Communication 101


Communication is a complex process wrapped in a simple transaction. Perhaps the most simple yet complete model of communication is comprised of four parts and four processes. The four parts are: sender, message, recipient and channel. The four processes are: encoding, sending, receiving and decoding.

The Four Parts of Communication

The first three parts of communication are relatively self-explanatory. The Sender is the person, organization or entity that encodes and sends information to other people, organizations or entities. The Message is the information being encoded, sent, received and decoded. And, the Recipient is the person, organization or entity that receives and decodes the information being sent.

The fourth part of communication, the channel, is simply the mechanism or vehicle by which the Sender's message is delivered to the Recipient. While there are many channels of communication from which to choose, it is important to remember that every channel has properties like cost, immediacy, distribution and availability that influence it's suitability for a given purpose.

The Four Processes of Communication

The four processes of communication are arranged in two process pairs: encoding-decoding and sending-receiving. As we will see, these process pairs form dependencies on one another--the failure of which results in miscommunication.

Encoding and Decoding

Encoding and decoding happen on two levels. The first level is sender-receiver dependent. Success is predicated on the sender choosing words, sounds and images that accurately convey his or her message based on the recipient's culture, history, language, philosophy and social, economic and political contexts. In other words, it pays to know the audience.

The second level of encoding and decoding is channel dependent. Success is predicated on channel access and the proper execution of channel-specific technical processes. For our purposes, we'll assume that the technical processes of encoding and decoding will be successfully managed by services beyond the scope of our discussion.

Sending and Receiving

The sending-receiving process is situated between the encoding-decoding processes. Success is predicated on channel continuity between the Sender and Receiver. For our purposes, we'll assume that the technical processes of sending and receiving will be successfully managed by services beyond the scope of our discussion. Once again, it comes down to knowing our audience. Do they have access to the channels on which we are broadcasting? How often are they listening, watching or reading?

Communication in Action

We can see the parts and processes of communication at work in the following scenario. Will (the sender) encodes "Do you want to get some food?" (the message) into words (encode 1) and vocalizes them (encode 2 + send) to Zoe (the recipient) who hears them (receive + decode 1) and interprets Will's meaning (decode 2) based on her cultural, historical, linguistic, philosophical, social, economic and political background.

The Art of Communication

Even in our simple example, we can see the possibility of subtle nuances distorting Zoe's reception and understanding of Will's message. In what context are they having the conversation? Where are they? What is their nationality? Is it lunch or dinner time? What kind of relationship do they have--professional, intimate, adversarial? What history do they have together? The choice of words and word order, volume, inflection and tone used to convey meaning is what we might call the Art of Communication.

The Science of Communication

There are also some potential technical issues that could disrupt Zoe's reception and understanding of Will's message. Will may be a low-talker, have a speech impediment or be really nervous, and Zoe may be deaf, distracted or distant. The choice of setting, timing, delivery, distribution and availability to enhance receptiveness and responsiveness are what we might call the Science of Communication. Of course, no literal dividing line exists between the art and science of communication. Both can be studied, measured and mastered. Both are important. And, both are part preparation and part prediction.


Understanding the basic parts and processes of communication can help us successfully troubleshoot what went wrong when there is a failure to communicate. More importantly, it can help us communicate more effectively in the future. While there are the occasional "technical difficulties," miscommunication most often occurs when we don't know our audience, and either encode our message using the wrong words or send our message over a channel to which our audience isn't tuned.