Communication climates refer to the mood or the social tone in an interpersonal relationship. It determines and influences how interlocutors feel about each other as they engage in a dialogue or conversation. A communication climate can either be defensive or supportive depending on factors such as confirmation, empathy, honesty, and so on. The kind of climate determines the success of a communication act or productivity in a group.
A supportive communication climate requires the satisfaction of an individual’s need for confirmation (Buber, 197o). Every relationship exhibits both confirming and disconfirming communication; however, positive relationships involve more confirming communication. The following are three forms of communication that demonstrate confirmation (Cissna & Sieburg, 1986):
- Recognition or acknowledging the other person’s existence includes communication acts such as smiling or bowing down as a form of greeting, maintaining eye contact, and acknowledging the class or the audience before presenting a report. Disconfirming communication includes avoiding eye contact, giving someone the silent treatment, or merely ignoring a person.
- Acknowledgement of one’s ideas or feelings by listening attentively and responding in a positive manner without any form of judgment is a form of confirming communication. This may also be illustrated through paraphrasing somebody’s response, or asking a follow-up question.
- Endorsement refers to one’s acceptance of the other person’s feelings or ideas. This does not mean you immediately agree with whatever your interlocutor is saying. You may disagree with his or her feelings or ideas but at the same time respect why he feels or thinks that way.
Guidelines for Building Supportive Climates
Jack Gibb (1961) developed six categories of communication styles describing verbal and nonverbal behaviors that promote defensiveness rather than supportiveness. He identified the six types of communication behaviors to avoid—evaluation, control, strategy, neutrality, superiority, and certainty. In contrast, the types of communication that build supportive climates include description, problem orientation, spontaneity, empathy, equality, and provisionalism.
- Description versus Evaluation. Evaluative communication involves the use of judgmental language or language that aims to judge or criticize another person’s behavior. Language use that focuses on the negative qualities or behavior of the other person comes off as accusatory and promotes defensiveness. The statement, “You are so uncooperative,” is an example of an evaluation. Description, on the other hand, focuses on the speaker’s feelings or reaction towards the behavior of the other person. Language describing how a particular action or behavior made you feel is more objective. Instead of giving judgmental remarks to a group mate, for instance, the statement, “I feel worried about our presentation. I would appreciate it if you could do this for the group,” would more likely encourage cooperation.
- Problem Orientation versus Control. A communicator who demonstrates control over his or her interlocutor through his or her language use creates a negative communication climate. Examples of controlling statements include those that disregard or contradict the interlocutor’s ideas, feelings, or interests. For instance, an individual who constantly tries to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do displays a controlling behavior. On the other hand, problem orientation focuses on communicating to solve a problem, find a common ground, or reach an understanding.
- Spontaneity versus Strategy. A communicator who makes use of strategy demonstrates a manipulative behavior. For instance, a classmate who acts friendly towards another to receive favor and later communicates differently once his or her needs have already been met often provokes defensiveness. By contrast, being spontaneous means being genuine or natural. The term spontaneity is also associated with honesty. Spontaneous or unrehearsed statements generally come off as sincere statements that do not have hidden motives. However, this does not mean you speak carelessly without thinking of the possible repercussions of your statements.
- Empathy versus Neutrality. The term neutrality is used here to refer to indifference or lack of empathy towards an individual. This behavior is manifested when a communicator fails to show concern or even interest towards the personal viewpoints, feelings, and well-being of another. For instance, when someone feels as though he or she is just a cog in the wheel or an expendable part of the system, the communication behavior he or she is exposed to in school or at work has more likely been disconfirming. On the other hand, showing empathy or concern refers to putting oneself in another’s shoes. For example, an effective teacher gets to know his or her students and regards each one as a unique individual with his or her own personalities, feelings, and opinions.
- Equality versus Superiority. Superiority is illustrated by language that conveys arrogance such as when one boasts of being better than the rest. This communication behavior creates a disconfirming climate and evokes defensiveness on the listeners. Equality, on the other hand, promotes a positive communication climate as it promotes the fact that each individual is special and is capable of doing great things.
- Provisionalism versus Certainty. Certainty is used to refer to communication illustrated by a dogmatic or inflexible way of thinking. When one believes his or her opinion is absolute, communication loses its function. This creates a defensive environment as it deliberately disregards and denies the opinions or viewpoints of others. Provisionalism, in contrast, is communication characterized by the acceptance that others’ opinions matter as much as your own. This diminishes defensiveness and confirms the other person’s viewpoints.
Assertion strategies are the most important strategies in interpersonal communication (NUS Centre for English Language Communication, 2011). By being assertive, one is able to achieve his or her purpose for communicating or satisfying his or her needs by explicitly stating his or her thoughts without resorting to disrespect, intimidation, manipulation, or abuse. Factors that affect one’s assertiveness include one’s self-esteem and one’s cultural values. A person with a low self-esteem may choose not to say what he or she thinks about another person’s behavior even if it affects him or her negatively.
Assertiveness is also influenced by culture and power. In more conservative societies, it is more important to maintain positive relationships with others than to be assertive (e.g., prove that the other person is wrong). It is therefore important for a communicator to understand another person’s cultural background and expectations before demonstrating assertiveness.