Communication Studies: Interpersonal Perception

Many factors are involved in interpersonal communication. One of those is the dynamics involved in our perception of others. The idea of interpersonal perception means the process of making meaning from things we experience in people and our relationships. This process involves three components: selection, organization, and interpretation. Selection means attending to a stimulus. These are the things you notice about someone. Organization helps you make sense of what you notice. To help with this, our minds classify each stimulus into categories. These categories are known to psychologists as schema. The idea behind this is that we can't possibly classify each and every stimulus we receive individually and independently. Instead, we create little boxes in our minds and put each stimulus in its appropriate box, when we receive it, to help with organization. The third component of interpersonal perception is interpretation. In this step, we assign meaning to the information we have received. This article will discuss several components of perceiving others.


Stereotypes are generalizations about groups that are applied to the individuals who are members of that group. Stereotypes are not inherently "bad" -- rather, they are classification systems, and they can be very useful in encountering new input. Where we have to be careful with stereotypes is in overgeneralizing, because individuals don't always possess all of the characteristics of their perceived group memberships. The problem with stereotypes comes when we treat individuals as extensions of the groups to which they belong, and assign the group's characteristics to the individual, without giving the individual a chance to truly be an individual, separate from the group's characteristics.

Primacy and recency effects

First impressions are known as the primacy effect. First impressions are important because they set the tone for future interactions. Recency effects are final impressions. These matter, because this is how people tend to remember us. Both the first impressions and last impressions tend to be more important than any impressions people form in between.

Perceptual set

Perceptual set is the idea that we perceive only what we want or expect to perceive. This limits our ability to accurately perceive what is actually there. An example of this is the preconception we form when we see a baby wrapped in blue. It then becomes difficult for us to imagine that this child could be a girl. People tend to see what they are used to seeing.


The idea of egocentrism means the inability to take another's perspective. As you might imagine, this interferes with our ability to accurately perceive others. While this is common in children, most of us outgrow this – but not all. In egocentrism, we assume that others should react to situations the way we would.

Positivity and negativity biases

Both positivity and negativity biases affect our ability to accurately perceive the communications of others. Positivity bias means a tendency to focus heavily on another's positive attributes when forming a perception of that person. A negativity bias means the reverse: a tendency to focus heavily on another's negative attributes when forming a perception of that person. In a negativity bias, even one piece of negative information can adversely affect your perception of that person. These types of biases are particularly influential in the communications of long-term relationships, such as marriage. Satisfied couples tend to emphasize the positive attributes of their relationship, while dissatisfied couples tend to emphasize the negative.

The characteristics in this section -- stereotyping, primacy, recency, perceptual sets, egocentrism, positivity, and negativity are all powerful influences on communications. These can lead to errors in perception. The more we are aware of these types of errors, the more equipped we are to work around them in our communications.


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In addition to noticing others' behaviors, we want to figure out the causes of these behaviors. Why did she behave like that at the party yesterday? We want to know.

In answering the "why" question, we offer explanations for the behaviors we observe. These explanations are known as attributions. Whatever we attribute someone's behavior to, we proceed with them in accordance with the attribution. For example, let's say we are hit by a car. When we approach the other driver, we find that he had a heart attack, and that's why he hit us. How would you respond to this? On the other hand, when we approach the other driver, we find that she is completely drunk. Would your response to the drunk woman be different from your response to the man who had a heart attack? Most people would probably say yes.

There are three main types of attribution errors we tend to make in perceiving and interpreting behaviors and situations. The first is self-serving bias. This means we attribute our successes to our own internal characteristics, but our failures to external causes. For example, if you get an "A" on your exam, it's because you're smart and you studied well; but if you get an "F," it's because the exam wasn't fair. In other words, your success was your own, but your failure was someone else's fault. The next type of attribution error is called the fundamental attribution error. Here, we attribute others' behaviors to internal, rather than external, causes. For example, the girl volunteers because she is kindhearted, and the cashier miscounted our change because she doesn't know how to count. The fundamental attribution error is exceedingly strong, and research has found that it applies even when we consciously know better. As competent communicators, we need to keep in mind that most behaviors are in response to external causes. The third type of common attribution error is over-attribution. Here, we identify one or two obvious characteristics of an individual and extrapolate those characteristics to explain other things that person does. For example, if you know someone who is the youngest of eight children, you might attribute that person's insistence on getting her own way all the time to her being the baby of a large family. This might also be the reason you offer for her always seeming to need to be the center of attention, and interrupting others when they speak. Over-attribution can be problematic, particularly within the context of marriage, when, for example, a woman expressing her needs is dismissed as her simply being a woman. This can also be problematic when interacting with individuals from marginalized groups, such as migrants or homeless people, where an individual's behaviors can be attributed primarily to that person's group membership.

Improving our perceptual abilities

It's easy to make mistakes in perception. We stereotype, we rely on perceptual sets, we commit attribution errors, and more. The first step to improving our perceptual abilities is to be mindful of our perceptions. We must be aware of our perceptual tendencies, and conscious of how those tendencies might affect accurate perception. The first thing we can do is to know ourself: Recognize your own tendencies toward bias. The second thing we can do is to focus on other people's characteristics. We might recognize their group memberships, but it's important to treat each person as an individual. Third, we should check the accuracy of our perceptions. In part, this means separating interpretations from facts. This also means generating alternative perceptions. We can test our perceptions for accuracy, sometimes by simply asking the other person if our perception is correct. Lastly, we should revise our perceptions as necessary. Sometimes our perceptions are accurate from the start, and other times they simply are wrong. It's important to recognize and admit this.

The process of interpersonal perception is complex and often unconscious. Raising awareness of humans' common perceptual tendencies can help us become more competent communicators by becoming aware of our own common perceptual errors, and working to improve them.


The important role of quality listening cannot be understated in interpersonal communication and communication competence. It can be no surprise that poor listening leads to poor communication. In this section, we will discuss the components of listening, common poor listening practices, and tips for quality effective listening. We begin with a definition.

Listening definition

So that we are all talking about the same thing, we begin our discussion of listening with a definition. Listening is the active process of making meaning out of another person's spoken message. Listening is active, because we have to pay attention, and it requires conscious focus. It relates to spoken messages, because we are using the channel of speech for communicating our verbal messages. Listening practices and habits are culturally diverse. People in different cultures have different standards for defining quality listening. It is important to recognize that listening can be learned and can be improved. That is the focus of this chapter.

Components of listening

There are five essential components to listening. These are hearing, attending, understanding, remembering, and responding. Hearing is the process of physically perceiving sound. Sound enters the ear canal, vibrates off of the eardrum, and we perceive sound in our brains. There is nothing conscious about hearing; it is a physiological fact. The next component of listening is attending. Attending requires focus. It is a psychological process. You have to pay attention. The third component is understanding. Here, we comprehend the words we have heard. If I am speaking a foreign language that you don't speak, you can hear and attend all you want, but you won't understand. Understanding requires actual comprehension. Fourth, listening involves remembering. Here, we store ideas in memory. This is important if we are to accurately respond to what we have heard. Finally, listening involves responding. In responding, we offer an indication that we are listening. There are many types of listening responses that we will discuss later in this chapter. These are the five essential components of listening. Quality listening involves each of these five components. A breach in any one of these areas means you're not actually listening.

Reasons to listen

Researchers have identified four essential reasons for listening. We need to understand, evaluate the quality of messages, build and maintain relationships, and help others. Understanding plays an important role in the exchange of information. If someone gives you directions, you need to understand where that person is sending you. Inevaluating the quality of messages, we determine whether the message makes sense. If someone is telling you to go south in response to your request for directions, and you know your destination is northward, you might not pay much attention to the rest of that person's directions. Instead, you might ask someone else. Just because someone is speaking, doesn't mean they're making sense. It is up to us, as listeners, to evaluate the quality of what we hear. The third reason to listen is to build and maintain relationships. If you don't listen to the needs and desires of your relational partner, where do you think that relationship is headed? In order to meet the needs of the people we care about, we need to understand what those needs are. This usually requires quality listening. Finally, we listen so that we can help others. This category largely refers to service professions such as doctors, attorneys, teachers, managers, clergy, and therapists. However, we all play most of these roles in our interpersonal relationships from time to time.

Listening responses

As indicated above, responding is a key component to listening. There are two basic categories of listening responses: inactive or nonverbal, and active or verbal. In the inactive or nonverbal category are stonewalling and back-channeling. Stonewalling is the type of response that involves silence and lack of facial expression. We've all seen this in our communication partners from time to time. You are talking, and they sit there completely expressionless and silent. Are they listening? Do you wonder whether you are actually speaking out loud? Stonewalling often signals a lack of interest in what the speaker is saying. Back-channeling involves nodding your head or using facial expressions, making vocalizations, such as "uh-huh," and verbal statements, such as "I understand," or "That's very interesting." The purpose of back-channeling is to let the speaker know you're paying attention. As you might imagine, stonewalling is not so productive to quality communication, while back-channeling has a useful purpose.

We also respond with active or verbal listening responses. These are paraphrasing, empathizing, supporting, analyzing, advising, and questioning. Paraphrasing is restating in your own words what the speaker has said to show that you understand. This can be accomplished in one of three ways. We might change the speaker's words, we might offer an example of what we think the speaker is talking about, or we might reflect on the underlying theme of the speaker's remarks -- for example, "So what you're really saying is..." These are the three types of paraphrasing. The next type of response we can offer is empathizing. With empathizing, we convey to the speaker that we understand and share his or her feelings about the topic. We identify with the speaker when we empathize. A third type of response is supporting. In supporting, we express agreement with the speaker's opinion or point of view. In this way, we show solidarity with the speaker. A fourth type of listening response is analyzing. When we analyze, we provide our own perspective on what the speaker has said. This is a way of interpreting. We can also offer advising, which is communicating advice to the speaker about what he or she should think, feel, or do.

Finally, we can respond to someone by questioning. In questioning, we are asking for additional information. There are several reasons that we might use questioning as a listening response. We might want to clarify meanings, so we ask the question that will help us more clearly understand. We might question so that we can learn about another's thoughts, feelings, and desires. As you can imagine, this is particularly important in relationships. We might also question in an effort to encourage discovery. This reason is the one often used by therapists and clergy for patients to discover solutions for themselves to their own problems. The final reason that we might use a question as a listening response is to gather more facts and details. We simply might want to know more about what the speaker is talking about. There are two categories of questions the listener can ask. These are, 1) open versus closed questions, and 2) sincere or counterfeit questions. Open questions allow for the responder to elaborate with as much detail as he or she wishes in response to the question. These are our wh- questions. Closed questions elicit simply a yes or no response. These questions begin with do or did. Questions can also be sincere, as a genuine request for information, or counterfeit, which is a disguised attempt to send a message, not actually receive one. In part, counterfeit questions are likely used in passive-aggressive communication. These can also be quite useful in communicating with an aggressive communicator. Which of these six types of listening responses we choose will depend on the situation and speaker. Each has its appropriate time and place.

Three types of listening

There are three types of listening: informational, critical, and empathic. This means we listen for different reasons at different times. Ininformational listening, we are listening to learn. We do this during class, or at work. This is a very common type of listening and is extremely helpful. It is one of the most important ways that we learn. This is a passive listening type. When our goal is to analyze what we're hearing, we are engaging in critical listening. Here, our goal is to evaluate or analyze what we hear. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are disapproving. Instead, it's analyzing and evaluating the merits of what the speaker is saying. We might engage in this type of listening when we are listening to people engage in a political debate, for example. Empathic listening can be the most challenging form for many people. Here, the listener tries to identify with the speaker by understanding and experiencing what he or she is thinking or feeling. Empathic listening requires two discrete skills: perspective-taking -- or the ability to understand a situation from another's point of view -- and empathic concern -- the ability to identify how someone else is feeling, and then experience those feelings for yourself. These three types of listening cover most, or perhaps all, listening exchanges. They are not mutually exclusive, however. Sometimes informational listening can involve or quickly turn to critical listening; or critical listening can include, or quickly turn to, empathic listening. Sometimes more than one type of listening is occurring simultaneously.

Barriers to effective listening

Sometimes things occur in our worlds that prevent us from listening well – they bring interference. There are three essential barriers to effective listening. These are noise, information overload, and rapid thought or glazing over. There are three types of noise. These are physical, psychological, and physiological. Physical noise is noise actually in our environment, such as the lawnmower outside that prevents you from hearing your conversation partner. Psychological noise is an internal type of noise. Something is weighing on your conscience. This might be a fight with a loved one, or a troubling medical diagnosis. In any case, something is on your mind that interferes with your ability to listen effectively at that moment. We might also experience physiological noise. This occurs when our body is talking to us and preventing us from concentrating fully on the speaker. Examples of this might be hunger, thirst, or the need for the bathroom. Having a headache or stomachache also fits in this category. When something is awry in our physical body, it is difficult to fully concentrate on the speaker and listen effectively. Any of these three types of noise can prevent us from effectively listening.

A second barrier to effective listening is information overload. This occurs from the huge amount of information we must take in every day. For example, consider the huge number of ads we hear every day. Their sheer volume prevents us from listening carefully and effectively to each one, and sometimes interferes with our ability to listen to our conversation partner well. Our minds are simply overwhelmed with information. Third, we might experience rapid thought or glazing over. Our brains can comprehend up to 600 words per minute, but we can speak only approximately 150 words per minute. As a result, our minds get bored. You're listening, but allowing your mind to wander.This can lead to at least three problems. First, it might cause you to miss important details. Second, it can cause you to listen less critically than usual. Third, it can make it appear to a speaker that you aren't listening at all. Each of these three areas -- noise, information overload, and rapid thought or glazing over -- presents barriers to effective listening.

Poor listening practices

When barriers to effective listening aren't getting in our way, there are other internal practices that we might be engaging in that can be classified as poor listening. These do not generally lead to effective listening. There are six categories: pseudo-listening, selective attention, stage hog, rebuttal tendency, closed mindedness, and competitive interrupting. In pseudo-listening, we're pretending to listen when we're not really listening at all. Can you think of any situations in which you regularly pseudo-listen? Many students pseudo-listen in class, employees at work, children to their parents, and friends of particularly chatty people. We don't want to offend the speaker, so we pretend that we are listening. In fact, our minds may be on a beach somewhere in the tropics. In addition to pseudo-listening, we might offer selective attention. In this poor listening practice, we pay attention only to the parts that we want to hear. If the doctor says exercise for 30 minutes a day and eat a small square of chocolate every day, we might only hear about the chocolate. An extension of selective attention is filling in the gaps. Here, not only do we listen selectively, but we invent the rest of the story for ourselves. The story we end up repeating may have some details of the speaker's original story, but is, in fact, a completely different story altogether. Stage hogs are interested only in expressing their own ideas and are uninterested in what others have to say. These are the people that always seem to "one up" whomever they're speaking with, usurping and hanging on to the floor. A rebuttal tendency is the propensity to debate a speaker's point and formulate your reply while the speaker is still speaking. This isn't actually listening, but rather looking for something to pounce on. This is a very competitive listening practice. In closed mindedness, there is a tendency not to listen to anything with which you disagree. If you don't agree with it, it simply wasn't really even said. Finally, in competitive interrupting,listeners use interruptions to take control of the conversation. This isn't the type of interruption where the listener is seeking additional information, or seeking clarity; rather, in this type of interrupting, the listener simply wishes to speak and to take over the conversation. The six areas of poor listening practices generally prevent effective communication by preventing effective and quality listening. Nonetheless, each has an appropriate time, place, and purpose. None is inappropriate at all times in all places. However, the competent communicator consciously chooses when, and to what extent, to employ these practices.Their use at the wrong time constitutes ineffective and poor listening behaviors.