The Elements of Communication

Communication has elements that work together to produce a system. They are composed of the following:

Senders and Receivers

Senders convey messages by converting their thoughts into symbols or observable signals such as words. This is called codification and is usually done through the use of language. Receivers hear the signals and convert the symbols into their thoughts. This is called decoding, deciphering, or interpretation. In doing so, the receiver must hear (observe) the signals correctly. Not only should the symbols be heard correctly, they should also have the same meaning for both senders and receivers. If not, a breakdown in communication will occur. That means the receiver could not correctly convert the symbols into the thoughts that the sender wants the receiver to have. Thus, the sender is also responsible for dividing the symbols into chunks that are decipherable (understandable) to receivers. If the receiver experiences difficulty in deciphering the symbols and putting them in the correct chunks, then he or she will experience difficulty in understanding the message. Both senders and receivers must be competent in communication.

In many communication activities, senders and receivers usually switch roles frequently. That means the sender becomes a receiver, and the receiver becomes the sender. In order to produce proper communication, the switching even when done very fast should be orderly and efficient, allowing the switching of roles to be done one after another. Moreover, it is possible for one or both sides to be the sender and receiver at the same time such as when a listener looks attentively at the speaker. In this case, being both a sender and receiver, the listener sends the message to the speaker that the listener is paying close attention to what the speaker is saying while at the same time receiving whatever information is being given by the speaker.


Messages are the ideas or thoughts that are transmitted from sender to receiver. They are the result of the interpretation of symbols, when meaning is derived from observable signals.

The proper reception of a message depends on correct interpretation by the receiver of the symbols sent by the sender. In turn, correct interpretation by the receiver of the symbols sent by a sender is greatly affected by the similarity between the culture and experience of the sender and receiver. The culture and experience together are called schema. Some theoreticians call this the field of experience. When there is much similarity between the schema of the sender and receiver, there is a much bigger chance of correct interpretation. This assumes that the receiver correctly observes the signals given by the sender. For example, in order for the sender and receiver to understand each other, they must speak the same language. Not only so, but they must also communicate at the same level of proficiency in that language. If the sender sends the message using a higher level of proficiency in the language (such as using complicated vocabulary and grammar) than that of the receiver, then the receiver will not understand the sender and communication will breakdown occur.

Verbal and Nonverbal Symbols

Symbols are observable signals transmitted from sender to receiver. They can be spoken signals that are heard (such as spoken words), printed symbols that can be read (such as printed words), hand signals that are seen (such as signals in sign language), or even symbols that are felt (such as Braille writing r the blind). 

Symbols do not have meaning in themselves. For example, when the sender says the word, “dog,” an image in the mind of the receiver is formed when the receiver hears the word. However, it is up to the receiver what kind of image comes to mind—whether the dog is furry or not, what breed it is, what color and size it is, etc. In fact, sometimes, the meaning stirred up by the word in the mind of the receiver may be different from the meaning intended by the sender. For example, the sender might say, “my teacher is fair,” with the sender thinking of the teacher as beautiful. Yet, when the receiver hears the utterance and interprets it, the receiver comes up with the meaning that the teacher treats his or her students with righteousness and justice. In order for the right message to be transmitted, the receiver must be able to do two things—observe and interpret the symbols sent by the sender correctly. Incorrectly observing the signal can result in the wrong symbol being received by the receiver. Incorrectly interpreting the symbol will result in the wrong thought decoded by the receiver from the symbol.

Symbols may be verbal or nonverbal. When symbols come in the form of utterances coming from the mouth of a speaker, they are considered verbal. If they come from body movements other than that of the mouth, they are considered nonverbal. Verbal symbols usually come in the form of spoken words, but they may also be in other forms such as grunts (huh or ugh), breaths (hmmm or ahh), shrieks (ahh! or ay!) or anything else coming out of the mouth of the speaker.


Channel refers to the medium through which the message is sent. It connects the sender and the receiver. Usually, it is the air around the sender and the receiver. When the sender uses a microphone or other device, then that becomes part of the channel. The quality of a channel depends on how free it is of noise. Noise is anything that reduces the quality of the signal sent by the sender through the channel, weakening the communication between sender and receiver. It could be garbled, too low in volume, have too much echo or any other reduction in quality. For example, if the surrounding is very windy or noisy, the words spoken by a speaker become garbled and difficult for the receiver to hear properly. In the case of devices such as microphones or telephones, when the equipment is malfunctioning or is of poor quality then the signal becomes garbled too. We have all experienced using devices that garble the signal we try to observe.


Feedback refers to the message transmitted by the receiver in response to the message of the speaker. It may come as feedback on the quality of the observed signal such as when a listener says, “huh?” when he or she does not hear the utterance clearly. It may also come as feedback on the message given by the sender such as when the receiver shows disbelief (“really?”) when the sender says, “we have no classes today.” Feedback enables the sender to make adjustments to the signals he or she sent, such as improving the pronunciation of words or speaking louder. Feedback also enables the sender to make adjustments to how he or she codifies his or her thoughts or to correct the ideas themselves. Feedback is very important in producing understanding between senders and receivers.