3. Interpersonal Communication – Business Communication for Managers

Chapter 3


“Words are just words, and without heart they have no meaning.”


Chinese proverb1

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the complexity of interpersonal communication.
  • Understand key issues about relationships that influence interpersonal communication.

  • Evaluate your own and other peoples' interpersonal communication.

  • Apply your knowledge and understanding of communication to everyday work interactions in order to help improve the effectiveness of communication at work.

  • Identify issues that may contribute to difficult encounters at work.

  • Respect the other person's individuality during interactions and communication.


Interpersonal communication involves building and sustaining relationships with seniors, supervisors, peers, subordinates, workers, clients, and customers to promote a healthy work environment. It encompasses both professional as well as personal communication. It is a two-way process.

        Healthy interpersonal relationships serve useful functions. These are:

  • Promoting effective coordination between two or more people or groups
  • Facilitating teamwork and collaboration
  • Motivating individuals to put in extra work
  • Creating a supportive working climate characterized by loyalty and trust

Unhealthy interpersonal relationships are characterized by conflict, manipulation, negativity, distrust, and discord. According to various researchers, the repercussions of unhealthy interpersonal relations may include:

  • Low morale and lack of motivation
  • Unwillingness to put in extra effort
  • Decreased loyalty
  • Increased absenteeism
  • High turnover
  • Poor productivity
  • Groupthink
  • Silo mentality

The term “interpersonal” can be defined as “between persons” or “involving personal relationships.” Though interpersonal communication includes oral, written, and non-verbal forms of communication, the term is generally applied to spoken communication that occurs between two individuals or groups at a personal level. It can be in a synchronous form (for example, face to face) or an asynchronous form (instant messaging, chat, e-mail, and so on). Staff meetings, project discussions, performance review meetings, conferences, seminars, sales visits, client meetings, and recruitment interviews are some of the forums where interpersonal communication can occur. To understand the interpersonal communication process, it is important to revisit the two-way process of communication explained in Chapter 1. Exhibit 3.1 explains this notion further.

The communication process starts when the sender has an idea, and then transmits the idea to a receiver through a channel or media. The receiver interpremts the message and sends feedback to the sender indicating that the message has been received and action has been taken on it.


The diagram provided in Exhibit 3.1 has to be slightly modified for interpersonal communication. Exhibit 3.2 illustrates this.


Exhibit 3.1 The Process of Communication


Exhibit 3.2 The Process of Interpersonal Communication


When John and Mona chat or engage in communication with each other, they are either sharing a personal concern or a professional concern, gossiping, or trying to be friendly with each other. Unfortunately, communication is not perfect and errors (note the dotted line in Exhibit 3.2) creep into the process, as discussed in Chapter 2. This can happen when one or both participants have malicious intent, are not expressive enough, are poor listeners, interpret the message wrongly, or fail to react as intended.


The following characteristics are associated with interpersonal communication:

  • It is inevitable. One cannot avoid communicating. If not verbally, then non-verbal signals convey signs and symbols that indicate one's personality and thought process. Effective communicators understand that in professional communication, it is usually not intent that is appreciated (as it is invisible) but rather the behaviour that is exhibited by the person.
  • It is irrevocable. Words once spoken cannot be taken back. In professional communication, this can create a multiplicity of problems as one of the parties may “leak” information or shared confidences to others.
  • It is open to misinterpretation. Owing to the complex nature of communication (multiple contexts, multiple communication styles, multiple backgrounds), interpersonal communication is open to misinterpretation. Hence, confirmation and feedback are essential. Trust and reliability are the other ingredients of successful interpersonal communication.
  • It is highly contextual. Communication does not take place in isolation. It operates in the psychological context, where participants in the interaction bring their attitudes, values, and beliefs into the transaction; the relational context, where participants interact on the basis of how well they know and relate to each other; the situational context, which defines the psycho-social “where” or the backdrop of the communication; the environmental context, which deals with the physical “where” of the communication (e.g., the classroom, the city, the season); and the cultural context, where the participants may miscommunicate if they fail to observe each other's cultural norms.

There are certain intrinsic and extrinsic factors that act as barriers to successful interpersonal relationships.

The intrinsic factors are:

  • Ego: Feelings of perceived superiority over others inhibit good relationships. People are wary of egoistic, aggressive personalities. People are also wary of passive and subdued personalities.
  • Personal attitude: Some people are averse to building any form of relationship other than the purely professional. They shy away from meeting people to “chat” unnecessarily. They do not involve themselves in any social interaction.
  • Stress: When people are stressed, they choose to remain aloof and withdrawn. This results in isolation and decreased interaction with others.

The extrinsic factors that may act as barriers to communication include:

  • Position: Feelings of inferiority/superiority due to rank, prestige, status, and authority may have an adverse effect on interpersonal relationships.
  • Distance: People separated by geographical and spatial distances are unable to interact with each other. However, with the advent of technology, people are also building relationships via e-mails and telephones.


When people are stressed, they tend to remain aloof and withdrawn. This results in isolation and decreased interaction with others.

  • Culture: People from one culture may not like to mix informally with people from another culture. This prevents development of healthy interpersonal relationships.
  • Technology: Technological inventions have led to more people sending e-mails rather than personally communicating a message. This may inhibit face-to-face communication and the development of interpersonal communication.

A psycho-social analysis reveals the role of “perceived dependence” on the development of interpersonal relationships. For instance, consider Exhibit 3.3, which shows the relationship between employees and supervisors.

As shown in Exhibit 3.3, the relationship between Raman, an employee, and his supervisor can have any one of the following characteristics:

  • Respect: Raman is a good follower. He genuinely believes that he should form a personal relationship with the supervisor. This is reciprocated by the supervisor as well.


Exhibit 3.3 Interpersonal Relationship Between Supervisor and Subordinate

  • Fear: Raman fears that if he does not do a certain task, he might face repercussions from his supervisor in the future.
  • Ambition: Raman has a certain career strategy strategic in mind. He hopes to be in his supervisor's good books.

On the other hand, the supervisor also strives to maintain a level of interpersonal relationship with Raman. This can be attributed to:

  • Morale: The supervisor may believe that reciprocating such relationships improves the morale of employees and motivates them to perform in a congenial environment.
  • Grapevine: The supervisor encourages the interpersonal relationship as she feels that it will help her become familiar with the grapevine in the organization.
  • Personal agenda: The supervisor may also aim to utilize the services of Raman for personal work.

Exhibit 3.4, on the other hand, shows a different type of interpersonal communication. Here, Debbie and Soma are peers. They work together in the same department and believe in maintaining a good interpersonal relationship with each other.

This belief can be attributed to any or all of the following:

  • Respect: They genuinely believe that it is important to be pleasant. They respect each other for their contributions and achievements.
  • Reciprocal exchange: They have a specific strategic intent. They are pleasant because it serves their purpose to be so. They may hope for reciprocal behaviour in the future.
  • Facade: Debbie and Soma hope that by being nice to each other, a facade of group cohesiveness is maintained to the external world.

Exhibit 3.5 shows an external relationship between John and a client or customer, Harry. There is a one-way arrow towards Harry, which denotes that John is dependent on Harry rather than vice versa. John is a sales professional and truly believes that the customer is king. He likes to keep his clients happy. This can be attributed to the following:

  • Value: John values the client. Harry has been loyal to the company. John feels that he must maintain the relationship by rewarding the client from time to time with new company schemes, special discounts, offers, freebies, and so on.
  • Gain: John hopes to accrue future gain from the client by way of referrals, continued business, and goodwill. On the other hand, Harry may like to maintain a personal relationship with John to keep abreast of trends, new schemes, and the like.

Exhibit 3.4 Interpersonal Relationships Between Peers


Exhibit 3.5 Interpersonal Relationships Between Clients and Employees

Communication is simple common sense, as everybody communicates in a similar manner in organizations. Communication is complex because everybody has a different style of communication.
One should communicate according to what one feels is appropriate. One should communicate according to what the audience (listener) expects.
Diplomacy and tact are forms of manipulation. Diplomacy and tact are not forms of manipulation; they are forms of persuasion if used ethically.
People should not communicate positively with those they dislike. Communication is essential, even with people one does not like but must work with.

Interpersonal semantics is concerned with “verbal exchanges” between people. In communication, we explore relational development through the process of interpersonal semantics that people use when they engage with each other. Central to the concept of interpersonal semantics is the “Johari window,”2 developed by American psychologists Joe Luft and Harry Ingham in the 1950s.

The Johari window is a simple and useful tool for self-awareness training, personality development, interpersonal communication, team development, group dynamics, and intergroup relationships. It is also known as the disclosure/feedback model of self-awareness. It represents a person's (or team's) attitudes, beliefs, skills, and experiences in relation to others from essentially four perspectives called windows or quadrants. Each of these quadrants represents information in terms of it is known or unknown by the individual or team in question and whether it is known or unknown by others.

The rationale behind the Johari window is that people have the innate ability to adopt four approaches to interpersonal relationships with respect to themselves:

  • Ability to disclose a lot of information about themselves
  • Ability to not disclose any information about themselves
  • Ability to receive feedback in a constructive way
  • Ability to resist any feedback about themselves

This is always in relation to others (that is, how others perceive the individual in question).

The Johari window addresses the following questions:

  • What do others know about that individual?
  • What is unknown by them?
  • What do others not know about the individual that they should know?
  • What do they know about the individual that the individual should know?

Exhibit 3.6 illustrates the Johari window further.


Exhibit 3.6 The Johari Window

(Known to self and known to others)
(Unknown to self but known to others)
(Known to self but unknown to others)
(Unknown to self and unknown to others)

As evident from Exhibit 3.6, the Johari window has four quadrants. Each of these is discussed in this section.

The Open Area or the Arena

The open area is what is known by the person (as well as others) about himself or herself. It includes physical, psychological, or behavioural traits that everyone is well aware of. Usually this form of information is known when:

  • The individual discloses these facts about himself or herself to others, who then may pass on the information to others.
  • The individual behaves in a particular manner that is visible to all.

In organizational communication and even in some personal communication, mature individuals are careful to divulge only “useful” information about themselves, which may help to build up an image or a perception in the minds of their audience. Thus they choose to communicate in a selective manner that is not detrimental to their self-interest. Believing in the maxim that “perception is reality,” these individuals carve an image conforming or not conforming to organizational demands.

Examples of interpersonal semantics in this case are:

  • “I am very fastidious about report writing.” (to a subordinate)
  • “I love bungee jumping.” (to peers)
  • “I hate conflicts.” (to team members)

The Blind Area

The blind area considers traits that are unknown by the person about himself or herself but are known by others. It includes physical, psychological, and behavioural tendencies that the individual is unaware of. This occurs when:

  • The individual is not receptive to feedback, and others start withdrawing from him or her.
  • The individual ignores comments about himself or herself.
  • Others deliberately keep the individual in the dark.
  • Others fear the individual and hesitate to be honest around him or her.

Examples are:

  • A thinks himself to be meticulous and systematic, but the others think A is unnecessarily fastidious and slow.
  • B thinks she is an able leader, but others consider her to be authoritarian and arrogant.
  • C thinks he is careful with budgeting, but others think he is a miser of the worst order.

Here are some examples of interpersonal semantics:

  • “I do not want to listen to unnecessary gossip. Do I make myself clear?”
  • “I am the team lead, and the team lead is the most efficient of all the team members. Don't you know the boss is always right?”

The Facade

The facade is what is known to the person about himself or herself but is unknown to others. The person keeps up a facade to deliberately mask an undesirable trait or a past action/event. This happens when:

  • The individual feels that the trait is not important for others to know in the current context.
  • The individual feels that it is a personal failing and that he or she would be better off if others did not learn about it.
  • The person has a hidden agenda.
  • The person has manipulative intent.

Some incidents can be considered as examples of a facade:

  • Seema is a team leader, but she has a tremendous fear of public speaking—no wonder she always nominates one of the other team members to present on her behalf in the guise of developing leadership skills among employees.
  • Ajit goofed up on a major project in his previous company. As result, he was asked to leave the organization. Now into his sixth year in his current job, the memories of the event still rankle. He did not tell anybody about the incident; it was hushed up nicely. But Ajit knows that his confident demeanour is a facade that can slip at any moment.

Examples of interpersonal semantics are:

  • “Rajat, why don't you attend the meeting and give the presentation? I personally feel that all of you are getting good leadership training from my side.”
  • “This project is a team project. All of you will be responsible for its completion and success.”

The Unknown Area

The unknown area is what is unknown to oneself and to others. These could include certain hidden talents, exemplary behaviour in a crisis, extraordinary skills that have not been tested, and even a negative tendency. This happens when:

  • The person has poor self-awareness.
  • The person has low self-esteem and a passive persona.
  • The person is not a risk taker and therefore fails to recognize hidden qualities.
  • Others do not pay much attention to the individual.

The following incidents can be taken as examples:

  • X was a reticent manager who rarely spoke up at meetings, discussions, and seminars. Consequently, he was a lone ranger until the day he had to give an impromptu presentation to an international client when the senior manager reported sick. Everyone was amazed at the ease with which X handled the questions fielded by the client, who was a tough customer. X was articulate and forceful, something that no one anticipated from him. Indeed, even X was taken aback at his own skill. If it had not been for the crisis, he would never have spoken up at such an important client presentation.
  • Sheila, a management trainee, always preferred desk jobs as she felt that field work was not suited to her personality. Meeting clients, soliciting deals, and making presentations made her nervous. However, during the induction module, she was posted to a field job for two months. It was here that she got a surprise: clients consistently praised her for her assertiveness, persuasion skills, and her excellent relationship management.

The aim of management is to develop the “open area” of an individual or a team because an open-minded individual or team is receptive to others' ideas. Such individuals can also work well with others and are free from mistrust, confusion, conflict, and misunderstanding. Their role is to facilitate feedback and disclosure among teams and group members. They also have a responsibility to promote a culture of openness and transparency.


Exhibit 3.7 Open Window of a New Manager or Team

Open area

Exhibit 3.8 Open Window of an Established Manager or Team

Open area of established person

Exhibit 3.7 shows the open window of a new manager or team, while Exhibit 3.8 illustrates the open window of an established manager or team. Established teams and individuals have a larger open area than new teams or members. This is because established individuals have more experience and knowledge compared to newcomers. Moreover, a new member in a team will be observing other team members. That person is new and, thus, more restrained in his or her communication.

The open area can be developed horizontally by offering feedback to the new member. It can also develop vertically when new teams or members share information about themselves. This process is showcased in Exhibit 3.9. To make new teams or team members more comfortable, others can ask new members to disclose more information about themselves.

In Stage 4, the new member has evolved considerably. The individual has sufficiently enhanced the open area by adequate disclosure and feedback. Consequently, there has been a decrease in the size of the “blind” area as well as the “unknown” area of the individual. The member is self-aware, mature, and willing to experiment to explore the hidden aspects of his or her personality. By sharing information about themselves, team members create a commonality that enhances team productivity and effectiveness.

The blind spot, as shown in Exhibit 3.10, is what is known about a person by others in a group but is not known by the person himself or herself. The goal is to reduce this area by soliciting feedback about oneself. As this area decreases, the open area automatically increases. The team leader has the responsibility of promoting an environment of non-judgmental feedback. Individuals will then feel safe to disclose and encourage sensitive feedback.

The facade, which has been illustrated in Exhibit 3.11, is the area where individuals keep certain traits or behaviours to themselves and do not disclose them to others. Generally, extracting this information is not an easy process, as the extent of disclosure is dependent on the discretion of the individual. An open organizational climate promoted by the leader or manager has a great impact on disclosures of such kind. A self-aware individual with a mature mindset is less likely to hold back organization-specific information in an open environment.


Exhibit 3.9 Stages 1–4 in Open Disclosure About the Self


Exhibit 3.10 Soliciting Feedback to Reduce the Blind Area


Exhibit 3.11 Disclosure about Oneself to Reduce Facade in the Workplace


Exhibit 3.12 Soliciting Feedback to Reduce the Unknown Area


U, or the unknown area, indicates feelings, aptitudes, and latent abilities that are unknown to the person as well as to others in the group (Exhibit 3.12). The leader or manager can prompt the person to discover these abilities, for which an appropriate and encouraging atmosphere has to be created. Managers can help employees deal with inhibitions and fears.


Tuckman's “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing Model of Team Development” (1965)3 has been used to link group dynamics with interpersonal communication that takes place among members of a group and between two groups. Exhibit 3.13 illustrates this model.


“Forming” is the first stage of team development. This stage is characterized by a high level of dependence on the leader for guidance and direction. Members may or may not know each other. Communication is essential, therefore, to acquaint group members with each other and align them with the team goals. Exhibit 3.14 illustrates this in more detail.


“Storming” is the second stage of team development. This stage is characterized by competition and strife among the team members. Communication thus plays an important role in idea development, articulation of team goals, and facilitating productive interaction. Exhibit 3.15 explains how “storming” results in poor communication, if not managed effectively.


Exhibit 3.13 Tuckman's Model of Team Development


Exhibit 3.14 Communication in the Forming Stage of Team Development

Member communication Team leader communication
Receiving instructions from the team leader Giving directions
Listening to the team lead and others Informing others about processes and procedures
Asking the team a few questions relating to purpose, objective, and external relationships Answering questions
Interacting with others in the team Interacting with top management, clients, and others

Exhibit 3.15 Communication in the Storming Stage of Team Development

Member communication Team leader communication
Using hurtful words, argumentation, and debates Listening to a coterie of influential persons or a particular individual
Indulging in gossip or backbiting Failing to explain the team goals in a proper manner
Keeping secrets from each other Too much empty talk and no action
Meeting the leader in isolation Failing to report to higher-ups and clients
Failing to listen to instructions Taking absolutely no feedback from others


“Norming” is the third stage of team development. This stage is characterized by generating agreement and creating consensus. Communication is vital for agenda-setting and creating norms—written as well as unwritten—for interaction. Exhibit 3.16 illustrates this further.


“Performing” is the fourth stage of team development. This stage is characterized by a fully functioning team. Communication is geared towards updating each other on team progress and reporting. Exhibit 3.17 examines the key features of the performing stage.


Exhibit 3.16 Communication in the Norming Stage of Team Development

Member communication Team leader communication
Plan norms for interaction and write down goals Meets frequently to assess work according to guidelines
Give and receive constructive feedback Brainstorms; asks for opinions and ideas from members
Share ideas Periodic feedback; coaches members
Chat informally Corresponds with clients on a regular basis

Exhibit 3.17 Communication in the Performing Stage of Team Development

Member communication Team leader communication
Communicating frequently with each other Needs to give very few instructions; delegates authority
The team members meet frequently among themselves Intervenes to resolve personal/ interpersonal issues
Use feedback from clients and each other to make changes Uses feedback from the subordinates
Reports to the team leader Reports to higher-ups or clients


Families with high levels of communication, sharing, healthy exchange of ideas, and joint decision making create well-adjusted children who develop high emotional competence in the later stage of life.

Drs John Mayer and Peter Salovey were the first to use the term “emotional intelligence” (EQ).4 The term was used to describe a person's ability to understand his or her own emotions and the emotions of others and to act appropriately based on this understanding. In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized this term with his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.5

The principal thesis of the concept is that it is the stable-minded individual, the emotionally intelligent person, who excels in every sphere of life. EQ moves away from the narrow view of intelligence as a genetic given and focuses on eight types of intelligence that an individual acquires on the basis of personal experience. The definition of emotional intelligence, according to Goleman, includes five areas: knowing one's emotions, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships.

Now that we have discussed the concept of emotional intelligence, let us discuss how emotional intelligence relates to communication.

Here is a scene with which most people are familiar: Dhiraj says or does something that Dick interprets as a personal attack. Dick retaliates with hurtful words or actions. Dhiraj, having meant no harm in the first place, is puzzled. Since the provocation is extreme, Dhiraj may also retaliate. The situation escalates, even though there is no real reason for the conflict. This is the result of a failure to understand the first bit of communication. In most cases, communication, or lack of it, is the root cause of conflicts.


Exhibit 3.18 Destructive Interpersonal Communication


Exhibit 3.19 Constructive Interpersonal Communication


Destructive and constructive communicative situations can be compared with the help of Exhibits 3.18 and 3.19.

In Exhibit 3.18, a destructive process is shown. Here, Dick is highly annoyed with Dhiraj after being interrupted rather rudely in a meeting. Obviously, he is taken by surprise as he had not anticipated the interruption. The emotional response is strong. He gets angry and the more he thinks about it, the more the desire for revenge creeps into his mind. In this situation, his response is to become more hostile towards Dhiraj.

In Exhibit 3.19, the initial provocation is the same, but the emotions reflect surprise, anxiety, and concern rather than anger. Dick has known Dhiraj for some time and has a fairly good relationship with him. Consequently, the response to this situation is either to talk to Dhiraj directly in order to clear the air or to continue behaving as though nothing had happened. This has been termed by experts as a “constructive-knowing the audience-building a bridge-collaborating-process.” This is also indicative of high on emotional intelligence on the part of the individual involved.

Communication Bytes 3.1

Higher emotional intelligence is significantly associated with higher social skills. Those with higher emotional intelligence are more cooperative and professional. Research reveals that unhealthy communication patterns in childhood affect the growth of emotional intelligence. Children in families that discourage conflict, self-expression, and assertiveness may not develop the essential skills of expressiveness and receptiveness—two key ingredients of successful communication. This also hampers the development of emotional intelligence. Families with high levels of communicativeness, sharing, healthy exchange of ideas, and joint decision-making create well-adjusted children who develop high emotional competence later in life. These adults value open exchange of ideas and, hence, their open area or arena is wide enough to build positive interpersonal communication with others.


It's always easy to communicate with people one likes, but sometimes people have to communicate with people they dislike. One of the essential qualities of an effective communicator is the ability to get along with everyone. This is even more important in the workplace where one must work with others to get thing done, and a healthy (if not too friendly) relationship helps. The following tips might be useful in maintaining a healthy interpersonal relationship with others:

  • It is always good to check one's assumptions. For instance, if one hears a disturbing rumour, it is important to consider whether the person concerned actually behaved offensively, or if this just is the opinion of an indirect source. Did you actually talk to the person about this offensive behaviour? If you clarify, it might turn out that certain remarks were taken out of context. In any case, it is not wise to rely on hearsay. Forming ideas or assumptions based merely on hearsay may destroy a relationship before building it.
  • Do not assume that people have ignored you. They might simply not know you enough to interact with you. They might never have been introduced to you or they might even have some sort of bias against you. It is always a good idea to walk up to the person concerned and introduce yourself. This will also let you check whether the person really isn't interested in any sort of interaction with you.
  • Sometimes a request is refused; do not take this personally. Do not assume that people are “out to get you” or have a personal agenda against you. Instead, go back and examine whether the request was valid in the first place. The request might not have been accepted due to financial issues, time constraints, or other valid reasons. However, do make sure to find out why the request was denied so that you do not repeat the mistake.
  • Typecasting people is perhaps the biggest barrier to communication. It is easy to form opinions against people who are always too loud or incompetent or uncultured. However, it is prudent to take a minute and pause, and consider that people may also have typecast you. No one is perfect and one should accept the imperfections of others.
  • If certain people are better at something, it is always healthy to learn from them rather than cultivating a competitive attitude. In the workplace, it is wiser to be perceived as an ally than as a threat.
  • Trust your own judgement rather than that of others. Listen to your well-wishers, but ultimately act on the basis of your own experience. Adopt a neutral attitude and free your mind of pre-conceived notions before you start communicating with someone.

Information Bytes 3.1

There are many reasons that might lead to a prejudice or bias against certain people. Some of them are:

  • We may believe that they said something about us behind our back.
  • They had ignored us earlier.
  • They denied us something we had asked for.
  • They are the “type of people” we dislike.
  • We perceive them to be our closest competitors.
  • “Everybody” thinks that they are trouble.

A communicator can choose a variety of styles to communicate. Effective communicators understand that there are some styles that are more effective in certain situations than others. There are essentially six main styles of interpersonal communication used in business settings:

  • Command and control style: The controller/director style is generally a one-way form of communication. The communication is more in the nature of commands, orders, instructions, and other directives. The communicator uses the influence of their position and power. Managers employing this style are not receptive to feedback. They may also employ various methods to manipulate the target. This type of communication is most effective during a crisis, but when used indiscriminately, it can alienate employees.
  • Cooperative style: A more egalitarian, two-way communication style, the cooperative style encourages employee involvement, participative decision-making, and collaboration. The purpose of communication is to share and cooperate rather than to direct, command, and control. The leader acts as a supporter to the people working with him or her.
  • Systematic style: The systematic method is rule-bound and schedule-specific. It has been found to be useful for project planning and implementation or when working with strict schedules. It is usually used in conjunction with other styles.
  • Inspirational style: The leader assumes a dynamic style of communication to motivate people to act. Using words of inspiration, the speaker seeks to instil confidence among group members.
  • The passive style: This is typically an example of a laid-back style. The leader is content to let employees have the centre stage. The leader shifts responsibility to the team for the task. This method is suitable when the team is capable and knowledgeable but can backfire when the members are seeking authority and guidance from the leader.
  • The avoidance style: Sometimes, managers choose not to communicate. They avoid any form of social contact or interaction with the team members and may indicate an unwillingness to contribute to decision-making. This style is appropriate when the manager chooses not to speak on issues that may not concern him or her, but for issues that directly concern the team, project, or performance, speaking up is important.

Stressful communication can be defined in this context as communication that happens under threat, during a crisis or a personal conflict, or when engaged in conflicts with superiors, subordinates, and peers. Years of emotional maturity may suddenly disappear when faced with a complex situation, which is why these are often described as the real test of physical as well as mental endurance.

Fight or Flight

In terms of physiology, people tend to respond to stress in two ways: to get away from the stressful situation or person, or to “fight it out.” In general, whatever the initial mental predisposition, it is always better to face a problem rather than run away from it. Exhibit 3.20 lists the various modes of communication one can choose in a stressful situation.

Forms of communication in conflict situations include:

  • High assertion–low cooperation: This form of communication is high on assertiveness and low on cooperation. An example is the following utterance: “I'll tell you who's the boss here, and I will not listen to any arguments!”
  • Moderate assertion–moderate cooperation: This form of communication is moderate on cooperation as well as assertion. An example is the following comment: “If you say so, I will come to work during the weekend even though my parents will be visiting me during that time.”
  • High assertion–high cooperation: This kind of communication is high on assertion as well as cooperation. An example is the following: “I do apologize that I cannot come in this weekend to finish the work. However, I promise that I will come early and work late on Monday and Tuesday to complete the pending task.”
  • Low assertion–low cooperation: This kind of communication is low on both assertiveness and cooperation. An example is the comment: “I would humbly like to suggest with your permission that this task is beyond my jurisdiction.”
  • Low assertion–high cooperation: This method of communication is low on assertiveness and high on cooperation. The following utterance illustrates this: “With all due respect, I will be in the office till midnight in order to complete this assignment. I am here to serve the company.”

Bases for Selecting a Conflict Communication Mode

There are certain factors that go towards selecting a specific mode for a certain situation. Whether one chooses collision or cooperation depends on the following factors:

  • The importance of the relationship: When we value a relationship more, we tend to avoid, accommodate, or compromise on a matter.
  • The importance of the issue: If the issue is closely allied with the value system of the person, he or she might feel the need to use a competing or collaborative mode to get the point across. If the issue is trivial to the individual, it might be better to avoid or compromise on the issue.

Exhibit 3.20 Ways to Communicate in Conflict Situations

  • The importance of the potential consequences: People avoid conflict if they anticipate potential losses of job, goodwill, promotion, plum assignments, and so on. They generally engage in a conflict when they feel that they are ready for the consequences.

Conflict Resolution and Communication

Exhibit 3.21 illustrates a communication continuum where deference is the least abrasive form of communication, assertion is skilful communication, and aggression is a violent and severe form of communication.

The following example might explain this point further:

Manager to X: ‘‘X, submit the report to me latest by 4 pm today. Is that clear? Not a minute's delay, mind you.’’

Now, X might give any one of these three responses:

  • First: “Yes, of course sir!” (Knowing perfectly well that 4 pm is a tough deadline to meet.)
  • Second: “Sir, that is a tight deadline. However, I will do my best. If there is no emergency as such, can I request the deadline be moved to tomorrow at 11 am? I will be able to put together the last-minute reviews that I had conducted on our brand by then.”
  • Third: “Sir, I told you at the beginning that I would not be able to do it by then. I have entrusted it to my team member Ravi, who will follow up on it. You should give us healthier timelines for projects so we can be better prepared for them.”

Obviously, it is the second response that is most suitable. Even if the manager rejects the request to move the deadline, at least X has tried to put forward their point of view. Research reveals that managers prefer assertive people to deferential or aggressive ones. Exhibit 3.22 lists information about various kinds of communication in a nutshell.

In addition to the deferential, assertive, and aggressive styles described in Exhibit 3.22, there is yet another style of interpersonal communication called the passive aggressive communication style. In this style, the individuals appear to be passive on the surface but in reality are scheming and manipulating in a subtle, indirect way.

These people are incapable of dealing with the object of their resentment. Therefore, they adopt indirect measures to subtly undermine the target of their real or imagined resentments. Essentially hypocritical, they manipulate others to get the desired end. They may be smiling at someone, but in reality may be plotting against that very person.

They tend to be sarcastic, deny problems, appear cooperative while being resentful inside, and have facial expressions that do not match the emotions they are feeling. They may even use subtle sabotage to get even.

They tend to use words such as, “I don't know anything about this,” when in reality they do know but are unwilling to cooperate. Another example is, “The boss should not have said this to you. What else did he say?” while in reality planning to report the conversation back to their supervisor.

Being Assertive

From this discussion, we can conclude that assertiveness is a desirable trait to have, particularly when we need cooperation from others. Even if one wants to say “no,” there is a certain, preferable way to communicate it. It is good to postpone a negative response and delay saying “no.” One can also paraphrase to get more time. If one follows a negative response with a good enough reason for refusing something, it often softens the blow.


Exhibit 3.21 The Communication Continuum


Exhibit 3.22 Communication Styles: Descriptors


One can also paraphrase to get more time. If one follows a negative response with a good enough reason for refusing something, it often softens the blow.

There are three steps to being assertive:


Step 1: This step involves listening effectively. At this stage, one shouldn't interrupt the speaker and should listen with a calm mind to what the other person has to say. It is not a good idea to “jump the gun” and use defensive strategies at this stage. By listening well, one is able to understand the real issues. It also neutralizes the sender's argument to an extent.
Step 2: This step involves presenting one's views in a rational manner. There is no apology involved, but instead, phrases like: “I agree with you, however…” or “You may be right; nevertheless…” help to make one's stand on the issue clear.
Step 3: This step helps to ultimately resolve the issue by mutual consent. It suggests an action plan or an agenda for the resolution.


Exhibit 3.23 illustrates the three steps to being assertive.

Six Ways to be Assertive

Experts suggest a number of ways to exercise assertion. These techniques are:

  • Basic assertion
  • Empathetic assertion
  • Broken record
  • Fogging
  • Discrepancy assertion
  • Outcome assertion

Basic assertion: saying it bluntly. Basic assertion essentially involves statements that clearly reflect one's needs, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. These usually begin with “I” and express appreciation, annoyance, dismay, satisfaction, and so on. One has to be simple, specific, and brief. The following utterances are examples of basic assertion:

“I liked the presentation that you made yesterday.”

“I feel that we need to offer more courses on business communication.”

“The cost will be around 400 rupees.”

“I was hurt when you contradicted me in front of everybody in the meeting.”

Empathetic assertion: saying it softly. Empathetic assertion involves statements that recognize the other person's feelings but at the same time assert one's own thoughts. There are two inherent dangers to this approach. First, the word “but” is used a lot; however, it may sound insincere, especially when overused. Second, empathetic assertion might be used to mask aggression. For example, in the sentence, “Kabir, I appreciate the extra time you spent on the project, but the rule says that increments will only be given after a year of service”, the “but” may seem to devalue the phrase “I appreciate the extra time you spent on the project” and make it appear insincere and false.

Broken record: saying it repeatedly. A “broken record” is essentially a phrase repeated a number of times (much like a broken record) during a conversation to drive home a point. Used often by small children, it is a successful technique to get the thing one wants by asking repeatedly for it. It particularly tends to happen when people are too wrapped up in their own thoughts to pay attention to what the other person is saying. The broken record technique of assertion makes sure that the message gets across without whining, begging, and cajoling. In terms of semantics, the same phrase is repeated over and over again in slightly different ways. An example is the following utterance: “The project deadline cannot be postponed at any cost beyond 18 July. I need to submit the details to the client, and after 18 July, we will be tied up with the government project. What I can promise is that I can complete the written formalities before, but the project as such cannot be extended beyond 18th July.”

Fogging: agreeing unexpectedly. Fogging, in essence, is agreeing with the offending statement. When somebody behaves offensively and expects the recipient to retort sharply or at least with aggression, the recipient does a volte-face by agreeing with a small portion of what the sender is saying. This is akin to a fog that suddenly overwhelms the person and takes him or her by surprise. The following examples illustrate this:

Taunt: “You make such lame excuses every time that it's becoming a habit with you!” Response (Fogging): “You know what? You're right. These excuses are so simple that it's easy to feel that they are not genuine.”


Exhibit 3.23 Steps to be Assertive


Newly benched software engineer: “This whole company stinks. It has no policies in place. They can't bench a software engineer just like that!” Personnel Manager (Fogging): “Yes, I understand that this must be a bit of a shock to you. We will try to help you in any way we can.”

Discrepancy assertion: expressing the contradiction. Discrepancy assertion is a dialogue that asserts that a person has been given certain instructions and is doing something else. It conveys in a non-threatening manner the contradiction in the messages. The person seeks clarity rather than being bogged down by uncertainty and confusion. It enables the recipient to clear the misunderstanding before the issue blows out of proportion. The speaker is assertive without blaming anybody. An example is the following quote: “When I took over as the senior administrative assistant, I was told that my responsibilities include overseeing financial concerns too. Today I got a memo stating something quite to the contrary. I would like to be clear as to what exactly is required from me and how this affects the first agreement?”

Outcome assertion: “or else” communication. Outcome assertion is essentially a dialogue that conveys something assertively, but at the same time is not outright harsh. It is not a threat per se, but forces the receiver to take things seriously. It is used to underline the authority of the sender. An example is the following statement: “If you are late again, I have no option but to report it to the chief manager. I would rather avoid that.”

  • Healthy interpersonal relationships minimize conflicts, manipulation, negativity, distrust, and discord.
  • Interpersonal communication is inevitable, irrevocable, open to misinterpretation, and highly contextual.
  • Johari window, with its emphasis on feedback and disclosure, adequately explains interpersonal semantics and its role in communication with oneself and others.
  • The constructive process of interpersonal communication with its emphasis on emotional intelligence is a mature way to control one's reactions to events and people.
  • There are six different styles to choose from when communicating with supervisors, subordinates, and peers.
  • There are a number of interpersonal communication strategies to adopt, ranging from avoidance to cooperative communication, depending upon one's relationship with the other person, the context, and the consequences of the conflict.
  • The preferred communication style is assertiveness, which can be learnt by following the three-step method.
  1. Why do you think it is important to be assertive at the workplace? Discuss various ways to be more assertive.
  2. Elucidate the importance of the Johari window in understanding oneself and others.
  3. Between compromising, collaborating, and accommodating, which is a better technique for handling conflicts? Why?
  4. When does the avoidance technique of conflict management bring results?
  5. What do you understand by the term “interpersonal semantics”? What form of interpersonal semantics is typical of the initial stage of group formation?
  6. What are the possible consequences of being unnecessarily deferential at the workplace?
  7. “Seek to understand yourself and then understand others.” How far do you think this statement is relevant in maintaining and sustaining interpersonal relationships?
  1. Study the three windows in Exhibit 3.24. Each characterizes extreme ratios of soliciting and giving feedback. Think about how a person described in each window might appear to you in a small group. Now write down what each window signifies. Which window represents the “ideal” and why?


    Exhibit 3.24


  2. Identify the communication style of each person described in the following section. Give reasons for your choice.
    • Sanjay can quickly tell what's going on in any situation and is not afraid to speak out about what should be done. He doesn't follow the latest fads, but wears clothes that are practical. When you first meet Sanjay, you notice he is friendly. Later you realize he hasn't told you much about his personal life. You go out for lunch with Sanjay. He orders a baked dish but the dish is served nearly raw. He shouts for the waiter, and complains loudly. The waiter apologizes and takes the dish back to be cooked but Sanjay doesn't want to wait. He demands to see the manager and tells her that in the future he'll eat elsewhere. You both grab something at a drive-through and are back at the office in time for Sanjay's next meeting.
    • Raghav is a really nice person. He's open to new ideas and always willing to listen. On his desk are lots of photos with family and friends, many of them taken at Goa. Raghav usually dresses in soft, warm colours, and hates to wear a coat and tie. You go out to lunch with Raghav and he orders some chicken, well-done. When he cuts into it, however, it's not cooked enough and is tough. He doesn't say a thing to you and continues to eat. The waiter comes by and asks, “How is your dish, sir?” Raghav hesitantly replies he's sorry to say he likes his dish a little more tender. “Would you like me to take it back?” the waiter asks. “Only if it's not too much trouble,” Raghav replies.
    • Gayatri is a rather complicated person. She cares a lot about what others think of her, but she is sometimes callous about the feelings of others. So she's both sensitive and insensitive. It can be confusing! There is no confusion about one thing though—Gayatri is an excellent planner. She gathers all the data and can foresee potential problems. She researches ways to avoid them at little cost to the company. At her desk, Gayatri displays her framed college degree and a list of company policies. You go out for lunch with Gayatri, who orders something well-cooked. However, when it comes, it's not cooked to her taste, so she requests the waiter to have the chef cook it for exactly two and a half minutes more.
    • Priya is a popular person. She gets into many situations where she is the one to confront problems because she knows how she thinks and feels about many issues. Priya speaks her mind but doesn't like to alienate others in the process. So she tries to make them feel good about themselves as well as her. Priya has a large closet full of clothes with lots of colours, textures, and bold designs. At her desk is a blown-up photo of her and the company president having fun at last year's Diwali party. You go out to lunch with Priya and the food she orders is not cooked to her liking. She calls the waiter over immediately and asks for another plate. The waiter replies that it would take at least forty to forty-five minutes. She quickly decides to try something else. “Bring me the South Indian special instead!”, she says.
  3. What communication style would you choose to adopt for the following situations? Also indicate disclosure strategies that you might follow in some of them.
    • Advising an errant trainee who has not submitted the work on time.
    • Presenting to an off-shore client. The client is impressive and well reputed.
    • Presenting an idea to your rigid supervisor.
    • Presenting an idea to your flexible supervisor.
    • Discussing the budget for a plan proposed by you in a meeting. Your team consists of three supporters, two hostile attendees, four neutrals, and the chair.
    • Consoling an employee when her mother passes away.
    • Handling a fire breakout in the plant.
    • Addressing the media at the launch of a new brand.
    • Gossiping about the supervisor.
  4. A professor pointed out certain areas in Kabir's presentation that could be improved. However, Kabir insisted that he could not improve as he was not good at expressing emotions. Which area in the Johari window does Kabir need to focus on? What area does he currently belong in?
  5. Give an appropriate and an inappropriate response to the following conversations/situations in the space provided.
    1. Professor to student: “Sharma, you need to write the report again.”
      Passive response:----------------------------------
      Assertive response:--------------------------------
      Aggressive response:------------------------------
    2. Client to manager: “You must improve your bank's customer service. I have been waiting long enough to get my complaint registered.”
      Passive response:----------------------------------
      Assertive response:--------------------------------
      Aggressive response:------------------------------
    3. Situation: There is a meeting scheduled at 3 pm and for some reason you may not be able to attend it. What will you tell your supervisor?
      Passive response:----------------------------------
      Assertive response:--------------------------------
      Aggressive response:------------------------------
    4. A colleague asks for a certain favour when writing her report. She has been consistently using your help. This time, however, you would like to refuse. What would you say?
      Passive response:----------------------------------
      Assertive response:--------------------------------
      Aggressive response:------------------------------
  6. Identify the most probable communication style of the following people. Mention one basis for your conclusion.
    1. Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State, United States of America)
    2. Aamir Khan (Indian actor)
    3. Kiran M. Shaw (CEO, Biocon)
    4. Shashi Tharoor (Indian politician)
  7. Refer to <http://images.businessweek.com/ss/09/04/0415_india_most_powerful/index.htm> Identify the dominant communication styles of the individuals in the photographs. Can you draw some sort of a conclusion about communication styles in relation to the professions of each of the persons on this list?
  1. Refer to http://www.newconversations.net/emergency.htm>. What nine steps are the article suggesting when faced with an interpersonal conflict?
  2. Refer to >http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/34565>. What three aspects is the author suggesting to communicate with co-workers effectively?
  3. Refer to <http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/display.asp?id=8629> and study the article by Eugene S. Kim, Kawpong Polyorat, and Dana L. Alden (2002) titled The Effect of Interpersonal Communication Style on Miscomprehension and Persuasion of Print Advertisements, in “Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 29).” How do cultural variables such as individualism versus collectivism and high- versus low-context culture affect the individual's tendency to express meanings directly or indirectly in conversation?
  • Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt, Effective Business Communications (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).
  • John L. Spencer and Adrian Pruss, The Professional Secretary's Handbook: Communication Skills (Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1997).
  • Karl L. Smart and Carol Barnum, “Communication in Cross-Functional Teams,” Technical Communication, Society for Technical Communication (February 2000).
  • M. Hughes, L.B. Patterson, and J.B. Terrell, Emotional Intelligence in Action (San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, 2005).
  • Raymond D. Hingst, “Tuckman's Theory of Group Development in a Call Centre Context: Does it Still Work?” in 5th Global Conference on Business Economics: Proceedings of Global Conference on Business Economics (Cambridge: 2006).
  • Richard Hale and Peter Whitlam, Impact and Influence: Tools and Techniques for Creating a Lasting Impression (London: Kogan Page Limited, 1999).
  • Richard Koonce, “Language, Sex, and Power: Women and Men in the Workplace,” Training and Development (September 1997).
  • S. Golen, Effective Business Communication (Washington D.C.: U.S. Small Business Administration, 1989).
  • T. Bateman and Carl P. Zeithaml, Management: Function and Strategy (New York: Richard Irwin Publishers, 1990).