Why Communication Matters
We communicate to create, maintain, and change relationships and selves.
Posted July 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- How we communicate helps relationships get off on the right foot, navigate problems, and change over time.
- In communication, we develop, create, maintain, and alter our relationships.
- We communicate to work our way through family changes and challenges in verbal and non-verbal ways.
I remember seeing a poster on my junior high classroom wall: “Communication is the Beginning of Understanding.” This spoke to me at the time. Yet, like so many people, I had never really thought much about communication. I would have described communication as sending and receiving messages.
Communication Is More Than Sending and Receiving Messages
In reality, communication is often about transmitting information. We send and receive messages with people in our lives. Daily, much of our communication consists of coordinating schedules, “What time are you getting home for dinner?” and negotiating whose turn it is to do the dishes, pay the bills, or take dinner to a friend who is ill. We send messages like, “It is your turn to let the dog out” and receive messages like, “Don’t forget to get dog food at the store” (if you have not guessed, a lot of the messages in my house are about the dog).
We might also blame problems on communication, talking about “communication breakdowns” or on a “lack of communication.” If we think about communication in these ways, we have missed so much that is important about communication. We have neglected how and why communication matters.
Communication Matters to Creating and Changing Relationships
We become aware of how Communication Matters when
- We confront issues with work-life balance.
- We experience positive events like the birth of a baby or winning an award.
- We have a friend does who does not do or say what we expect.
- We have disagreements over religious beliefs or political values.
Both positive and challenging events affect, reflect, and change our identity and the identity of our personal and family relationships. What do I mean by this? How did these relationships come into being? Well, think about the last time you started a new friendship or had a new member join your family. Through what you and the other person said and did, what we’d call verbal and nonverbal communication, these relationships took shape.
Sometimes relationships develop easily and clearly. They are healthy and pleasant. Other times, relationships develop in stress and storm and may be healthy or not. How we communicate helps relationships get off on the right foot, navigate problems, and change over time.
What is important to understand is that relationships are talked into (and out of) being. In communication, we develop, create, maintain, and alter our relationships. As we communicate, we become and change who we are. Think about how you have grown and changed as you communicate at home, at work, with friends, and in your community.
Communication Matters to Relationship and Family Identity
As we communicate, we co-create relationships and our own identity. As you think about your close relationships and your family, you can likely recall important events, both positive and negative, that impacted how you understand your relationship and yourself as a person.
Consider this example: one of my college students described a childhood family ritual of going out on the front lawn on Christmas Eve. The family sang Christmas carols and threw carrots on the roof for Santa’s reindeers. The family still does this annual carrot-throwing ritual in adulthood. You can picture them bringing their sometimes confused new partners and spouses out in the snow to throw carrots onto the roof and sing.
Why does this family still throw carrots and sing? Through this seemingly silly ritual, the family celebrates who they are as a family and the togetherness that is important to them. The family creates space for new people to join the family. Through their words and actions, members of the family teach their new partners how to be family members through carrot throwing and other vital experiences.
I am sure you can point to experiences that have been central to creating your relationships and your identity.
Communication Matters as We Face Change and Challenges
We also communicate to work our way through family changes and challenges. Family members or others may have different expectations of what our family and personal identity or should be. This is especially true when a family does not fit dominant cultural models, such as single-parent families, multi-ethnic families, stepfamilies, LGBTQ families, or adoptive families.
For me, becoming a stepfamily was highly challenging. We became a stepfamily when I was 12 years old. My mother had recently died, and my Dad surprised us, kids, introducing us to the woman he wanted to marry. We no longer matched the other families in the neighborhood where we’d lived most of our lives. We certainly did not feel like a family overnight.
It took my stepfamily several years to create an understanding of what it meant to be a family. As we interacted, and with many mistakes and some successes, we slowly came to understand what we needed and expected from each other to be a family.
For all of us, relationship and family identity is constantly developing and changing. In my case, I remember my stepmom reminding me to wear a jacket when going out in the evening, even into my 40s, and giving me advice about my health. At some point, our roles changed, and now, as she moves toward her 80s, more often than not, I am in the role of asking about her health and helping her with significant decisions. What it means to be a mother or daughter and what we expect of each other and ourselves change as we interact.
Communication Matters. Whether we are negotiating whose turn it is to feed the dog, how to become a parent, how to interact with a difficult co-worker, or how to celebrate with a friend who won a major award, it is in communication that we learn what to do and say. This is what I will write about in this blog as I reflect on what I have learned as a professor and researcher of interpersonal and family communication. I invite you to go on this journey with me. I hope to give you insights into your communication.
Communication Matters. Communication is the Beginning of Understanding. It is an exciting and ever-changing journey.
Baxter, L. A. (2004). Relationships as dialogues. Personal Relationships, 11, 1-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00068.x
Braithwaite, D. O., Foster, E. A., & Bergen, K. M. (2018). Social construction theory: Communication co-creating families. In D. O. Braithwaite, E. A. Suter, & K. Floyd. (Eds.). Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 267-278). Routledge.
Braithwaite, D. O., Waldron, V. R., Allen, J., Bergquist, G., Marsh, J., Oliver, B., Storck, K., Swords, N., & Tschampl-Diesing, C. (2018). “Feeling warmth and close to her”: Communication and resilience reflected in turning points in positive adult stepchild-stepparent relationships. Journal of Family Communication, 18, 92-109. doi: 10.1080/15267431.2017.1415902