What is Interpersonal Communication – Definition and 3 Myths

Effective interpersonal communication at work is essential to your career success. Yet it’s often not clearly understood nor easy to improve. After researching on Google regarding how others discuss interpersonal communication, I will offer my own perspective – a detailed definition of what is interpersonal communication and 3 most common myths about interpersonal communication.

What is Interpersonal Communication

Wikipedia defines Interpersonal communication as “the process that we use to communicate our ideas, thoughts, and feelings to another person.” Though I agree with this definition, I find it vague.  I define Interpersonal Communication as the process we use to build relationships with others through communication by effectively doing the following:
  • Understanding the other’s situationin order to build a relationship with someone, we need to be aware of where the other person is coming from.
  • Communicating in the right mannerit’s not just what we say that matters but also the tone we use and how we say it.  Additionally, by considering our understanding of the other person, we figure out how to best our intentions and ideas to that particular individual.
  • Influencing them to listen and/or take action as needed – People are more likely to listen to us when we listen first to them and make efforts to establish common grounds.  When we approach any communication with the intention to create a win-win situation, that’s when we will maximize our influence on others and inspire them to action.

At the end of the day, the purpose of communication is to reach a common understanding, build a better relationship, and/or agree on what to do next if action is required.
3 Most Common Myths about Interpersonal Communication 

It’s immensely difficult to improve your interpersonal communication if you still believe in some common myths.  Here are three of the most common myths:

  1. Myth #1: Focus just on the facts:  Facts are important in a conversation but can’t be the only focus.  Often we spend too much time figuring out what facts we want to communicate and too little time on how we want to communicate them.  Every person we speak to is human with insecurities, ambitions, and biases.   So remember the common adage: “It’s not what you say, but how you make people feel that matters.”
  2. Myth #2: If I am right, I can say so:  It’s never a good idea to kick someone when they are down.  If someone on your team makes a mistake, communicate that but focus the conversation more on where to go from there and allow them to recover.  If your customer over-billed you, you still don’t want to over-step in your communication.  Approach the situation gently and patiently.  It’s always better for the relationship if you give others the benefit of the doubt.
  3. Myth #3: Sugar coat bad news:  Bad news like a layoff message or a message to your boss about a mistake you made at work is difficult to deliver.  It’s important to deliver the message tactfully, but this is not the same as sugar coating.  Sugar coating implies being not direct or clear about the gravity of the message.  While sugar coating a message may make you feel more comfortable, it could confuse the other person or make the listener feel patronized.  Sincerity and a focus on moving forward will help more.   Whatever happened already happened.  So be straightforward and focus on next steps.

For more on this topic and how to improve your communication skills at work, sign up for our Soft Skills Gym membership – an online learning platform to develop your soft skills and accelerate your career success.

I look forward to your comments.  I am always in your corner.


6 thoughts on “What is Interpersonal Communication – Definition and 3 Myths

  1. Valerie Cline

    As part of my job, I am often tasked with calling people to deliver unfortunate news. I struggle sometimes to know the right way to do this in a way that conveys the necessary information while maintaining or even building positive relationships with those very people. Any advice or tips?

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Valerie, Great question. It’s hard to answer without knowing specifics. Here are some general tips
      1. Better to do this in person vs. by phone if possible
      2. Be genuine and don’t sugar code
      3. Be prepare to share key reason why this happened
      4. Offer resources that can help this person in this situation
      5. Ask a co-worker or manager you respect for their advice on this.

      Hope this helps. If you can share a specific example of the type of news you need to communicate, then I can go into more specific tips. best wishes,


      1. Valerie Cline

        Thanks, Lei. I am a school administrator. Oftentimes, I must contact parents after a student has done something that is a violation of our code of conduct. Parents tend to become defensive when their children have done something wrong. Although it was the child that made the mistake, some parents will react as if I am making unfounded accusations even after I have explained the details and reason for my call. I guess it can best be summed up with the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

        Some parents get emotional and ask questions about the other children involved and I am not permitted to discuss disciplinary action of other students with them, other than to say that I follow the code of conduct (which they have access to online as well as in writing).

        I am looking for some help in scripting a conversation so that I can steer it in the right direction and make sure parents understand that I am calling to provide them with information that they need to know in order to perform my job and assist their children. I just wish I knew how to help the parents take the emotion out of the equation. I’m sure some feel ashamed or guilty, but I am a parent myself, so I understand how they might feel. I often tell them this so that they don’t perceive me to be reprimanding them for what a child has done. Children are still learning what is respectful and responsible. Many parents think their child isn’t capable of being rude or disobedient. It’s difficult!

        1. Lei Han Post author

          Valerie, thanks for sharing a specific example. That is a delicate situation. I can see two immediate reasons why parents may get defensive.
          1. they might think you are telling them their kid is “bad” – not just due to this incident but think there is an overall judgement
          2. they might think you are telling them they are bad parents because their kids acted out in school
          I am not an expert in this type of communication, but here are some tips that may help. Let’s start with the bad news first – there is no way you can take the emotion out of the equation in this kind of communication. Frankly if the parents cares about their kid at all, they are likely to react emotionally. That may be good for the child that the parents cares even if they don’t handle the news well on the spot. Some communication tips to try.
          1. Convey the general sentiment that you think their kids is a good kid. They may just be dealing with something new emotionally and therefore lashed out. This can especially be true if this is the first time you had to call the parents.
          2. While you can’t comment on other children, I think you can calm the parents more if you can tell them that this can happen to any kids, as they are learning to deal with new social situations and growing up.
          3. Position this communication as an opportunity for the parents – share something they may not realize about their child (not so much the bad behavior), but that the child may be going through something tough and acted out as a result. Counsel the parents as an opportunity to talk to their child (instead of reprimand) perhaps help them figure out the root cause to a certain bad behavior.
          4. Lastly, realize whatever you say, you may still get an emotional response from the parents. Don’t take it personally. They are just surprised by the news and don’t know how to handle. Be kind even if they are not necessarily.
          I think what I am saying is while this may be a tough message to deliver, some parents may also be open to counsel from you about how to deal with it at home. In additional to just delivering a message, think of how you would advice the parents about how to deal with this at home with their child.

          Here is an article I just read that may help you position the conversation completely differently. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/05/schools-behavior-discipline-collaborative-proactive-solutions-ross-greene. I hope this helped. Let me know how it goes.

  2. Ryan Cook

    I think this article made a lot of great points regarding how to communicate effectively. It’s really easy to overlook interpersonal communication skills as being integral to one’s career. I think it’s really easy to enter the mind set of “it’s just professional interactions, so I don’t really have to care about the other person.” I think it was very prudent of you to note that the other person’s feelings must be considered even in a professional context.


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