1. Be able to decribe in some detail, the various components of communication competence.
2. Know how Weiman conceptualizes the acquisition of competence.
3. Be able to explain the debate over competence versus effectiveness.
4. Be able to explain the locus of judgement problem.
5. Be able to explain the State/Micro/Molecular Competence versus Trait/Macro/Molar Competence issue.
6. Why is competence a life-span issue?
Chapter 6: Communication Competence
Communication competence is perhaps the Holy Grail of communication science. It is likely the main reason for why we endlessly study the multitude of variables relating to why and how humans behave the way they do. Ultimately we would like to improve communication for people in their families, romantic relationships, organizations, and other contexts. Not surprisingly, competence has been a common area for researchers to examine and a small forest has been denuded to publish the results of their efforts. However, a thorough understanding of Communication Competence remains as elusive as the original Holy Grail. This chapter will examine what we think we know about communication competence as a concept. Keep in mind that measuring it is another issue altogether. The chapter will also examine the difficult issues that have plagued this area of study. Some of the best people in the field have tried to sort out the puzzle of communication competence. Many have done an admirable job. However, in the wake of their efforts, there are at least as many questions as answers.
Before launching into a discussion of what we don’t know about the nature of communication competence, what is it we do know? There are thought to be three essential components to competence, cognitive, behavioral, and affective. Cognitive and behavioral elements are the primary components in competence. They are mediated by the affective elements. The failure of any one area is thought to lessen our communication abilities overall. They are not acquired in a specific sequence but each depends on the other in order to produce the competent communicator. No one component is more or less important than any other one.
Cognitive Competence. Cognitive competence refers to our level of knowledge about the salient factors in communication situations and how those factors operate in communication situations. In any communication activity, there are a variety of issues that we must observe, analyze, and take into consideration before we make a decision about what sort of communication behaviors are called for. We must consider the communication context. What is the physical environment? Are we in a public place or private? Can we easily be overheard? Is it formal or informal? Is this in the context of work, family or something else? How much time is available for the interaction? We must also consider the person we’re talking with. What is their status in relation to ours? How well do we know them? What might their goals be for this interaction, the relationship? What do they want to hear? What are the implications of saying one thing as opposed to another? What are the person’s personality and communication tendencies? How might they be modified by the context we’re presently in? What is their current physical and emotional status? We need also to attend to ourselves. What skills do we possess or lack? What are our own communication and personality tendencies? What is our current physical and emotional state? What are the advantages or disadvantages of behaving in one way or another? What are our long and short term goals? Doubtless each communication situation calls for a multidimensional analysis and in order to be a competent communicator, we need to perform these examinations quickly, realistically, and accurately then choose communication approaches that will achieve the end we desire either specifically or generally.
Behavioral Competence. Behavioral competence relates to our level and variety of skill in communication. All the knowledge in the world about what actions a situation calls for is useless unless we can actually perform the needed actions. For example, one of the most valuable conversational abilities when we first meet someone is the ability to engage in small talk. Without it, relationships are difficult to develop. Most people know that when they meet another person for the first time, they need to “chat them up.” It requires the ability to discuss a wide variety of safe or neutral topics and extend the topics that others offer. Yet not everyone is good at it. One of your authors is routinely engaged in conversations about sports but knows virtually nothing about it. It’s embarrassing since it is a useful topic for small talk with other males. Yet, he finds himself having to beat a hasty retreat into some other topic before he makes an unadulterated fool of himself (or at least finds another topic on which to appear foolish). In fact, he was once invited to a Superbowl Party and a graduate class took pity and prepared a set of cue cards with appropriate football-esque questions so that he’d be able to participate in a modicum of dialogue at the party. Knowing what is appropriate to discuss in a given situation also requires the ability.
Affective Competence. Affective competence refers to having the appropriate emotional attitude toward the communication activities that are called for. Most often, this means that we must be positively oriented toward the behaviors that are called for. In short, not only must we know what to do and be able to do it we also have to want to. Most people have had arguments with their significant others. In many cases there comes a point at which further discussion is pointless and we realize that the best, most competent course of action is to walk away. Further comment is likely to escalate the conflict so the prudent thing to do is take time away from the argument and let time either resolve it or revisit the issue when emotions aren’t running quite so high. Too often though, rather than doing the competent thing, we continue the argument, often in the worst way possible. Why? Why would anyone, knowing the competent thing to do choose any other course of action…because they want to. If we are not positively oriented toward the competent course of action we’re likely to choose a course of action that we are favorable towards. Maybe we want to hurt the other person. Maybe winning the argument matters most to us. Whatever the reason, we are likely to choose a course of action that we like over a course of action we don’t like—regardless of which is more competent. In this way, affective competence acts to mediate cognitive and behavioral competence. It stands in the middle and allows or disallows the execution of competent or incompetent communication behaviors. Knowing only leads to doing if there is positive affect for the doing.
Putting it Together. John Wieman suggested
that people pass through stages on their way to competence. He said that
they begin as unconscious incompetents. That is, they engage in less than
appropriate behaviors but are also unaware of what they are doing wrong.
They might argue in counterproductive ways, express their emotions or ideas
inaccurately, they may jump to conclusions about what others mean. The
fact is that the mistakes they make can be broad based or highly specific.
The important issue is that they are not behaving optimally and are unclear
about their shortcomings. It is possible to spend one’s entire life as
an unconscious incompetent and never be any the wiser. This represents
deficits in all three areas of communication competence; cognitive, affective,
and behavioral. The cognitive deficit exists because the person doesn’t
know what the problem might be or have any idea that other communicative
actions might yield better results. An affective deficit exists because
the person may have no desire to remedy the situation. A behavioral deficit
exists because the person likely does not possess the skills needed to
perform in an appropriate manner.
If an effort is made to learn about communication the person may improve their level of cognitive competence and move toward becoming a conscious incompetent. In this case, the person is aware of their shortcomings and may even know what to do about it. Yet they may lack the behavioral abilities needed to rectify the problem. Improvement from this point is largely dependent on the development of affective competence or the desire to improve communication skills. If the person learns new behaviors and takes steps to practice those behaviors they may become a conscious competent. As a conscious competent, they are cognitively and affectively able but behaviorally unpolished. The behaviors may feel foreign and appear stilted and un-natural to themselves and others. Nonetheless, Weiman argues that given effort people become unconscious competents. This is viewed as the ultimate goal in that the appropriate behaviors are performed in the appropriate situations without a great deal of thought. They appear natural and ordinary. They become second nature.
The process can be viewed metaphorically, much like the acquisition of a variety or skills. For example, learning to drive a car with a standard or manual transmission. It is initially a very confusing and seemingly difficult undertaking. First comes the knowledge of what needs to happen in what sequence in order to operate the car safely. Just because one knows how to do it doesn’t mean that they possess the behaviors that are required. Those too must be practiced. At first, our efforts are awkward and our feel for the clutch all wrong. Timing is far from smooth. God forbid we find ourselves on a hill! With practice and effort, the cognitive and behavioral components come together. Yet, at any point, if we become frustrated and impatient with the process, our affective competence may falter and we may walk away from the undertaking. If not, then it is likely that we will eventually be able to operate the vehicle with little or no active thought or effort. We simply get into the car and drive.
Communication Effectiveness. The first stumbling
block in our understanding of communication deals with the relationship
between competence and effectiveness. Effectiveness refers to whether or
not we are able to achieve our immediate and/or long term goals. When we
go to a restaurant for a cup of coffee our goal is to do just that. Similarly,
we might also try to talk our parents into lending us money where the goal
is to get them to relinquish some of their cash. Two of the most prominent
figures in the conceptualization of competence are James McCroskey and
Brian Sptizberg. McCroskey argues that effectiveness is a separate issue
from competence. Spitzberg, on the other hand, suggests that the two are
related. The issue is far from decided.
Clearly it is possible for a person to be a competent communicator and an effective one. Likewise, we would expect the incompetent communicator to be ineffective. Is it possible to be effective yet incompetent? Consider a four-year-old standing before the refrigerator trying to score a Popsicle. He/she may cry, point, whimper, anything but speak, and his/her mother may well figure out what the child wants and get it. Clearly effective yet not terribly competent. Similarly breaking into tears when stopped by the police for a traffic violation may well have the desired effect and get someone out of a citation but its generally not a competent communication strategy for an adult and even less so for an adult male. Is it then possible to be competent but ineffective? Let’s go back to having been stopped by the police for a traffic violation. Rather than bursting into tears an individual constructs and executes a valid explanation for having made the error. Let’s assume they do everything right given the situation. They are respectful, contrite, eloquent, and composed. In spite of their clear display of competent communication, they nonetheless receive a citation. Does the fact that the person failed to avoid the citation mean that they are incompetent?
These examples would seem to suggest that communication competence and communication effectiveness are two different things. Yet, can we honestly say that a person who rarely or never achieves their communication goals is competent? In any other occupation we’d have to wonder. If a lawyer followed correct courtroom procedure and made good arguments but never won a case, how long would it be before we’d begin to wonder if he or she wasn’t a competent lawyer. Similarly, a physician who is unable to effectively treat his/her patients would not be considered a competent physician. It is just as easy to see how effectiveness and competence should be related to each other. Just what that relationship is remains unclear.
Locus of Judgement
Locus or location of Judgement refers to the issue of who is in the best position to make the decision as to whether a person is competent or not. There are three possible points of view. A person can assess his/her own level of competence. We can have an interactional partner assess his/her competence. Finally, we can have a third person make the assessment. Each carries advantages and disadvantages.
Self Perceived. Self perceived communication
competence is a self-assessment of competence. It answers the question,
“How good at communication do I believe I am?” Because of the ease with
which such data is collected, it is a frequently used method. However,
it’s important to remember that such data is perceptual. As a result, it
may have little or nothing to do with whether a person is truly competent
in an objective sense. Self perceptions are very effective in predicting
behavior. If we believe we are good at something, we are more likely to
do it. A case in point…the dancefloor. On any given evening it is possible
to observe people out dancing who clearly shouldn’t. Their belief in their
abilities makes the activity appropriate and their inability to see themselves
clearly and objectively keeps them from death by public humiliation. So
too Karoake. The danger of self assessments is that the relationship between
actual competence and self perceived competence is dubious. Some people
have very accurate perceptions of themselves. Others do not. Just as some
people believe they are better at communication than they actually are,
some believe they are worse. People who suffer from high levels of communication
anxiety tend to report that they are poor communicators. Some are. Just
as many actually are not. Similarly, most people are highly critical of
their own public speaking performances. They may believe that the speech
they just gave was poor, they stuttered, stammered, shook, and knocked
their knees together. However, to an audience, all of their “mistakes”
seemed rather natural and may have gone unnoticed by everyone except the
Other Perceived. If we can’t trust people to accurately assess their own competence then perhaps the answer lies in asking others to judge. We could pair someone up with a partner and then ask the partner to assess the other person’s competence. Who better to tell us if they are competent than someone who has actually interacted with them? Another possibility is to have a disinterested third party watch someone interact with another and make a competence assessment following the observation. Again, there are problems associated with these approaches. We invariably have perceptual biases when we look at the behavior of others. Whenever we consider our own behaviors Attribution Theory finds that we ascribe the causes of behavior to be the result of external, environmental factors. When we look at others’ behavior, we tend to ascribe their behavior to internal or personality based factors. Similarly, even if we attempt to act as an impartial observer, we find that the causes of normal behaviors are most often attributed to external factors while aberrant behaviors are attributed to internal ones. There are numerous other factors that come into how we make attributions about the behavior of others and most of them have little to do with a person’s objective level of competence. In fact, everyone’s behavior is likely due to both internal and external factors. However, our tendency to predictably and erroneously ascribe the behaviors to internal or external causes makes us less that objective and hence, less than accurate in our observations of others. Additionally, Implicit Personality Theory argues that once we find out a single piece of information about someone, we tend to make additional assumptions about them bases on the single attribute. Take for example the assumptions we make about attractive people. Research has repeatedly shown that beautiful people are also believed to be more intelligent, skilled, talented, kinder, and more communication competent, etc. than less attractive people. Clearly this is not the accurate and objective evaluation we are looking for. So, what is the correct answer? Who should make the determination at to whether someone is competent? It is very difficult to say. Efforts are on-going to find a clear way of assessing the competence of communicators. Perhaps the answer lies in the use of panels of experts or combinations of self, partner, and observer assessments. Once again, the issue remains open.
State/Micro/Molecular Competence versus Trait/Macro/Molar Competence
Yet another complicated issue in the puzzle of communication competent rests with what level of competence we are thinking of. This has been further complicated by the terminology that has been used to describe these levels. In short, there are two levels of communication competence. The first refers to how competence we are is a specific situation. For example, if we are invited to a job interview with the ACME Widget Company, we will hopefully make good decisions about our communication and behave in appropriate ways in that specific job interview. Regardless of whether we receive an offer, it is important that our interview performance be seen positively and appropriately by the person who conducts the interview. If we receive an invitation to another interview with another company, then we will have another set of decisions to make and behaviors to perform that will probably differ from the first interview. Afterall, we are dealing with a different interviewer, a different company, a different time, and perhaps a different job description. To assume that the behaviors in one interview will work for all interviews is probably not a good strategy. This level of competence has been labeled situational competence but is also known as micro-competence or molecular competence. All three terms, situational, micro-, and molecular refer to this same, highly specific level of competence.
The second way of thinking about competence is in terms of “the big picture.” There are people who are competent in a general sense. They seem to conduct their thoughts and actions in appropriate ways across a wide variety of situations. To use the previous example of job interviews, there are people who interview well. The specifics don’t seem to matter a great deal. A person who is a competent communicator in an overall sense, is thought to be trait competent. This is also known as macro-competence, or molar competence. Each of the terms above pairs with a term from the preceding paragraph: state/trait, micro-/macro-, and molecular/molar.
Why should we care about such distinctions? Because it effects how we approach teaching people to be competent. Is it better to be competent in the general or specific sense? Well…both! For example, in the case of job interviews, it is important that we prepare for a specific interview by researching the company, the interviewer, and so forth. Yet, we will also need a degree of general interviewing competence in order to anticipate the sorts of questions we might be asked and the sorts of answers that might make good answers. While specific information is available and we can teach someone where it is and how to find it, how do we go about teaching general competence? The intuitive answer is that we practice. In preparation, we might suggest that people rehearse by participating in mock interviews. We might suggest that people go to as many interviews as they can regardless of whether they want the job or not. In short, what we are suggesting with this is that they utilize specific competence in order to arrive at general competence. This seems like a valid approach. The more times you do something, the better we become at doing that thing in subsequent tries. The more we play golf, the better we get. Yet, consider the following example. A graduate student finds himself at the end of his masters degree program and is simply dying to land a good job. In order to do this, he must interview well (in the general sense). As a result, he buys every interviewing guide he can find at the bookstore. He looks at dozens or books that provide thousands of potential interview questions and he carefully examines what kinds of answers each question calls for. He practices with friends and strangers and feels that he is ready for anything. After cruising through a number of interviews, he goes on to the next. He enters the office, shakes hands, and offers his resume’. The interviewer tosses it aside and says, “I don’t care about that…what’s your story?” He found himself dumbfounded at the question. It hadn’t been in any of his books or micro-competence practice sessions. What the situation called for was general competence and in this one situation, he didn’t have it. All the individual practice in the world might not have prepared him for it.
Similarly, how often do people know ahead of time that they are going to have to argue with someone about something? On our way to the confront them, we practice. We talk through our arguments in advance and play both sides of the conversation. We try to consider each and every conceivable argument and counter-argument the other person might use and we prepare our own rejoinders. We engage in a sort of micro-competence practice session in the belief that it will be helpful. Yet, how often does the conversation go the way we practice? How often does the other person generate the arguments we anticipate in the way we anticipate them? Not often. Again, what we need is a level of general competence that doesn’t seem to be gained through the accumulation of specific experiences.
General/Macro-/Trait/Molar competence is most likely related to versatility and has been referred to as fundamental competence by Duran. Those who think in a variety of ways and those who are capable of a wide range of behaviors are often the ones best suited to communicate the right way at the right time. This begs the question of how we become versatile. While a volume of micro-level practice might be helpful, several studies suggest that the nature of our early social networks has an impact on children’s competence. Children who have social networks that are highly diverse, tend to be more competent than children with narrow, homogenous networks. If it is the case that competence can be learned, then these findings would make sense. The greater the number and variety of different people a child has to communicate with, the more diverse, flexible, and versatile their communication aptitude would need to be. Others would argue, based on a growing amount of neuropsychological data, that versatility may be less a learned attribute and more a matter of psychological predisposition. Rather than being a clear case of learning or a clear case of innate personality trait, it is probably a combination of the two. In addition to fundamental competence, there are several additional forms of competence that help to clarify/muddle our understanding of competence.
Interpersonal competence is related to the extent to which we are able to manipulate the social environment in order to achieve our goals. It is dependent on many of the abilities that were mentioned earlier in terms of context analysis, also includes empathy, and interaction management. It further involves our ability to manage how others perceive us in on-going interactions. Its focus is largely strategic so that the interpersonally competence person is able to select from a range of tacts, or moves and then execute those moves in order to achieve the desired results or goals. As can be seen, the interpersonal approach focuses on strategy selection and goal attainment.
An additional approach to competence is taken by linguists whose interests lie in the production of messages. Jakobovitz’ integrates the arguments of Chomsky, Habermas and others. He suggests that there are three aspects of meaning. The first is linguistic meaning. This level of meaning refers to the structure of the utterance. Is it a valid statement in terms of the rules of the language? Does it convey the intended literal meaning based on the way the statement is put together? The second level of meaning is implicit meaning. It involves an awareness of the possible ways that messages might be interpreted—the variations, if you will, that are possible within a given language choice. The third level of meaning is referred to as implicative meaning. Here, we are dealing with a level of meaning that is related to the possible outcomes of the message and de facto, the roles of the interactants. So that a statement such as, “I need a favor” suggests that the relationship is such that favors can be asked and there is a reasonable expectation of compliance. Across this notion of competence, the message is key.
Relational competence arises from the previous discussion about communication effectiveness. Yet here effectiveness is bi-directional. That is, relationally competent communicators not only attend to the their own goal attainment but to the other persons goals and desires as well. It does not assume that there is a specific set of communication skills that can be universally employed in various contexts to produce a desired end. Rather, the effectiveness and appropriateness of communication has to judged in the context in which it occurs. The same behaviors in another context, at another time, even with the same person may prove ineffective and/or inappropriate. This tends to tie the interactants together such that competence occurs as a result of mutual goal achievement within a specific situation.
Social competence has focused on the traits that
are found in competence communicators. It seems to assume that there are
aspects of the communicators themselves that lead to their competence.
Personality traits such as empathy, cognitive complexity, listening abilities,
involvement, and role-taking have been found to be associated with competent
communicators. Here, we see an approach that suggests that counts less
on context and more on the attributes of the communicator that tend to
produce competence communication events.
These approaches can be related back to the molar/molecular debate presented earlier. Dispositional approaches to competent are represented by the fundamental, social, interpersonal and linguistic notions of competence. The situational approch is depicted by the relational view of competence. So, which of them is the correct approach? All of them are likely to contribute a measure of accuracy. Simultaneously, each can be debated for its faults. This chapter began by stating that competence has been a tough nut for the field of communication to crack. The situation is certain to continue and to spark lively debate in the years ahead.
Competence Over the Life-span
A particular bias that shows up in the research of
communication competence is that most researchers seem to view competence
as something that is a fixed point to be achieved. Very few have studied
the development of competence. Rather, they have focused on it as an end
state that once achieved, remains the same over time. In fact, it is highly
unlikely that this is the case. Competence almost certainly changes over
the course of the lifespan. What is competent for a four-year-old, is not
competence for a middle-aged executive. Each part of our life demand new
competencies. We have to develop the abilties needed for family relationships,
friendships, professional relationships, and so forth. What’s more, each
of these may change as well. While we behave in certain ways with our parents
as children, these behaviors change as we develop independence. It changes
again, when we form our own families, and yet again, as our parents grow
old and die. Communication competence is an on-going activity that is far
from fixed and far from consistent. It will likely take a great deal of
time and energy to unravel it.
Most of the efforts of researchers to study communication competence has been driven forward by political and educational mandates that call for training at the elementary and secondary level in oral communication competence. Although there is no curriculum for communication at either level, the US Department of Education consistently places oral communication objectives into their goals. The National Communication Association has been involved in the development of criteria for oral communication proficiency at these levels. With the consultation of a variety of experts in the field, they have produced a set of competencies that children should possess at the completion of elementary and secondary education. These competencies are provided in Appendix A and at the following Web site: www.natcom.org.
Adult Competence. As was mentioned earlier, competence involves a great deal of change over the course of one’s lifetime. Even our role as son or daughter may change significantly from the beginning of life to the end. As children, we are highly dependent on our parents for care and support both social and financial. As we grow, we become increasingly independent. By the time we are relatively independent of our parents, they will have aged by twenty to thirty years. If we become parents, we rely on our parents for a very different kind of support and we communicate differently with them as a result. As they age, our relationship and our communication changes again. While they may never come to be as dependent as we were on them, such things do happen. More likely though they come to depend on us more for advice, and assistance. The same sorts of changes occur with our own children, our friendships, work relationships, and romantic relationships.
New relationships constantly appear.
As very young children most of our social life focuses on our family. We
spend most of our time with parents, grandparents, and siblings. Once mobile,
we expand our social circle to include non-family relationships or friendships.
As we reach adolescence, romantic relations develop and if they come to
fruition, we become husbands and wives. We may become parents. In 50% of
cases, we will become ex-husbands or ex-wives. We not only have classmates
in school but when we finish school and embark on our careers, we become
coworkers and colleagues. We also become superiors and subordinates. Our
family may make us into grandparents and our society may make us into a
retiree. For each new relationship and role, we must develop new modes
of communication. Not only do our relationships create new criteria for
communication competence the emergence of new roles does as well.
Finally, all of our relationships are embedded in a culture and a historical context. Being an adolescent son or daughter was a very different thing at different times in this century. Even the forty years since the 50’s and 60’s has led to vast differences in the ways parents and children interact with each other. Here, the issues of roles and rules comes into play. While almost all cultures have the notion of son or daughter as a role to be played, the rules that govern how the role is to be played may vary. In the US parents generally do not arrange marriages for their children. Yet in some cultures this is still a common practice. Sons and daughters are bound by the rules that govern their role to abide by their parents’ decision. To reject their selection would be highly disrespectful. Simultaneously, selecting good spouses for their children is a rule that governs the role of parenting in these cultures.