Interpersonal communication refers to the act of exchanging messages between two or more people. It’s juxtaposed to intrapersonal communication, which refers to talking to yourself (in your own head).
While a face-to-face conversation might first come to mind when we use this term, it also refers to written communication such as letters and books, sign language, and even smoke signals!
People who have strong interpersonal communication skills are often good leaders and team members. They likely have tangential traits like emotional intelligence (the ability to read and empathize with others’ emotions).
Interpersonal Communication Definition
I generally consider interpersonal to be the opposite of intrapersonal. Interpersonal refers to between multiple people, whereas intrapersonal refers to between you and yourself!
In fact, these two types of communication (inter and intra) are often contrasted in personality and skills assessment tests, where some people (generally, introverts) are seen as best at intrapersonal communication, whereas others (generally extroverts) are seen as best at interpersonal communication. Needless to say, these quizzes are often based solely on pop psychology and not actual fact.
For more scholarly definitions, we can turn to the likes of Trenholm and Jensen (2009) who define the term below:
“Interpersonal communication [refers] to dyadic communication in which two individuals, sharing the roles of sender and receiver, become connected through the mutual activity of creating meaning” (Trenholm & Jensen, 2008, p. 29).
For a more simple and all-encompassing definition, try Burleson (2010):
“interpersonal communication fundamentally involves an exchange of messages” (Burleson, 2010, p. 145)
Interpersonal Communication Examples
1. Face-to-Face Communication: This is the classic form of interaction that we think of when talking about interpersonal interactions. It’s the most direct form of interpersonal communication. A simple example would be a regular coffee chat between friends discussing their week.
2. Phone Calls: This involves the exchange of information through vocal conversation over the telephone or cell phone. A simple example might be a doctor calling a patient to discuss test results.
3. Sign Language: This is a way of communicating using gestures, facial expressions, and body language, generally for the deaf community. For instance, we often see this form of communication when we watch an interpreter doing sign language during a presentation.
4. Sending a Letter: This consists traditionally of written messages sent through postal mail for communication. Think of a soldier sending a letter home from deployment, for example.
5. Sending a Text Message: The rise of digital media has allowed us to embrace newer (or, these days, not-so-new) forms of interpersonal interaction, such as text messages. For example, a sibling might remind another to pick up groceries via text message.
6. Sending an Email: This is a generally more formal type of written interpersonal communication, generally used in a professional setting such as when sending an email to a client or boss. For example, a supervisor might email an employee about an upcoming meeting.
7. Active Listening: This refers to a communicative approach where the listener gives full attention and responds appropriately to their interlocutor, such as through nodding and asking clarifying questions. I have a whole guide on active listening – read it here.
8. Giving Feedback: Giving feedback is all about responding to someone’s work or actions in a constructive manner. We’ve all received this, such as when getting some feedback on an essay from our teacher at school! Check out my guide on constructive feedback here.
9. Storytelling: This involves conveying a sequence of events through words, images, or sounds. For example, a parent might tell a bedtime story to a child. This is one of the oldest forms of communication in humanity, which has passed on folktales and folklore that form the foundation of our cultures.
10. Messages Through Eye Contact: We can even send messages to other people through our eyes. Take, for example, a couple who might exchange glances across a room at a party to signal “I’m bored, let’s get out of here!”
11. Facial Expressions: These are expressions that convey emotions or feelings without the use of words. More than just eye contact, we can send messages through other facial features, such as when we smile to indicate happiness or contentedness.
12. Gestures: This includes utilizing hand movements or other physical actions to communicate. Consider, for example, Italians who are known for being highly expressive with their hands to convey meaning.
13. Proxemics (use of space): This refers to how we communicate via the physical space around us. For example, a person may stand close to their partner to signify affection, or far from others to signify discomfort or even distaste for the group.
14. Haptics (touch): This refers to how we communicate through touch. Take, for example, a hug between friends that could convey affection.
15. Silence: This signifies the absence of vocal communication but can still convey messages. Take, for example, pausing before answering a complex question, which can imply thoughtfulness. Similarly, it might represent anger and frustration between a feuding couple.
16. Tone of Voice: This concerns how someone’s pitch, volume, and speed carry meaning. For example, a soft and slow voice could indicate sadness or fear, while a loud voice might come across as angry.
17. Video Calls: This entails a digital method of face-to-face communication enabled by technology. Colleagues in different geographical locations might hold a meeting via video call, especially in a virtual workplace. Similarly, I use this method to communicate with my parents overseas.
18. Body Posture: Body postire includes the way we hold our bodies as a part of nonverbal communication. Standing tall and with good posture during a public speaking event could be an example, which you might consciously use to demonstrate confidence.
19. Group Discussions: This involves multiple individuals exchanging ideas or opinions on a particular topic, such as during a seminar at university. A person with strong interpersonal skills might also be very good during a group discussion.
20. One-on-One Interviews: This is an interaction between two people where one asks questions and the other answers. A reporter might conduct an interview with a famous athlete, for instance.
21. Public Speaking: This refers to the act of delivering a speech to a live audience. A mayor might address townsfolk at a local community event, for instance.
22. Non-verbal Cues: These are forms of communication without the use of words, like body language or facial expressions. A dancer expressing emotion through their movement could be a good example of this.
23. Blogging and Vlogging: These encompass sharing personal thoughts or experiences through written (blog) or video (vlog) format.
24. Personal Advertisements: These are self-promotion methods employed to communicate your own skills or services. We might see a handyman who puts out an ad on a local newspaper, or in a more personal setting, someone sharing a personal ‘intro’ on a dating app.
25. Role-playing: This concerns taking on roles and interactions in a simulated scenario. For example, managerial trainers might use role-playing to teach negotiation or leadership skills.
26. Gossiping: This involves spreading unverified information about others. (Office coworkers discussing rumors about company changes during lunch breaks)
27. Flirting: This form of interaction can include verbal or non-verbal cues to express interest in someone. (A person complimenting someone at a social gathering)
28. Physical Appearance: This pertains to how our looks can signal certain messages. (A business suit for professionalism)
29. Braille: This form of communication involves using a system of raised dots that can be felt with the fingertips, typically used by visually impaired individuals. (A blind reader accessing a book in Braille)
30. Gift Giving: This signifies the practice of giving presents to express certain feelings or relationships. (A birthday gift from one friend to another)
31. Voice Messaging: This comprises sending vocal messages electronically as a form of communication. (A parent leaving a voicemail for their child about dinner plans)
32. Writing an Opinion Piece: This includes expressing personal viewpoints on specific topics in a written format. (A columnist might write a piece supporting climate change initiatives)
33. Ordering Something Online: This involves communicating needs or desires through digital platforms to purchase goods or services. (Choosing a preferred model and color of a phone on an e-commerce website)
34. Writing an invoice: This refers to creating a detailed list of goods sold or services provided, along with the respective prices, for a transaction. (A freelance designer invoicing a client for a completed project)
35. Debating: This denotes defending or arguing against viewpoints in a structured discourse to convince an audience. (Students participating in a school debate competition on the topic of technology in education)
Types of Interpersonal Communication
Berger and Roloff (2019) identity “ten fundamental interpersonal communication processes” which, they argue, form the foundations of why we communicate with others.
- Social Influence: This is about how we utilize conversation to persuade or influence those around us. (For example, a boss might persuade the staff to take up a new approach to work)
- Social Support: This involves providing comfort, assistance or encouragement to emotionally or physically distressed individuals through communication. (For instance, a friend might comfort another who has recently lost a job)
- Relationship Development: This refers to the inclusion of communication in starting, maintaining, or ending relationships. (A young couple might use frequent and intimate communication to deepen their bond)
- Deception: We deploy this when we deliberately communicate false information to someone. ( A person might lie about their past to seem more attractive)
- Bargaining and Negotiation: This process includes bargaining or negotiating agreements, contracts, or treaties using conversation. (A buyer might negotiate with a seller for a reduced price on a car)
- Conflict Management: This purpose is about the use of communication strategies to deal with disagreements or disparity in ideas or expectations. (Two business partners might use respectful communication to resolve a dispute about budget distribution)
- Conversation Management: This signifies how we control the conversation flow or direct the topics of discussion. (For instance, an interviewer might steer the conversation towards specific topics relevant to the job role)
- Impression Management: This element concerns how we convey ourselves through communication to leave a positive image on others. (An example is how politicians carefully craft their speeches to maintain their public image)
- Privacy Management: This aspect illuminates using communication to protect our personal information. (For instance, changing the topic when asked about private details occurs frequently)
- Uncertainty Management: This purpose denotes using conversation to decrease uncertainty about different life situations. (For instance, asking directions when you’re unsure of the way to a local market)
People with strong interpersonal skills have a great leg-up in life. They’re able to get their message across to others and work with groups amicably. This is great for jobs like teacher or marketing manager. But even people like me, who are quite shy in person, can still have good interpersonal communication skills in their own way, such as when interacting in writing.
Berger, C. R., & Roloff, M. E. (2019). Interpersonal Communication. In Stacks, D. W., & Salwen, M. B. (Eds.). An integrated approach to communication theory and research. London: Routledge.
Burleson, B. R. (2010). The nature of interpersonal communication. In Berger, C. R., Roloff, M. E., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (Eds.). The Handbook of Communication Science (pp. 145-163). New York: SAGE Publications.
Trenholm, S., & Jensen, A. (2008). Interpersonal communication (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]