Interpersonal communication describes the process of communicating ideas, thoughts and feelings to another person or a group of people. Interpersonal communication skills are acquired behaviors which improve with knowledge and practice.
Interpersonal communication occurs between at least two people who usually interact face-to-face and act at the same time as objects and subjects of knowledge, message receivers and message senders. The nature of interacting is different when communicating with friends, family or strangers, but the aim is always to learn more about the other person using both verbal and nonverbal communication. When people are related they see each other as unique individuals with whom they can be intimate, while when interacting with strangers they initially are just unacquainted participants in a particular social situation.
According to the Social Penetration Theory, engaging in interpersonal communication leads to deepening of the relationship between the communicators from just small talk to personal and private matters. People gather information about the others directly through verbal communication or nonverbal channels such as facial expressions or body movements which demonstrate immediate feedback. In the course of interaction individuals expose themselves and share information unknown to others as a way to predispose the other person to also share personal information. Self-disclosure builds trust and helps in predicting the emotional reactions of the other individual.
Information is also revealed indirectly, often unintentionally, through body language and if the other person is observant enough and able to read the signals he can learn a lot about his interlocutor.
Interpersonal communication enables people to achieve better understanding of each other and the context of the conversation. Every verbal statement consists of content messages, referring to the discussed subject matter, as well as relational messages, which are nonverbal and refer to the relationship of the communicators. They both complete the statement and in order to avoid misunderstanding relational messages, which are usually ambiguous, need verbal verification and vice versa. Depending on the roles people play in their relationship with the communicators they show different identity and present different self-image.
Through interpersonal communications and relational messages, in particular, individuals express and satisfy their social needs such as inclusion, control, affection and respect. According to William Schutz's Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory, the three main interpersonal needs which every person tries to satisfy through communication are affection/openness, control and inclusion. The first is the need to build relationships with others; the second is the need to prove one's leadership skills, especially in a group, while the third one is the need to establish an identity.
Relationship development is based entirely on interpersonal communication and researchers have developed several approaches to explain its character. The main approaches to interpersonal communication include the developmental approach, the situational approach, the rules approach and the covering law approach.
The developmental approach describes the building of interpersonal relationships as a set of stages during which interpersonal communication plays the main role. In every stage the way people communicate and interact with each other evolves until it reaches the intimacy level. According to Mark Knapp's Relational Stages Model relationships start with the initiation phase in which individuals are acquainted, go through several other stages like experimenting, intensifying and integrating until they reach, if they reach, the final stage of bonding. Gerald Miller and Mark Steinberg (1975) follow the same logic and claim that both communication and relationships gradually evolve from "noninterpersonal" to "interpersonal."
The situational approach looks at social situations as the main determinants of the nature of communication. The type of communication depends on situational factors such as the number of participants, whether it occurs in formal/informal or public/private setting and whether it is face-to-face or mediated. According to this approach, interpersonal communication involves only two people interacting in private who are face-to-face in an informal setting.
The rules approach defines interpersonal communication as a "rule-governed activity" based on social norms and unwritten rules. Consequently, individual interactions follow a structured path which is viewed as the "'regular' way of doing things."
Last but not least, the covering law approach aims at creating a list of universal laws of communication which will predict and explain the way the others act, think or feel and in turn control their behavior. Research shows that individuals who meet each other for the first time experience uncertainty and insecurity and therefore start sharing information about themselves with others. Self-disclosure is a strategy for reducing uncertainty because through mutual sharing individuals learn to predict the communication behavior of others.