Principles of Communication

Our communication is influenced by unconscious processes which are decisive for success or failure for the scheme of our relations. Even non-verbally, we always transmit plenty of information when talking to or with others and thus influence their behaviour.

On the occasion of the international project meeting for the CITCOM project, Isabell and I gave a workshop about the principles of communication.
The first part was delivered by myself and went into the basics of our communication, in the second part Isabell introduced a framework for devising a communication strategy and how to execute it successfully.

The feedback we received showed two tendencies: most of us aren’t aware of their communication patterns and don’t really want to discover the source of these unconscious influencers. Secondly, people want to have easy answers to complex questions, expressed by the demand on ready-made communication strategies: a website, a bit of Facebook, some emails, etc.
Understanding communication processes and developing a good communication strategy is more complex and a job for professionals – you can hire us 😉
Enjoy reading it!

The Basics of Communication Processes

Communication as a competency means that a person is able to express his/her ideas and reflections clearly, make contacts with people quickly and maintain them, respect the attitudes and opinions of others, provide feedback and be tolerant to different customs and cultures.

We all do this without problem, don’t we?
If that were true, there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings, conflicts or controversies. 😉
Very often, our communication fails because it’s a very complex scenario.

What do you say when you say something?

communication square
communication square


There is always at least one sender (someone who sends a message) and one receiver (someone who listens). Below is an overview of what the senders sends and the receiver hears:

Sender Receiver (Ear)
Message Content What information do I give? Figures & facts
Self Revelation What do I show of myself?
How do others see me?
What does he/she say about the others?
What kind of person is he/she?
What does he/she reveal of his/her basic convictions?
Relationship What do I think of you and how do I feel about you? How does this person speak to me?
How do I feel treated in the manner in which the other speaks with me?
What does the other think of me?
Appeal What do I want you to do? What should I do, think, or feel now?

Ideally, we speak with all four tongues and we listen with all four ears equally. The reality is, however, that we don’t always speak and listen in this balanced way. A message appears congruent when all four sites are identical; incongruent, when some verbal and nonverbal signals do not correspond.

We are influenced by others, our environment and the culture we live in. Since we are in this world, our brain “records” everything others say and do, and on that basis we have unconsciously taken decisions on how to react to others. These previous events and the related feelings are inseparably stored in our brain as behaviour patterns and can easily be recalled when triggered, thus resulting in the occurrence of the same feelings as in the original childhood event.
There are several approaches which try to explain human behaviour, I am using models of Transactional Analysis (TA), a theory of personality and systemic psychotherapy.
According to TA, each human being has three Ego states, which are the basis of our behaviour, thinking and feeling. 
Our past exists as embodied experience and can be activated as a conscious, unconscious or not conscious memory and thus influence our present experience. Even before we talk to somebody, we decide intuitively about the course of the conversation. How we decide depends on our very personal relationship experience. Our brain saves subjective experiences and related conclusions, and if it seems to come to similar situations, the brain just re-presents what is already saved. Such representations can have a deep impact on communication processes.
When we communicate, we react with one of these Ego states.

ego states
ego states

Whenever we communicate, we do this from one of these Ego states, and we will have the best communication when using all three Ego states at the same time. However, the success of communication will be decided by your previously determined feelings and what the sender triggers. If you are aware of your own triggers, i.e. your Ego states, you are able to change your behaviour.
The following collection of attributes helps to recognize Ego states:

Recognizing Ego States
Recognizing Ego States

With that knowledge, let’s have a closer look at our Sender and Receiver.


Receiver (Ear)

Message Content

clear, unfussy, concise, well structured

interested, stimulated

Self Revelation

self-esteem, impression, demonstration:

How he is talking (foreign words, fast, throwaway, pressing)?

showing off, fishing for compliments, judging, apprehensive


tone, accents, authoritarian, depreciating, appreciating

nonverbal behaviour

interprets and recalls feelings: accept, neutral, refuse, ignore

(open, covert)

What should be achieved?
What are the desired effects?

nonverbal behaviour

Are statements and effects congruent?
How does this stimulate my feelings?

The offered relationship (above in red) influences the receiver’s decision with which ear(s) he wants to listen, and as written above, he decides on the basis of his triggered feelings. If the offered relationship, statements and desired effects do not match with the self-esteem concept of the receiver, he will most likely refuse these parts of the message, but the conversation can continue on the rational facts, without any specific results.

We exchange communication (transactions) as follows:

  1. Complementary transactions come from one Ego state and go back to the sending Ego state
  2. Crossed transactions occur when the response is directed to a different Ego state than sent, both sides are then upset.
  3. Covered (ulterior) transactions are when people say one thing but mean another. There is always an overt and a covert level and when we want to understand people’s behavior, we need to understand the covert level.

complementary transactions

Check yourself when communicating with others: what are your preferred transactions?
Does your opposite react as you intended?

Communication in Groups

A group can be defined as an agglomeration of individuals who interact with each other for an apparently common purpose. A group provides great potential for destruction as well as for healing. It is the most powerful environment for individual and societal change, for the better or worse.
Human beings have three fundamental psychological needs:

  • to receive recognition (to be noticed, to get attention)
  • to get stimulation (challenges, sense, joy, satisfaction)
  • to have structure (roles, responsibilities, aims, strategy)

These basic needs are necessary to satisfy and in groups we are searching for the fulfillment of these needs. We need a structure which provides security and orientation; we reconsider our relation patterns and consolidate or change them.
Leaders of a group need not only to consider these basic psychological needs but also to accept the responsibility to guide, secure and lead group members.

A group dissociates people from each other and has, however natured, a structure. The structure of a group is defined by boundaries, the type of membership, internal and public structure, visibility in the organizational chart and staffing. Boundaries can be hermetically closed (when there is no way in or out, e.g. in prison), open to both sides (easy to belong and leave) or open just in one direction (easy to belong but difficult to get out or vice versa).

Group Structure

The type of membership defines under which conditions and achievements it is possible to belong to a group:

  • Voluntary: You like the idea and it is easy to join as there are no barriers to enter it
  • Optional: You got invited, you can join, but you don’t have to
  • Accidental: Your nationality, you are a citizen of a town, etc.
  • Obligatory: You don’t really have a choice (school class, army, etc.)

The public structure of a group is easily visible with an organizational chart, the inner structure reflecting the responsibilities and assignments of tasks. This inner structure can be

  • Very simple: A group with one leader
  • Mixed: Different, but clear, distinguished hierarchies
  • Complex: Split leadership with one per working groups/boards
  • Complicated: Split leadership in different boards, responsibilities and power of decision is delegated to the boards
  • Complex and complicated structures induce conflicts regarding decisions, responsibilities and involved persons have difficulties in finding their right place; their assimilation in such a structure.

Each group has its hidden structure, which is the summary of the sub-conscious image that members have, resulting from their needs, desires, experiences, requests, feelings.
In TA we call this group imago. The imago underlies a permanent development process as the individual motivations, relations to other group members and roles change constantly throughout membership of  the group. The group imago delivers a good insight about how a person positions itself, others and group leaders in terms of their personal involvement. The imago decides the success of a group.

Group Dynamics and Group Activity

group dynamics

When observing groups, most people think first about group dynamics. It’s important but too limited a thought as this is only one part in the game.
The dynamics of a group reflects how the group is acting, the processes in the group.

The balance between the cohesive power and the individual preferences will decide not only on how the group is going to be developed, how creative it is, but also whether it will continue to exist or split up.

However, the personal development and situation of each group member have a direct impact on group activities and, thus, will constantly change the group.

If the cohesive power is bigger than the sum of the individual interests, the group works better on common creative activities. If it’s the other way around, then it puts stress on the group and minimizes its creativity.

Group Authority & Communication in Groups

The entirety of the mental, material and political influences on one side – visible in the rules of decision-making, etiquette, infrastructure and group culture – and the people leading the group on the other side, are the authorities of a group. However, it impacts the behaviour and activities of a group and is of prime importance if the members follow, rebel or are passive.

Group communication is very complex and impacts activities and outcomes both positively and negatively.

The unconscious dynamics – what can be and what should not be said – impacts internal and external communication processes. Each single member of a group has fantasies and opinions about other group members and group authorities, but if they remain untold, it will hinder communication.
Even though groups consist of many people, we can look at it in the same way that we look at individuals. Categorizing groups regarding the number of members gives us a clue to their dynamics: Small groups with up to 12 people are comparable to families; groups up to 50 people with school classes; whereas large groups are often either less structured masses or well structured, like companies or states.
To verify group activities we can venture to apply the functional ego state model to them. It is explained in an easily understandable manner here, but  it is, of course, a lot more complex and deep.
However, this overview will give you an idea of how to look at organizations, groups and enterprises when planning your communication activities.

A creative, open-minded organization will probably be a better recipient of interactive communication tools and approaches than a highly hierarchical organization.
As explained above, decisive for a groups/organizations development are their real (hidden) values and the balance between individual and group interests.

Communication Strategy & Planning in an Organisation or Project

Internal versus External Communication

Depending on whether you want to develop a communication strategy for internal communication or for external purposes in your organisation, the guidelines below can be used for both.
It is important that in any communication, external or internal, the messaging is the same among representatives of the organisation.

Creating a Communication Strategy

Mission, Vision, Values

Before starting with your communication plan, it is important to know what the organisation’s/project’s mission, vision and values are. Consider this a pre-exercise, if the plan does not yet exist,  or prepare it as a reminder for the activities to be used in creating a plan later on.

Take a few minutes to think about the mission, vision and values and take note of them.

A mission statement describes the overall purpose and motivation of the organisation and answers the main question “Who are we as an organisation?”. It should cover: Why do we exist, what do we do, whom do we serve?
There are usually two key components to a mission statement:

  1. The Purpose Statement: One sentence that describes the ultimate result that the organization is trying to achieve and answers the question: Why do we exist?
  2. The Business Statement: A statement that describes what the organization does. It gives a summary of the primary means/methods (programs/services) used by an organization to achieve its purpose. It can include a description for “Whom do we serve?”
Example: Established in 2006, the Pet Supplies Helpline is a non-profit initiative aimed at providing basic pet supplies on a short-term basis to those who are unable to afford them. We at PSH understand how hard it can be to give up a beloved pet when times are tough and money is tight, and we hope to reduce the number of such separations by providing food, flea medications, and other necessities to pet owners in need.

A vision statement is the future destination, hope and ambition; of what or how you would like things to be. It focuses on how the world/region will be improved if the organisation achieves its purposes. It answers the question “What will success look like?”.

Example: We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.
(Source: describe what the organisation stands for; it’s ethics, beliefs or principles, and should always be kept in mind when devising plans or activities. Having 5 values to represent your organisation is a good average.
  • Our people will be responsive and caring.
  • Our service will reflect expertise and inquiry.
  • Our work will demonstrate integrity and transparency.
  • Our outcomes will result in leadership for the sector.

Goals and Objectives of Communication

The communication goals should be aligned with organisation/project goals. This section describes what you want to achieve with the communication strategy. This may describe raising awareness, branding of your organisation or project, or increasing participation/involvement. Goals are considered to be long-term, overall changes. They should also address a need that you have identified.
An example for a goal: To raise awareness of retirees 65+ of our organisation’s unique role in the local community.

Objectives are short-term steps that will help to achieve your goal. There can be more than one objective to reach a specific goal. When creating an objective, be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) and prioritise them. Ask yourself if you are trying to provide new information, calling your core audience to action or seeking to change behaviour.
An example for an objective: Observe a trend over the following year of increased engagement/involvement in our activities by retirees 65+ with a target of 10%.

To stay clear and concise, start with three goals each with 2-3 objectives.

Type of Audience

Who is it that you want to reach? Who is your target audience? It can simply be one core target audience or several. It is up to you to decide and define who you want your messages to attain. Keep in mind to give audience types an order of importance aligned with your goals and objectives.
When profiling your audience, consider the following categories: demographic, geographic, behavioural, lifestyle. There are also other categories to consider, but the ones mentioned are the basic ones. To better communicate with your audience, it is helpful to create a character that can be identified with a specific audience type. For example, if you want to reach retired women above 65 years of age, they could be more easily identified by creating Edith, a retired widow who is a hobbyist gardener and stays in touch with her family via email and Skype. With such a short profile you will communicate differently to that image in your head than you would with a more general definition.
Don’t stop there however, but analyse your target audience a little further and consider if and what they may already know about about your organisation or project, how they are likely to react to your message and why, what could influence your audience when communicating with them and what could hinder your communication with your audience.

What to Communicate


Brainstorm on the key idea(s) and messages related to each goal and objective that you want to communicate. It is crucial to find what the audience already knows, to communicate what they need to know and what you want them to know.
Developing specific messages could be a brainstorming process with your fellow team members, starting by securing specific words and terms that define your message. You can then write around those terms and you will eventually end up with simple, specific, authentic and persuasive statements.

Remember to check back with the needs you try to meet, clearly describe the benefits and ensure that all messages are consistent and coherent.
An example of a message house, which provides a good overview of your key message and supporting message, is provided below by the Knight Foundation:

Where and How to Communicate

What are the channels of communication that you want to use?
When and how many times should you send out your messages?

There are the traditional communication channels such as print, radio and TV. But nowadays, social media may offer a new way of reaching your target audience. It all depends, of course,  on who your target audience is, what channels your audience prefers and what you are trying to achieve.
Pin down the channels that you identify as appropriate for each of your audiences:

  • Paid Advertising (print, radio, television, outdoor)
  • Print Materials (brochures/pamphlets/publications, posters, newsletters, annual report)
  • Media relations (an indirect communication)
  • Community Relations (direct mail, public speaking, personal contacts, public meetings, educational opportunities)
  • Government Relations
  • Organization/Corporate Communications (trade shows, annual meetings)
  • Internal Communications (meetings, newsletters, bulletin board messages, employee special events)
  • Social media (blog, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest)

Also, review any existing major communication opportunities that you could benefit from, such as a good connection to your local newspapers, association newsletters, blogs or event sites.
As a help, make a table overview as below:

Audience A

Audience B

  1. Newspapers – 2 Articles

  2. Flyers – 2 flyers to be created and distributed on the street

  3. Radio – 1 radio interview

  1. Website – Publish 1 banner on frontpage

  2. Local event blogs – Have our event added to 10 event blogs (a, b, c, d, etc.)

  3. Twitter – 3 messages a week between 9.00 – 11.00

  4. Facebook – 5 messages a week between 13.00 – 15.00

Don’t be afraid to repeat your messages, as repetition is the key for your audience to adhere to them.

Budget and Resources

Find out what resources you already have at your disposal and what else you might need. The scope of the communication plan will naturally depend on this. Assign responsibilities to make sure people remain accountable for tasks and make a budget projection of all costs involved. The results of this exercise will clarify what is possible and will likely help you re-prioritise activities.

Timeline and Schedule

The easiest way of creating a timeline and schedule for all your messages within all channels and related activities over a defined period of time is to create a spreadsheet. Feel free to add the responsible resource for each activity.


Target Audience

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3


Audience A

Article 1: Raise awareness of event X, which promotes Y and Z for [audience A].

Call for action to join event and participate in workshops.

Article 2: Summary of event with stats and facts to close circle of raising awareness. Article to serve purpose for participant retention and continuous involvement with project


Audience A

Distribute 500 flyers at town square

(awareness about event and workshops)

Distribute 500 flyers at town square

(awareness about event and workshops)


Audience A

2 minute local radio interview to raise awareness about event and workshops offered.

Below some more examples of how to structure your plan:

Example 1


Target Audience

Description / Purpose



Distribution Channel

Internal / External


Example 2






Decide how detailed the schedule should be, that is, you may need to add specific tasks and dates such as “Design the flyer”, key events and activities pertinent to your plan.

It is important to find out when the audiences will be most receptive to your messages. If you don’t know, a good idea is to test on a small-scale before launching the plan or to do a small survey with the targeted audience or a smaller focus group. You can always scale up the frequency of messages once you have had successful checkpoint reviews.

Evaluation of Communication Plan

To be able to measure your communication plan successfully, set up some baselines against  which you’ll measure both throughout and at the end of the implemented plan.

In your plan, define and add regular review checkpoints and evaluation methods for the planned activities of your communication strategy. Regular reviews help to check if you are still on track or need to make any changes.
At the end of your foreseen time plan, evaluate your strategy by measuring the results achieved against the goals set at the beginning. Discuss and brainstorm on what went well and what needs to be improved and/or changed for the next time or the next project.

If you do your communication activities mostly online, then Google Analytics is a good tool to measure  success. There are also more formal measurement techniques, such as surveys and focus groups. It could, of course, be just  the number of participants in an event or one year workshop, compared to the previous year.

Adapting to Changing Conditions

Once you have decided what needs to be changed and improved, put in place in the plan. In addition to the internal and external feedback from the evaluation process, there are always internal and external factors that may impact the communication strategy, such as a changing media landscape, target audience, organisational changes, budget and resource changes.




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