Characteristics of Competence

The video below is an overview of Communication Competence.

“Communication Competence” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

Communication Competence

Communication is only meaningful if the message we are sending is received and decoded as we intend. Getting a message across is much more complicated than just saying something however we want, and having it understood. Communication competence is defined as the ability to craft and send a message in a manner that ensures it will be received as it was intended. According to Spitzberg and Cupach (1984; 2011), competent communication involves a number of key components.

Clarity and Intent

Achieving competent communication begins with the intent behind our message. Every communication has some intended response by others, even when we intend others to ignore us. Being conscious of the intent of our messages- particularly those messages we send to more than one person at a time- can go a long way to helping us craft the message in a successful way.

Crafting a message in as clear a manner as possible is the most common route to having it received successfully. In academic terms, clarity means adjusting our verbal or nonverbal signals to suit the channel that we choose, and with consideration to the possible noise that could confuse the recipient. In many cases, our decisions about clarity are guided by what we view to be appropriate ways of communicating in the context. This involves suiting our language and behavior to the expectations of others.


We have all experienced miscommunications when our intended meaning was misunderstood by someone else. To communicate competently means to avoid misunderstandings by purposefully suiting the message in both content and delivery. To do this requires that we constantly adapt our communication depending on who we are communicating with, what the message is that we have to convey, and what channel we are using to convey it.

The ability to adapt our communication is perhaps the most important skill for good communication. Adaptability is crucial to achieving communication competency because not all people interpret the same messages in the same way. Adapting our communication can mean many things- we may need to adapt our tone, the vocabulary we use, the way we behave physically, even the amount we communicate is prone to adaptation. This is because communication is always interpreted based on its context, and these contexts can change depending on a number of factors, not the least of which is culture.

Was there a time recently when you had to adapt your communication style, or approach in order to get your message across? What kind of adaptations did you make? Did you change your tone, choose new words, or even a different channel? Once you begin to think about specific exchanges and how you manage them it may be easier to realize that we are constantly adapting our communication in big and small ways in order to be understood.


One way to improve our ability to adapt our communication is to begin by improving our own self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is the ability to understand one’s own behaviors at both the macro and micro levels, and to understand how they may be interpreted by others. The key to strong self-monitoring is to be empathetic to others on a continual basis. This means being attentive to other’s feelings, and trying to see things from their point of view. If you can develop your empathy for others it is likely you will be better able to accurately anticipate how your own behaviors may affect them, making it easier for you to self-monitor, and to thereby adapt your communication.

Competent communicators usually monitor their behaviors in order to convey to their conversation partners the same qualities in a listener that they too are seeking when they communicate. This is called conversational involvement, and it requires that we maintain eye contact, use verbal and non-verbal cues that signal interest and/or understanding, and focus our attention adequately. Ask yourself- do you practice conversational involvement when you’re listening to people speak? If so, what types of things do you do to illustrate that you’re involved?

In order to behave appropriately, a competent communicator will also use conversational management as a way of regulating the conversation. Regulating conversations is almost intuitive to most of us, but competent communicators make it a point to do things like take turns without interrupting, respond when responses are expected, and to include everyone present. This can be complicated because in most circumstances no one person is assigned the manager of a conversation, but we all play our part in the management of conversations if we want to be seen as polite. Perhaps you have had an experience with someone who did not manage conversations very well. Can you recall a time when you were confused or annoyed by someone who interrupted you consistently, or didn’t reply when a response was indicated? How did you handle it?

Cognitive Complexity

People who are skilled in competent communication demonstrate what is known as cognitive complexity. Cognitive complexity is a measure of one’s ability to see things from multiple viewpoints. A person with well-developed cognitive complexity is likely to consider a range of factors when analyzing an interaction between two people, and to make a point of contextualizing each message sent with regard to the viewpoint of the person of the sender, and then to contextualize its reception from the viewpoint of the receiver. Because communication takes place across cultural, subcultural, and even co-cultural lines it is helpful to consider that each individual person sees the world from their own particular standpoint (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984; 2011).


As the three modules above show us, even the most basic communicative acts are far more nuanced and complex than we might realize when we perform them. Communication is not only contextual, but it demands that processes of encoding and decoding that can be complicated by the way that messages are relayed, and/or received. In order to enhance our communication, we must become more thoughtful about other people, more attentive to our own communication behaviors, and how they need to be adapted to the unique circumstances of our varied interactions with other people.


Hooks, B. (2014). Ain’t I a woman: Black women and feminism. Routledge.

Spitzberg, B.H. & Cupach, W.R. (1984). Interpersonal communication competence. Sage.

Spitzberg, B.H. & Cupach, W.R. (2011). “Interpersonal Skills” In Knapp, M., & Daly J.A. (Eds.)., SAGE handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 481-526). Sage

Wood, J. T. (2005). Feminist standpoint theory and muted group theory: Commonalities and divergences. Women and Language28(2), 61.


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