How can you be sure that what you say is understood by those around you? In this lesson, learn how to use different levels of communication to increase understanding in everyday interactions. After the lesson, test your understanding with a quiz.

Many Communication Theories

Understanding the different types or levels of communication begins with understanding what communication is. With rare exception, everyone communicates with other people every day. Often we communicate by talking or writing, in which case our communication is said to be verbal. Just as often, we communicate by nonverbal means, such as through body language, gestures, and demeanor. We also communicate through our behavior. For example, not doing something we have promised to do communicates something about our attitude and reliability.

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While we take communicating for granted as an ordinary, everyday activity, specialists in the field have studied the process of communication to the extent of creating complex mathematical equations that represent how messages are sent and received between individuals. Thankfully, understanding the different levels of communication does not require advanced math skills. What is important to know, however, is that whatever method one uses to communicate, the way in which something is communicated affects whether the receiver actually receives the meaning intended by the sender.

Different fields of study and different types of organizations classify levels of communication in ways that suit their purposes. As communication happens in innumerable ways among billions of people in unique situations every day, these classifications are always going to be somewhat arbitrary, because no one theory can explain every instance of communication.

In general terms, however, the classical theory of communication involves four distinct levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and cultural. Often the best way to learn about these four levels is to consider examples of each one.

Intrapersonal Communication

You may be surprised to learn that thinking, writing notes to remind yourself of things you need to do, and talking to yourself are all forms of intrapersonal communication. In this level of communication, you are both the person ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ the message. Because you play this dual role, the chances of misinterpretation or miscommunication are essentially non-existent. After all, most people do not have barriers to clear communication with themselves!

Thinking is the most common form of intrapersonal communication.
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Interpersonal Communication

Talking with another individual, exchanging text messages or emails, video conferencing, even nonverbal like a shrug of the shoulders or a meaningful glance, are all examples of interpersonal communication. In order for interpersonal communication to be considered successful, the person receiving the message has to receive and comprehend the message that the sender intended to send.

Let’s take Scott and Sarah as an example. They work together on the same marketing project team. They often conduct meetings with the rest of their marketing team, as well as representatives from the IT, human resources, and public relations teams who are contributing to the project. As can occur with cross-departmental teams, participants from secondary teams have strong opinions about how something should be accomplished. To keep their meetings proceeding according to the agenda without distraction from the IT representative who wants things done a certain way, Scott and Sarah have to be in sync. They have to be able to communicate clearly and quickly with one another, sometimes with no more than eye contact or a raised eyebrow, when the discussion starts to wander off track. They have learned to use effective interpersonal communication techniques.

This diagram represents the communication dynamic between the sender and receiver of a message.
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Group Communication

Thinking again about the example of Scott, Sarah, and their work team, the activity they are engaging in every time they have a team meeting is an exercise in group communication. For group communication to be successful, every member of the group needs to be present, aware, and alert to the messages being sent and received. Groups of this type often rely on documentation, such as meeting notes, agendas, presentations, and other written materials to help ensure everyone is ‘on the same page.’ Group communication requires a completely different set of skills than interpersonal communication, because one sender is responsible for effectively delivering his message to many different receivers.

Cultural Communication

Less of an event, like group communication, and more of a higher-order skill, cultural communication involves an awareness of how people from different cultural backgrounds will receive and process a message. Imagine a business meeting between several members of a Japanese company and a representative from a company based in New York. Taking into account what you already know, and have observed about people born and raised in Japan compared to people born and raised in New York, you can imagine how cultural differences–if not accommodated for–could make for a disastrous outcome. New Yorkers are renowned for their directness and brashness. People of Asian descent typically are noted for their politeness and deference. If both sides of the discussion are unaware of these cultural differences, one or both sides could emerge from the meeting feeling offended, frustrated, confused, or all three. Effective cultural communication deftly transcends inherent cultural differences in order to find common ground where a true exchange of ideas can occur.

Lesson Summary

While many different theories of communication exist to serve the needs of different fields and organization types, all communication can be defined as the sending and receiving of a message. Four commonly cited types of communication include intrapersonal communication, or communicating with oneself through thinking, writing, or talking aloud; interpersonal communication, which is the exchange of messages between two people, each of whom can be a sender and a receiver; group communication, which is more complex than interpersonal communication; and cultural communication, which involves the awareness of and accommodation for differences in communication between cultures.

Key Terms

Two People Talking

Verbal communication – talking or writing

Nonverbal communication – body language, gestures, and demeanor

Behavior – how we act; integral to how we communicate with one another

Classical theory of communication – traditional school of thought which separates communication into four distinct levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and cultural

Intrapersonal communication – communication with oneself; includes thinking, writing notes to remind yourself of things you need to do, and talking to yourself

Interpersonal communication – communication between two people; includes talking with another individual, exchanging text messages or emails, video conferencing, or nonverbal messages such as a shrug of the shoulders or a meaningful glance

Group communication – communication of a group of people such as a staff meeting; can also include emails sent to multiple people

Cultural communication – the process of creating a message for a diverse group with an awareness of how people from different cultural backgrounds will receive and process the message

Learning Outcomes

After viewing this lesson, check to see if you can:

  • Identify the four major types of communication
  • Employ the key components required to ensure successful communication for each of the four major types