Communication Competence Part 1: Getting Started on your Road to Communication Competence
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 9:38AM
Richard G. Jones, Jr., Ph.D. in Communication Tips, Getting Competent, communication competence, communication tips

Note: This is the first post in a series that will focus on communication competence.

As we prepare for a new academic year, many students will take a communication course for the first time. Perhaps you visited this blog because my textbook, Communication in the Real World, is being used in your course. If so, thank you for visiting, and please feel free to contact me with any questions or feedback about the book.

 For many students, their introductory course in communication is the only communication course they ever take. But, that doesn't mean that the need for improving our communication skills and increasing our communication knowledge will be met completely.

Being competent at something basically means you know what you're doing. Communication competence refers to the knowledge of effective and appropriate communication patterns and the ability to use and adapt that knowledge in various contexts.  To better understand this definition, let’s break apart its components.

Gaining Knowledge and Communication Competence

The first part of the definition we will unpack deals with knowledge. The cognitive elements of competence include knowing how to do something and understanding why things are done the way they are.[i]

People can develop cognitive competence by observing and evaluating the actions of others.

Cognitive competence can also be developed through instruction.

If you are currently taking a communication class, I encourage you to try to observe the communication concepts you are learning in the communication practices of others and yourself. This will help bring the concepts to life and also help you evaluate how communication in the real world matches up with communication concepts. As you build a repertoire of communication knowledge based on your experiential and classroom knowledge, you will also be developing behavioral competence.

Using Your Knowledge to Communicate Competently

The second part of the definition of communication competence that we will unpack is the ability to use.

Individual factors affect our ability to do anything. Not everyone has the same athletic, musical, or intellectual ability. At the individual level, a person’s physiological and psychological characteristics affect competence.

In terms of physiology, age, maturity, and ability to communicate affect competence.

In terms of psychology, a person’s mood, stress level, personality, and level of communication apprehension (level of anxiety regarding communication) affect competence.[ii]

All these factors will either help or hinder you when you try to apply the knowledge you have learned to actual communication behaviors. For example, you might know strategies for being an effective speaker, but public speaking anxiety that kicks in when you get in front of the audience may prevent you from fully putting that knowledge into practice.

Adaptability and Communication Competence

The third part of the definition we will unpack is ability to adapt to various contexts.

What is competent or not varies based on social and cultural context, which makes it impossible to only have one standard for what counts as communication competence.[iii]

Social variables such as status and power affect competence. In a social situation where one person—say, a supervisor—has more power than another—for example, his or her employee—then the supervisor is typically the one who sets the standard for competence.

Cultural variables such as race and nationality also affect competence. A Taiwanese woman who speaks English as her second language may be praised for her competence in the English language in her home country but be viewed as less competent in the United States because of her accent.

In summary, although we have a clear definition of communication competence, there are not definitions for how to be competent in any given situation, since competence varies at the individual, social, and cultural level.

Developing communication competence takes time and effort, but it can also bring many rewards. In the next entry, we will learn more about the types of communication competence that college students should gain and the potential benefits of them.


[i] Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 9.

[ii] Ralph E. Cooley and Deborah A Roach, “A Conceptual Framework,” in Competence in Communication: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Robert N. Bostrom (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984), 24.

[iii] Ralph E. Cooley and Deborah A Roach, “A Conceptual Framework,” in Competence in Communication: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Robert N. Bostrom (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984), 26.


Article originally appeared on Richard G. Jones, Jr., Ph.D. (http://www.richardgjonesjr.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.