication yearbook 8. Beverly Hills: Sage, pp. 446 – 463.
- Hecht, M. L. (1978). The conceptualization and measurement of interpersonal communication satisfaction. Human Communication Research, 4, 253 – 264.
- McFall, R. M. (1982). A review and reformulation of the concept of social skills. Behavioral Assessment, 4, 1–33.
- Pavitt, C. (1989). Accounting for the process of communicative competence evaluation: A comparison of predictive models. Communication Research, 16, 405 – 433.
- Phillips, E. L. (1985). Social skills: History and prospect. In L. L’Abate & M. A. Milan (eds.), Handbook of social skills training and research. New York: John Wiley, pp. 3 – 21.
- Segrin, C. (2001). Interpersonal processes in psychological problems. New York: Guilford.
- Spitzberg, B. H. (2003). Methods of skill assessment. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 93 –134.
- Spitzberg, B. H. (2006). Toward a theory of computer-mediated communication competence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2). At http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue2/ spitzberg.html.
- Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (1984). Interpersonal communication competence. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (1989). Handbook of interpersonal competence research. New York: Springer.
- Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2002). Interpersonal skills. In M. L. Knapp & J. R. Daly (eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication, 3rd edn. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 564 – 611.
- Wiemann, J. M. (1977). Explication and test of a model of communication competence. Human Communication Research, 3, 195 –213.
- Wine, J. D. (1981). From defect to competence models. In J. D. Wine & M. D. Smye (eds.), Social competence. New York: Guilford, pp. 3 – 35.
- Wish, M., D’Andrade, R. G., & Goodnow, J. E., II (1980). Dimensions of interpersonal communication: Correspondences between structures for speech acts and bipolar scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 848 – 860.