Introduction to Interpersonal Communication

by Trudi Peterson

Description Syllabus Class Notes Assignments +

     Interpersonal communication is the means by which people establish meaningful, intimate relationships with one another.  People engage in interpersonal communication to develop identities, satisfy personal needs, resolve problems, and to enhance the overall quality of relationships.  Scholars who study interpersonal communication (a sub-field within the communication discipline) examine a variety of variables that influence interpersonal relationships including gender, culture, self-disclosure, conflict management, the processual development of friendship and intimate relationships to name few.


Definition: “Interpersonal communication is a selective, systemic, unique and ongoing process of reciprocal interaction between individuals who reflect and build personal knowledge of one another as they create meaning(Wood, 1999, p. 24).

  1. Selective—people choose who they want to have interpersonal relationships with since it requires time, energy and commitment;
  2. Systemic—occurs within social systems wherein people are interdependent;
  3. Unique—can’t replace intimates, people aren’t interchangeable;
  4. Ongoing process—evolves dynamically over time and is continuously changing but is linked to the past and influences the future;
  5. Reciprocal interaction—individuals communicate simultaneously, consistently and share responsibility for effective communication; interpersonal communication is characterized by mutuality;
  6. Between individuals—who develop and sustain a relationship;
  7. Personal knowledge—through interpersonal communication, individuals come to know one another deeply;
  8. Create (shared) meaning—the heart of interpersonal relationships; meanings grow out of shared history.


Interpersonal Communication Continuum—Not all communication between (inter) people (personal) is truly interpersonal—it exists on a continuum from impersonal to interpersonal.  Distinctions among types of communication were elaborated by philosopher Martin Buber (1970) in his conceptualization of a communication continuum.


ß  Impersonal  

Interpersonal à 

 I-It    I-You I-Thou 


I-It communication involves treating others impersonally, like objects.  At this level a person may not even acknowledge the existence of another.


I-You communication is characterized by superficial rule and role-bound interactions.  While you may affirm the existence of another, you do not fully engage him/her as a unique individual.  Buber called this stage “seeming.”  The majority of our relationships would probably be characterized as I-You.


I-Thou relationships involve engaging another as a unique, fully human individual. According to Buber, this is the highest, most complex form of communication.  Buber labeled I-Thou relationships “being.”


Buber, M. (1970). I and thou.  New York: Scribner.

Wood, J. (1999). Interpersonal communication: Everyday encounters (2nd Edition). Wadsworth.


 last updated 9/24/2001