Communication skills are some of the most vital skills to have to find success in school and the real world. Understanding how to listen, speak to a variety of audiences, persuade, or deliver a message with your body language and your words will help you to not only overcome many challenges but also to build stronger relationships and thrive in daily life.
It’s easy to forget that communication skills are things we are continually learning and revising as we go through life. You may think that we all learned how to listen before we were even ready for school, for example, but that’s not true. There’s more to listening and many other types of communication skills than meets the eye.
What Are the Primary Types of Communication Skills?
There are so many communication skills we use every day in business, school, and general life that it would be almost impossible to cover them all here. At their core, though, communication skills are divided into two main categories: verbal communication and non-verbal communication. Most other skills will fit in one or both of these broader categories.
We can subdivide each of these two categories into many more, and we will do that in a little bit. For now, let’s focus on defining the categories of verbal and non-verbal communication so that you can better understand why each is necessary and what each means.
Defining the Types: Verbal Communication Skills
When you say the word communication, you’re likely often thinking of the spoken word. You may also think of forms of communication that involve writing like texting, emails, and letters. These are all forms of verbal communication.
There are so many definitions of verbal communication out there that it would be nearly impossible to narrow it down. Essentially verbal communication is sending messages using words, either written or oral. According to Indiana State University, the technical definition of verbal communication is “an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning.” For this definition to work, we assume symbols are explicitly written or spoken.
Verbal communication skills are vital because they help us to understand how our words affect those around us and why. They set up a standard by which we can all speak to ensure that others understand us and that we are not offending anyone.
Without verbal communication, we would all be walking around, guessing what others are thinking or feeling with no means of finding out if we’re correct. Verbal communication is the most critical piece of the communication puzzle, but it certainly isn’t the only piece.
Some verbal communication skills we’ll discuss here are public speaking, small group communication, interpersonal communication, and intrapersonal communication. Each of these skills derives from verbal communication and represents an essential piece of how we communicate to exist well in our world.
Defining the Types: Non-Verbal Communication Skills
According to Andrews University, the definition of non-verbal communication is “sending and receiving messages in a variety of ways without the use of verbal codes (words)” both intentionally and unintentionally. By this definition, non-verbal communication can be anything from laughter or sighing to body language.
Non-verbal communication is what brings life to verbal communication. It adds feeling and passion to otherwise dry language. It’s like Spock’s human half. Without non-verbal, we would have no way of knowing if the person we’re speaking to was interested in the topic at hand without them interrupting us or waiting until we finish with our part of the conversation.
Non-verbal communication skills are arguably more important for your success in daily life, but especially in professional life, than verbal communication skills. Even someone with all the eloquence in the world can ruin their chances of honestly being heard by wearing the wrong clothes, not making eye contact, or laughing at an inappropriate time.
The purpose of non-verbal communication is fivefold. It is used to accent, repeat, complement, replace, or regulate verbal communication. Although it’s important to understand that when we say non-verbal communication can replace verbal communication, we aren’t talking about sign language. All sign language falls under the category of verbal communication.
We will go in-depth on some of the most vital non-verbal communication skills later on. We will also discuss how non-verbal communication rules may vary more than verbal regulations in terms of international ideals.
An In-Depth Look at Important Types of Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills
So now you know the two overarching types of communication skills you’ll need to use to succeed in our society. Unfortunately, you’ll need more information than that to utilize these skills correctly. We want to go in-depth on some of the skills that land under our two broader categories to help you get a better handle on some of these vital skills.
Body Language and Posture
Regardless of the reason you’re brushing up on your communication skills, you’ll need to set your focus on body language. What your body says has a much more significant effect on what others think of you than your words. It’s the reason for the age-old “actions speak louder,” commentary.
Body language accounts for a large portion of your first impressions, especially in professional settings. If you are slouching, holding onto a phone or drink, fidgeting, or lacking eye contact in a professional setting. You’re likely to have to work much harder to garner respect or earn a position with a company than someone whose body language is more refined.
Other types of body language that you’ll want to watch out for are touching your face and hair often or speaking with your hands when you’re not using them for a specific purpose (i.e., pointing while giving directions). Crossing your arms, smiling at appropriate times, nodding, or tugging on your clothes are also sending messages without words.
When we say space, we aren’t referring to the final frontier. We are referring to the amount of space between you and other people, also called proxemics. Understanding the appropriate amount of space you should place between you and others is subject to a whole lot of situational rules. For instance, speaking one-on-one versus giving a speech to a group.
There are many factors beyond the larger situation that you’ll need to consider when determining your space needs as well. In an interpersonal setting, how comfortable are you with the other person or the people with whom you’re speaking? In a public environment, how are chairs organized, and where is the podium or logical space to stand? Do you have a microphone?
Once you answer all of the questions we’ve thrown out here, then you’ll be able to determine what is appropriate in a given situation. Remember, though, not every culture feels the same way about space that western culture does. Many cultures don’t feel the need to maintain the “personal bubble” that we do and maybe put off if you attempt to do so.
You’ve probably guessed that gestures are another important aspect of non-verbal communication that you’ll need to understand to succeed. Gestures can be anything from hand talking to pointing to waving, and they differ based on culture, just like personal space.
To help you understand what we mean about gestures being important, let’s analyze one of the most common gestures out there: the wave. We all wave in various ways and at various times. You probably wouldn’t do a queen’s parade wave to a friend across the mall. You also wouldn’t see someone doing a full two-handed wave while driving a Jeep Wrangler and passing another.
The way we wave says a lot about the situation that we’re in, and about our level of professionalism. Waving exaggeratedly at your senior vice president when you see him from across the room at a networking event, for example, might not show the level of respect or professionalism most people would expect in that setting.
Waving is just one example of a wide variety of gestures that can make or break a situation for you. Gestures show closeness, respect, and status, and also vary by culture. You may have heard of the infamous peace sign incident when former President George Bush visited Australia and put up a peace sign with his palm facing in, the Aussie equivalent of the middle finger.
If you can master appropriate gesturing, then you’ll be much more likely to win friends and influence people both in and outside of your workplace.
Paralinguistics is a big word, but it means how you communicate vocally, aside from the words you say. Paralinguistics can be anything from the tone of voice to speed to volume. It’s largely considered one of the most difficult, but essential, parts of communication to master. How we use paralanguage depends on our cultural background, family life, and schooling.
There are four primary parts of paralinguistics, and they are rate, tone and pitch, volume and inflection, and filler words. Utilizing each of the first three well will help you sound confident, be persuasive, grab the attention of your listeners, and engage people. Not using the second often, if at all, will show listeners that you’re confident, prepared, and organized.
How fast you speak makes a great deal of difference in how you’re perceived. Rate is cultural in many ways, with certain parts of the US even having noticeable differences in how quickly they speak versus others. The worldwide difference is higher yet. The south, for instance, has a noticeably slower speech rate than California.
Beyond just cultural norms, the speed with which you speak might add emphasis to certain words or phrases. If you want your listeners to focus on one specific idea in your sentence, you might pause after saying it. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and you will likely notice his strategic pauses create impact throughout.
Tone and Pitch
Think about lectures in school, and you’ll understand why tone and pitch are so important to master. We’ve all had trouble keeping our eyes open while the teacher or professor droned on in a monotone voice. If you want to know how not to keep the attention of your audience or even just a single colleague or friend, there’s your example.
Correctly utilizing tone and pitch can make or break your conversation, speech, or interview. Changes in tone keep your words interesting, and changes in your pitch give your words meaning. One example of pitch changing meaning is when you end your sentence in a higher pitch; most people will then assume you’re asking a question.
Tone can tell us if you’re sarcastic or if you’re passionate about a cause or subject. If we all spoke in a monotone, we would have to blatantly explain the meaning behind our words. The sentence, “You really think so?” can be taken several different ways based on the tone and pitch you choose to use when speaking it.
Volume and Inflection
There is some crossover with inflection and tone and pitch, but it is mostly its own subject. Inflection means where we emphasize within a sentence. You may have seen the example of the sentence “I never said she stole my money.” This sentence has seven different meanings based on which word you emphasize.
The sentence in our paragraph above is an extreme example of what inflection can do to change your meaning. You can see where the right inflection will allow you to make the positive impression you’re going for or cause a major misstep in your relationships.
Volume is another important piece of the puzzle, and it often goes with inflection as well as our other paralinguistic structures. Volume can command attention or diminish your efforts. It can make you seem overbearing or needy, and it can also make you seem respectable. It all depends on how you use it.
When you use a loud volume to get the attention of those you want to listen to, it makes it seem like you have something important to say. If you use loud volume in a small area where everyone is already listening, it might come off as unnecessary or even rude. You need to master how to use your volume to your advantage to ensure you gain the respect of others.
The final, uh, piece of the paralinguistic puzzle is, um, filler words. See what we did there?
When we say filler words, though, we are also referring to filler noises like sighs, huffs, and the like, as well as hedge words like “just.” Using filler words makes you seem uninformed, unprepared, and unorganized. If you’re giving a speech, filler words can make it seem like you’re not practiced or like you don’t care about what you’re saying.
The crazy part about filler words is they are totally normal and don’t actually mean what your listeners will believe. Studies show that the use of filler words, noises, and phrases doesn’t mean you are unprepared or don’t know what you’re talking about. Crazy, right?
Filler words and hedge words have their place, and we don’t want to give the impression that they’re always bad. If you’re using fillers like “um” sparingly, then you won’t come off as uninformed. You’ll likely just come off as needing a moment to think, and that’s okay.
Hedge words are the same. Sometimes we need to use hedge words to deliver a delicate message to authority, for instance. This is true in professional settings, but also in family settings where there is a clear authority.
One thing we often overlook is how men and women use hedge words differently. Women tend to use hedge words like “just,” “I mean,” and “probably” more often than men, and especially in professional settings. This stereotype isn’t always true, and some studies suggest otherwise, but the public’s perception tends toward this language difference as truth.
When you think of verbal communication skills, you might not think of the kind of communication you do with yourself, but it’s imperative. We’ve heard more and more lately about how self-talk directly affects our mental state, our relationships, and how we manage our lives every day. It’s so important that there are scholars dedicated to studying intrapersonal communication.
Intrapersonal communication might seem like it’s mainly out of your control, and some of it is. Still, you can affect this type of communication just as readily as interpersonal communication or other forms. Of course, this type of communication, more than others, is directly affected by your upbringing and cultural background, but it is still largely within your control.
It’s important to master intrapersonal communication because we use it so often in social and professional settings. For example, if you’re about to give a big presentation, you may use intrapersonal communication to calm yourself down, practice key points, or encourage yourself to do well.
Athletes use intrapersonal communication to push themselves to go farther, faster, or do better than before. We all use intrapersonal communication to make everyday decisions like whether or not we want to join friends for dinner or which chores we need to complete and in what order. We overlook it, but intrapersonal communication is a vital part of our world.
When we talk about communication skills, most of our minds go to interpersonal communication. This is the kind of communication that we use to speak with one another in one-on-one or intimate group settings. Once the group of communicators is larger than just two or three, it infringes on small group territory, but a few people chatting is still interpersonal.
Interpersonal communication forces you to utilize all of the aspects of non-verbal that we spoke about above, while also monitoring the situation you’re in using intrapersonal communication. It takes pieces of everything we’ve discussed so far and throws them together in ways you probably don’t even think about. That’s why interpersonal communication can be tough.
In interpersonal communication, we swap between being the message sender and the message receiver regularly and sometimes quickly. We need to understand social norms, utilize active listening skills, and keep the conversational pace consistent with the other involved person or persons. This can create quite a headache if you’re in a situation that is foreign or scary.
Probably the best example of a situation that can throw you off your game is a job interview. You’re likely experiencing an interview as an interpersonal dialogue. Still, it’s a situation that puts many of us on the spot and makes us all but forget how to communicate appropriately. Negative intrapersonal communication only enhances the problem.
Part of mastering interpersonal communication in this setting and beyond is understanding the rules of the situation and practicing. Practice makes perfect for communication skills, just as with athletic ability.
One of the types of communication skills that we don’t talk about a lot outside of communication classrooms is listening. We often hear students say things like, “I already know how to listen!” when they are asked if they find a listening course important. Unfortunately, many of us don’t truly know how to listen, and it can have a huge impact on our interpersonal relationships.
You need to understand that the difference between hearing and listening is huge. I can hear you talk all day long, but that doesn’t mean I’m listening to what you say. Listening involves full focus, which is why the preschool and kindergarten songs about how to listen properly exist. It’s not as simple as you’d think to give a message your full attention.
Some employers provide training on listening skills to new and current employees because it is such a vital skill to master. Communication breakdown happens, but it is much easier to avoid when both parties have the skills to interpret and understand the full messages that the other sends.
In small group communication, there needs to be at least three individuals present, and they need to be united by something like a specific interest or purpose. A board meeting is an excellent example of a small professional group. A book club or sewing club might be a small group in a social setting. Even a group of four friends having coffee is a small group.
Mastering small group communication skills will help you to interact well with friends, colleagues, and at home. We do a large portion of our daily communicating in small groups, whether that’s at the dinner table with your family, on a team at work, or out for a happy hour with friends.
Small group communication offers unique challenges because the setting can often become chaotic if there isn’t a designated person who everyone knows deserves the attention of the group. It can also be beneficial because you have many minds working to solve a single problem together, which means you have the benefit of more experience on your side.
One of the side effects of group communication is what’s called groupthink. Groupthink can be dangerous because it usually starts from a single person’s opinion or belief system versus fact or the whole group’s understanding of a situation or idea. It occurs when the whole group develops a single frame of mind, and it can lead to scary situations if not kept in check.
Overall, though, small group communication is beneficial because it encourages discourse between individuals from different backgrounds and with different worldviews. This type of communication can help us to solve problems more effectively and see individuals with opposing viewpoints as people versus “others.”
The type of communication skills we’ll talk about is public communication skills. These skills, although vital, are often terrifying. In fact, public speaking is often toward the top, if not number one, on lists of fears Americans face. Still, people with excellent public speaking skills are an employer’s dream and are often more successful than others in the workplace.
We use public communication to speak to large groups in lots of settings. Teachers and professors are two of the most skilled professions in public communication because they have to use the skills within this type of communication to engage their students every day, and then may have to use them during board meetings or as coaches for teams as well.
Even if you’re not looking into a career in education, there are plenty of careers that require excellent public speaking skills. Human resources and talent acquisition positions often call for conducting orientations or speaking to colleagues about sexual harassment, or other topics, as a large group.
Any kind of leadership role could, and often will, put you in the position of having to utilize public communication skills. These skills, mostly surrounding engaging and persuading your audience, are essential to success in the professional world.
There are all sorts of types of communication skills out there to explore, and each of them has unique challenges that go along with them. Mastering communication skills of all kinds will help you to succeed both socially and professionally. It will also allow you to feel more confident and make more friends or build better relationships.
Communication skills may be vast, but there are plenty of ways to practice them to become a better communicator. Just start with one skill you’d like to master (we suggest listening as a starting point) and work on it every day until you feel confident in your abilities.
Challenge yourself, take a course, or ask close friends for feedback. You’ll be surprised how much your life can change by merely mastering one small communication skill.