1.3 Communication Principles

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how communication is integrated into various aspects of your life.
  • Explore how communication meets physical, instrumental, relational, and identity needs.
  • Explain how communication is guided by culture and context.

Most people think they are great communicators. However, very few people are “naturally” good. Communication takes time, skill, and practice. To be a great communicator, you must also be a great listener. It requires some proficiency and competence. Think about someone you know who is not a good communicator. Why is that person not good? Do they say things that are inappropriate, rude, or hostile?

Reasons to Study Communication

We need to study communication for a variety of reasons. First, it gives us a new perspective on something we take for granted every day. As stated earlier, most people think they are excellent communicators. However, most never ask another person if they are great communicators. Besides being in a public speaking class or listening to your friends’ opinions, you probably do not get much feedback on the quality of your communication. Studying communication behaviours provides a new perspective on something you probably take for granted. Some people never realize how vital physiological functions are until they take a class on anatomy or biology. Similarly, some people never understand communication in a professional health environment until they take a communication studies course.In this book, we will learn all about communication from different aspects. As the saying goes, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” In other words, you will not be able to see the impact of your communication behaviours if you do not focus on certain communication aspects.

The second reason we study communication is based on the amount of time devoted to that activity. Think about your personal and professional daily routines; no doubt it involves communicating with others (via face-to-face, texting, electronic media, etcetera). In healthcare environments, we spend much time communicating with others, so we should make that time worthwhile and meaningful. We need to learn how to communicate better because a lot of our time is allotted to communicating with others.

The third reason why we study communication is to increase our effectiveness. There are several reasons why communication ruptures. The most popular reason is that people do not know how to communicate with each other, have low emotional intelligence, and often do not know how to work through problems, which can then create anger, hostility, and possibly violence. In these cases, communication must be effective for relationships to work and be satisfying. Think about all your relationships with friends, peers, family, coworkers, and significant others. It is possible that this course could make you more successful in those relationships.

Communication Meets Needs

As a student with years of education experience, you know that communication is far more than the transmission of information. The exchange of messages and information is essential for many reasons, but it is not enough to meet the various needs we have as human beings. While the content of our communication may help us achieve particular physical and instrumental needs, it also feeds into our identities and personal and professional relationships in ways that far exceed what we say.

Physical Needs

Studies show that there is a link between mental health and physical health. In other words, people who encounter negative experiences but are willing to communicate those experiences are more likely to have better mental and physical health Adler et al. (2007) found that communication has been beneficial in avoiding or decreasing:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • cancer
  • coronary problems
  • the common cold

Research clearly illustrates that communication is vital for our physical health. Because many health problems are stress-induced or exacerbated by stress, communication offers a way to relieve this tension and alleviate some physical symptoms. People must share what they feel — if they keep it bottled up, they are more likely to suffer emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Practical Needs

Communication is a critical ingredient in our life. We need it to operate and to complete our daily tasks. Communication is the means to tell the barista what coffee you prefer, inform your healthcare team members about what hurts or ails you, or advise others that you might need help.

We know that communication helps in all professional work environments. Throughout your health studies program, you will most likely be evaluated on competencies related to interpersonal communication and leadership skills, as one must learn to become a competent communicator.

Identity Needs

Communication is not only essential for us to thrive and live. It is also important to discover who we are. From a very young age, you were probably told a variety of characteristics about your physical appearance and personality. You might have been told you are funny, smart, pretty, friendly, talented, or insightful. All of these comments probably came from someone else. For instance, Sally went to a store without makeup and saw one of her close friends. Sally’s friend told her that she looked horrible without any makeup. So, from that day forward, she never walked out of the house without wearing makeup. You can see that this comment affected Sally’s behaviour and her perceptions about herself. Just one comment can influence how you think, act, and feel. Think about the comments that you have received in your life. Were they hurtful comments or helpful comments? Did they make you stronger or weaker? You are who you are based on what others have told you about yourself and how you responded to these comments. In an opposite example, Mark’s professor told him he was not cut out for his chosen health profession and would probably not make it through the program. Mark used these comments to make himself better. He studied and worked harder, believing he was more than his professor’s comments. In this situation, you can see that the comments helped shape his identity positively. Our identity changes as we progress through life, but communication is the primary means of establishing and fulfilling our identity needs.

Social Needs

Communication satisfies the social needs for pleasure, affection, companionship, escape, and relaxation (Adler et al., 2020). Additionally, using words to identify who we are, we use communication to establish relationships. Relationships exist because of communication. We share a part of ourselves with others each time we talk to them. We know that for people with strong relationships with others, this is due to their conversations. Think about all the relationships you are involved in and how communication differs. If you stop talking to the people you care about, your relationships might suffer. The only way relationships can grow is when communication occurs between individuals. Koesten (2004) analyzed family communication patterns and communication competence. She found that people in more conversation-oriented families were likelier to have better relationships than those who grew up in lower conversation-oriented families.

Communication is a Process

Communication can be defined as the process of understanding and sharing meaning (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). When we refer to communication as a process, we imply that it does not have a distinct beginning and end or follow a predetermined sequence of events. It can be challenging to trace the origin of a communication encounter since communication does not always follow a neat and discernible format, which makes studying communication interactions or phenomena difficult. Any time we pull out one part of the process for study or closer examination, we artificially “freeze” the process to examine it, which is not possible when communicating in real life. But sometimes scholars want to isolate a particular stage to gain insight by studying, for example, feedback or eye contact. Doing that changes the process itself, and by the time you have examined a particular stage or component of the process, the entire process may have changed. However, these behavioural snapshots are helpful for scholarly interrogation of the communication process, and they can also help us self-monitor and evaluate our communication practices, troubleshoot a problematic encounter we had, or slow things down to account for various contexts before we engage in communication (Dance & Larson, 1976).

Communication is Guided by Culture and Context

Context is a dynamic component of the communication process. Culture and context also influence how we perceive and define communication. Western culture tends to put more value on senders than receivers and the content rather than the context of a message, whereas Eastern cultures tend to communicate with the listener. These cultural values are reflected in our definitions and models of communication. Cultures vary regarding having a more individualistic or collectivistic cultural orientation. Canada is considered an individualistic culture, where the emphasis is put on individual expression and success. Japan is considered a collectivistic culture, where the emphasis is put on group cohesion and harmony. These strong cultural values are embedded in how we learn to communicate. In many collectivistic cultures, more emphasis is placed on silence and nonverbal context. Whether in Canada, Japan, or another country, people are socialized from birth to communicate in culturally specific ways that vary by context.

Communication is Learned

Most of us are born with the capacity and ability to communicate, but we all communicate differently. This is because communication is learned rather than innate. As we have already seen, communication patterns are relative to the context and culture in which one communicates. Many cultures have distinct languages consisting of unique systems of symbols. A key principle of communication is that it is symbolic. Communication is symbolic because the words that make up our language systems do not directly correspond to something in reality. Instead, they stand in for or symbolize something. Odgen and Richards (1923) believed that there is a triangle of meaning with “thought,” “symbol,” and “referent” in a relationship.

All symbolic communication is learned, negotiated, and dynamic. The letters b-o-o-k refer to a bound object with multiple written pages. We also know that the letters t-r-u-c-k refer to a vehicle with a bed in the back for hauling things. But if we learned in school that the letters t-r-u-c-k referred to a bound object with written pages, and b-o-o-k referred to a vehicle with a bed in the back, that would make just as much sense because the letters do not refer to the object. The word itself only has the meaning that we assign to it. In the verbal communication chapter, we will learn more about how language works, but communication is more than the words we use.

th issues in some cultures in public is considered inappropriate. Still, it would not be odd to overhear people in a rural grocery store in Canada talking about their job, education, children, or upcoming surgery. There are some communication patterns shared by vast numbers of people, some particular to a specific profession, for example, who have terminology and jargon that would not make sense to someone outside the profession. These examples are not on the same scale as differing languages but still indicate that communication is learned. They also illustrate how rules and norms influence how we communicate.

Communication Has Ethical Implications

Another culturally and situationally relative principle of communication is that communication has ethical implications. Communication ethics addresses the process of negotiating and reflecting on our actions and communication regarding what we believe to be right and wrong (Pearson et al., 2006). In communication ethics, we are more concerned with people’s decisions about right and wrong than the systems, philosophies, or religions that inform those decisions. Much of ethics is a grey area. Although we talk about making decisions regarding right and wrong, the choice is rarely that simple. We should act “to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way ” (Pearson et al., 2006) and consider what we say, how we say it, and the impact it may have on another person.

Communication has broad ethical implications. When wrestling with communication ethics, it is difficult to state that something is 100 percent ethical or unethical. We all make choices daily that are more ethical or less ethical, and we may confidently decide only later to learn that it was not the most ethical option. In such cases, our ethics and goodwill are tested since, in any given situation, multiple options may seem appropriate, but we can only choose one. If, in a situation, we make a decision and reflect on it and realize we could have made a more ethical choice, does that make us a bad person?

While many behaviours can be more easily labelled as ethical or unethical, communication is not always as clear. However, health-related professions have expectations and competencies related to professional communication.

Communication Influences Your Thinking About Yourself and Others

We all share a fundamental drive to communicate. As previously stated, communication can be defined as the process of understanding and sharing meaning (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). You share meaning in what you say and how you say it, both in oral and written forms. If you could not communicate, what would life be like? A series of never-ending frustrations? Not being able to ask for what you need or even to understand the needs of others?

Being unable to communicate might even mean losing a part of yourself, for you communicate your self-concept — your sense of self and awareness of who you are — in many ways. Do you like to write? Do you find it easy to make a phone call to a stranger or to speak to a room full of people? Do you like to work alone or in teams and groups? Perhaps someone told you that you do not speak clearly, or your grammar needs improvement. Does that make you more or less likely to want to communicate? For some, it may be a positive challenge; for others, it may be discouraging, but in all cases, your ability to communicate is central to your self-concept.

Take a look at clothing. What are the brands you are wearing? What are the brands your client is wearing? What do you think they say about you? What do they say about your client? Do you feel that certain styles of shoes, jewelry, tattoos, music, or even automobiles express who you or your client are? Part of self-concept is how individuals express themselves through texting, writing longer documents such as essays and research papers, or speaking. In some ways, the labels and brands we also wear communicate with your group or community. They are recognized and, to some degree, are associated with you. Just as your words represent you in writing, how you present yourself with symbols and images influences how others perceive you.

On the other side of the coin, your communication skills help you to understand others — not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their nonverbal gestures, or the format of their written documents provide you with clues about who they are and what their values and priorities may be. Your success as a communicator hinges on your ability to listen actively and accurately interpret others’ messages.

Communication Influences How You Learn

When you were an infant, you learned to talk over many months. A group of caregivers around you talked to each other, and you caught on that you could get something when you used a word correctly. Before you knew it, you spoke in sentences, in a language you learned from your family or those around you. When you got older, you did not learn to ride a bike, drive a car, or even text a message on your cell phone in one brief moment. Learning occurs in the same way as continuously improving your communication skills.

You learn to speak in public by having conversations, answering questions and expressing your opinions in class, and preparing and delivering a “stand-up” speech. Similarly, you learn to write by first learning to read, then by writing and thinking critically. Your speaking and writing reflect your thoughts, experience, and education. Part of that combination is your experience listening to other speakers, reading varying documents and styles of writing, and studying formats similar to those you aim to produce. Speaking and writing are critical communication skills you will use individually, in teams, and in groups.

As you study communication, you may receive suggestions for improvement and clarification from professionals more experienced than you. Take their suggestions as challenges to improve, and do not give up when your oral presentation, client interaction, or academic paper does not communicate the message you intend. Stick with it until you get it right. Your success in communicating is a skill that applies to every field of work in health studies, and it makes a difference in your personal and professional relationships with others.

Remember, luck is simply a combination of preparation and timing. You want to be prepared to communicate effectively and professionally when given the opportunity. Each time you communicate effectively, your success will bring more success.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • Communication meets our physical needs by helping us maintain physical and psychological well-being; our instrumental needs by helping us achieve short- and long-term goals; our relational needs by helping us initiate, maintain, and terminate relationships; and our identity needs by allowing us to present ourselves to others in particular ways.
  • Communication is a process that includes messages that vary in terms of conscious thought and intention. Communication is also irreversible and unrepeatable.
  • Communication is guided by culture and context.
  • We learn to communicate using systems that vary based on culture and language.
  • Rules and norms influence the routines and rituals within our communication.
  • Communication ethics varies by culture and context and involves the negotiation of and reflection on our actions regarding what we think is right and wrong.


  • Think of an example for each of the types of communication needs. Which need is most important for you? Why?
  • Why do you think it is essential to study professional communication? Is this class required for you? Do you think it should be required for everyone entering a health studies profession?
  • Think about how others have shaped your identity. What is something that was said to you that impacted how you felt? How do you feel now about the comment?


Adler, R. B., Rolls, J. A., & Proctor, R. F., II. (2020). Looking out, looking in (4th Canadian Edition). Nelson Education .

Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. R., & Proctor, R. F., II. (2007). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication (10th ed.). Oxford.

Dance, F. E. X., & Larson, C. E. (1976). The functions of human communication: A theoretical approach. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Koesten, J. (2004). Family communication patterns, sex of subject, and communication competence. Communication Monographs, 71(2), 226–244. https://doi.org/10.1080/0363775052000343417

Morreale, S. P., & Pearson, J. C. (2008). Why communication education is important: The centrality of the discipline in the 21st century. Communication Education, 57(2), 224–240. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520701861713

Pearson, J. C., Child, J. T., Mattern, J. L., & Kahl, D. H. (2006). What are students being taught about ethics in public speaking textbooks? Communication Quarterly54(4), 507–521. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463370601036689

Pearson, J. C., & Nelson, P. E. (2000). Introduction to human communication: Understanding and sharing. McGraw Hill.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., & Thweatt, K. S. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Milne Library Publishing.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book