Methods of Communication

What you’ll learn to do: Differentiate between different methods of communication

Words are just the beginning of communication and, to hear people tell it, they’re actually a very small part of the message we take in. Don’t believe it? Imagine you’re hanging out with your teenage cousin, and you ask him if he’s feeling happy today. He might respond, “Yeah, sure.” But depending on the tone of his voice and his body language, you might not believe him.

Listening and nonverbal cues affect communication as much as the written or spoken word. In this section, we’re going to learn how to use listening, verbal communication, and nonverbal communication to your advantage, so you can better understand and be better understood.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the importance of listening
  • Discuss verbal communication and its role in business
  • Discuss nonverbal communication and its role in business


A man speaking to a woman, who is focused on listening.

Figure 1. Listening is a key component of communication.

How many times have you wanted to talk about a subject very important to you only to find that the people you’re talking to aren’t really listening? They may look like they’re listening, but they’re really not paying attention at all. Frustrating, isn’t it? How often do you find yourself falling into this same trap, finding that you’re so eager to share your information that you completely stop listening to the person who’s talking?

Communication isn’t just about talking, it’s about listening. In fact, communication only happens when all parties are engaged in uncovering and understanding the meaning behind the words. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of chatter!

Active Listening

During active listening, listeners give feedback to the speaker, confirming an understanding of what the speaker has said by asking questions and making clarifying statements. Rather than focusing on what they want to say once it’s their turn to speak or allowing themselves to be distracted, they’re reassuring the speaker that they’re interested in the subject matter and want to completely understand the point the speaker is trying to make. It’s the ultimate way of making a fellow participant feel safe in the conversation.

Five icons representing skills that aid in active listening. The first skill is to pay close attention, which is represented by an eyeball. The second skill is to paraphrase, which is represented by an icon of a bulleted list. The third skill is to give good body cues, which is represented by an icon of a person touching their chin in thought. The fourth skill is to minimize distractions, which is represented by an icon of a computer with a power off symbol on the screen. The fifth and final skill is to keep yourself out of the conversation, which is represented by an icon of a person's silhouette.

Figure 2. Five key skills for active listening

Here are some key skills you should master in order to be an active listener:

  1. Pay close attention and paraphrase to ensure understanding: If you can step into the conversation by saying, “So let me see if I understand this correctly. What you’re saying is….” then you’re listening hard enough. If you’re saying, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” but not really recapping a set of statements, then try listening a little harder.
  2. Ask open ended questions: These questions can encourage the speaker to elaborate on a point, rather than forcing them to say yes or no. This elaboration can also help you understand better what the speaker is trying to communicate.
  3. Give good body cues: Make eye contact, lean in while the speaker is talking, and don’t let your gaze drift away. If you’re leaning back in a chair reading what’s on your computer monitor, the speaker isn’t going to feel like you’re paying attention even if you are. You can also use body cues to reflect the speaker’s emotions—you don’t have to laugh or cry along, but you can indicate a level of understanding with a facial expression or a nod.
  4. Minimize distractions: Turn off your radio or push your monitor in another direction in order to pay closer attention to what your guest has to say. When someone is talking to you, do your best to minimize anything that could steal your attention away from the conversation.
  5. Keep yourself out of the conversation: Avoid sharing how you handled a similar issue, unless you’re specifically asked for advice. Keep an open mind about the subject matter, even if you don’t agree. If someone is complaining about your previous behavior or choices, wait until he or she is done before you launch into a defense. Better yet, don’t launch into a defense. Instead, ask clarifying questions and make sure that you totally understand the other person’s point of view before crafting your response.

Practice question

Those are just a few techniques you can use to become a better listener, but there are also a few ways to ensure that you’re heard. Take those same hints for active listening and turn them around a bit:

  • Help your audience by paraphrasing: If no one in your audience is being kind enough to break in to clarify his understanding of your point, then do it for them! Pause mid-point and say, “Let me stop here for a moment. Am I being clear about what I’m trying to say? Is there anything up to this point that you’d like me to go over again?” By posing these questions, you’re encouraging your audience to participate in active listening.
  • Minimize things that could be distracting during your conversation: Don’t be afraid to ask your audience to turn off the television for a moment while you make an important point.
  • Keep your audience out of the conversation: In much the same way you kept yourself out of the conversation when someone else was talking, don’t invite them to share their own personal stories. It distracts from the point you’re trying to make.

Without listening, there is no understanding. By listening, you can assess your audience’s needs and address them. By ensuring that you’re heard, you can deliver business results.

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication is perhaps the most obvious and understood mode of communication, and it is certainly a powerful tool in your communication toolbox. Put simply, verbal communication is the sharing of information between two individuals using words.

Spoken versus Written Communication

While we typically focus on speech while talking about verbal communication, it’s important to remember that writing is also a form of verbal communication. After all, writing uses words too!

Imagine for a moment that you’re a college student who is struggling with material in a class. Rather than simply giving up, you decide that you’re going to ask your instructor for the guidance you need to make it through the end of the semester. Now, you have a few choices for using verbal communication to do this. You might choose to call your instructor, if they’ve provided contact information, or talk to them in person after class or during office hours. You may take a different approach and send them an email. You can probably identify your own list of pros and cons for each of these approaches. But really, what’s the difference between writing and talking in these situations? Let’s look at four of the major differences between the two:

  1. Formal versus Informal: We generally use spoken communication informally while we use written communication formally.
  2. Synchronous versus Asynchronous: Synchronous communication is communication that takes place in real time, such as a conversation with a friend. In contrast, asynchronous communication is communication that is not immediate and occurs over longer periods of time, such as letters, email, or even text messages.
  3. Recorded versus Unrecorded: Written communication is generally archived and recorded for later retrieval while spoken communication is generally not recorded.

Benefits of Spoken Communication

Spoken communication can be a conversation, a meeting, or even a speech. Spoken communication is powerful in that it allows for input from every part of the social communication model. You encode your thoughts into the spoken word and look to your audience to decode and take the message in. You can ask for feedback directly to confirm understanding of your message.

In a world where we do most of our talking by email and text, spoken communication is a breath of fresh air. Leverage the power of spoken communication to create relationships—you can establish a rapport and a sense of trust with your audience when you speak with them. Spoken communication allows you to bond on a more emotional level with your listeners.

Spoken communication also also makes it easier to ensure understanding by addressing objections and clearing up misunderstandings: you can adjust your message as you communicate it, based on the feedback you’re getting from your audience. Spoken communication allows you to walk away from a conversation with a higher degree of certainty that your message was received.

Practice Questions

Verbal communication is a powerful tool, and it’s made even more powerful when paired with listening and nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication

We’ve already employed a little bit of nonverbal communication with the active listening skills we’ve previously discussed: nodding, facial expressions, leaning toward the speaker to show interest—all of those are forms of nonverbal communication. Body language can reinforce your spoken message or it can contradict it entirely.

There’s a myth that says that when you speak, only 35 percent of your communication is verbal and 65 percent of it is nonverbal. That’s not entirely true (or else foreign languages would be much easier to understand!). But it’s absolutely true that nonverbal communication can make or break your message. Here are some types of nonverbal communication and the effects they can have on the success of your communication:

  • Facial expressions: Your teenage cousin we referred to at the beginning of this section might have told you he was happy, but his apathetic facial expression may have communicated different information. Facial expressions—happy, sad, angry—help you convey your message. Be aware of your facial expression when you talk and particularly when you listen, which is when it’s easy to forget.
  • Gestures: When you speak, a gesture can make your message stronger. Pointing out something you want your listener to look at more closely is an example of nonverbal communication that makes your message understood. Motioning warmly toward a coworker who deserves special recognition, making a fist to show frustration or anger, such gestures help further engage your audience when you speak.
  • Proximity: How close you are to your audience when you speak sends a nonverbal message. If your size is imposing and you leave a very small distance between you and your listener, it’s likely your nonverbal communication will be a bit threatening. On the other hand, giving someone too much space is an awkward nonverbal communication that might confuse your listener.
  • Touch: Shaking an audience member’s hand, putting your hand on his shoulder: these are nonverbal cues that can affect the success of your message. Touch communicates affection, but it also communicates power. In fact, when women touch a listener, it’s often assumed that they’re being affectionate or conveying empathy, but when a man touches a listener, it can be taken as a sign of communicating power or even dominance.
  • Eye contact: Making and maintaining eye contact with an audience when you’re verbally communicating or listening communicates to the other party that you’re interested and engaged in the conversation. Good eye contact often conveys the trait of honesty to the other party.
  • Appearance: Your clothing, hair, and jewelry are also a part of nonverbal communication. If you put a dachshund pin on your lapel each morning (because you have a pet dachshund), that says something about you as a person. Similarly, the quality and condition of your clothing, how it fits, if it’s appropriate for the season—all of these things speak nonverbally about you as a communicator.

Nonverbal communication reveals a lot about you as a communicator and how you relate to other people. It pays to be aware of the elements of your nonverbal communication so you can maximize the impact of your message.

Practice Questions