In this lesson, we will discuss what it means to be a “competent” communicator. It’s important to point out that while competence tends to be a somewhat abstract term, we are going to attempt to conceptualize competence in terms of behaviors and characteristics that are perceived as more desirable. Thus, competence is a perception and may vary from person to person. For example, I might perceive myself to be a very competent communicator, but another person may not perceive me in that way.
The term Communication Competence has many definitions, but for the purposes of this lesson, we will break down the definition into the perception of communication that is effective and adapted appropriately for the situation (Spitzberg, 2013; Cupach and Spitzberg, 1984).
There are many facets to this definition, and many specific characteristics of competence to discuss.
Characteristics of Competent Communicators
There are several characteristics that have been identified as Competent by researchers. Cupach and Spitzberg (1984) conceptualize competence based on the following characterstics:
Effective – Competent communicators are effective, meaning they achieve their intended goal. Recall that all communication is goal-driven. This characteristic is difficult to achieve because it relies not only on message production from the sender, but also message comprehension from the receiver. Noise/interference can also play a role in whether or not a message is effective. Thus, some of effectiveness is out of the control of the sender, making this behavior difficult for the sender.
Adaptable – Competent communicators are able to adapt their communication to specific situations. For example, in a job interview, they may use a formal tone, proper grammar, make strong eye contact, dress formally, and use formal vocabulary. That night, the same person may go out with friends and dress casually, use informal grammar, slang terms, and sit with their arms crossed. Adaptability relates to the term self-monitoring. High self-monitors are more likely to adapt their communication to the situation, whereas a low self monitor is more likely to keep their communication patterns consistent in every situation.
Empathetic – Competent communicators are empathetic, meaning they are able to view other’s perspectives as their own, especially in terms of emotion. For example, when a friend calls to say they had a fight with their romantic partner, an empethetic response might be “Wow, that must be really difficult for you.” An unempathetic response might be “Oh. So break up with them.” Note that empathy generally requires an acknowledgement of emotion.
Conversational Involvement – This characteristic refers to your engagement in your everyday interactions. A competent communicator will maintain strong eye contact in their interactions, perhaps nod at appropriate times, say “mmhmm” or “yeah” to acknowledge receipt of a message. A competent communicator will provide appropriate nonverbal feedback to acknowledge their involvement in the conversation.
Conversational Management – This refers to your ability to regulate conversation. For example, a competent communicator will engage in turn taking when in conversations instead of interrupting. A competent communicator would know when it is appropriate to ask questions to further the conversation, and read nonverbal cues/feedback from the receiver to know when the conversation is over. Have you ever met someone who has poor conversational management skills? You may not be able to seem to end a conversation with the person because they just keep talking…or perhaps the other extreme. You may know someone with who you cannot have a conversation with because you don’t get any feedback, thus the conversation just becomes awkward.
Appropriate – This characteristic is very similar to the others we’ve already discussed, but it’s worth having it’s own category. A competent communicator would understand and communicate appropriately for the situation. They would know when it’s appropriate to use slang and profanities (perhaps at home), and when to use formal vocabulary (perhaps at work). Note this is different from the adaptability discussed above, because in order to adapt appropriately, you would need to understand what is appropriate.
Other Characteristics of Competence
The list above emcompasses the main characterstics as discussed by Cupach and Spitzberg (1984). In a later volume (2011), they list several other characteristics of competent communicators. The following list explains some of these other characteristics.
- Cognitive Complexity – Cognitive complexity is the ability to think about a situation from many perspectives. For example, when conversing with another person, someone who does not have a high level of this skill will perceive the content at face value. Someone with a high level of cognitive complexity will be able to perceive the content beyond face value. Does this person have an ulterior motive? What is the intent of their message? What else could this person mean besides the words they actually say? Those are questions someone who is cognitively complex would be pondering during an interaction.
- Ethical – A competent communicator will be an ethical speaker, meaning they do not try to purposely deceive, offend, or trick others. An ethical speaker will also use his/her own words and cite sources if necessary. An ethical speaker will also have a goal-driven purpose and will not waste the time of the audience or other speakers.
- Listening Skills – This is a very broad skill, that we could easily cover in an entire class. In a more basic sense, a competent communicator will actively listen to the sender. Active listening means they are engaged with the sender while minimizing noise and distractions. An active listener will be able to paraphrase the content, intent, and tone of each message back to the sender.
- Self Monitoring – A high self monitor is aware of their behaviors and adjusts accordingly in different contexts. A low self monitor will not adjust their behaviors to different contexts. This is similar to adaptability, but adaptability is more about adapting communicative behaviors whereas self monitoring is more about the self awareness of the need to adapt different behaviors to different situations.
- Strong eye contact, along with other nonverbal cues that are appropriate – A competent communicator will be self aware of their nonverbal behaviors, and will adapt appropriately. Competent communicators make strong eye contact with others during conversation to demonstrate their conversational involvement.