Professional and Technical Writing

2.1 Audience Analysis: Primary, Secondary, and Hidden Audiences

Category: Audience Analysis
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Learning Outcomes

  • Develop professional/technical documents with a clear awareness of ethics.
  • Recognize and discuss important elements of how culture affects communication in collaborative workplaces.
  • Illustrate and analyze audience while creating various professional/technical documents with a sophisticated awareness of audience as a reader and a writer.
  • Demonstrate audience and rhetorical awareness in visual design while creating professional/technical documents to visually appeal to appropriate audiences.

A crucial part of achieving a purpose when writing technical documents is to consider the needs and level of knowledge or expertise of your audience. Inaccurately making assumptions regarding audience creates failure in Technical Writing, not only in design, but for ethically and culturally aware content. For simple, routine messages, it is not necessary to analyze your audience in depth. However, for complex or highly technical messages, taking the time to analyze the needs and knowledge base of your audience will increase the likelihood of a successful transmission. 

Analyzing Your Audience’s Needs

Here are some key questions to ask when determining the readers’ needs during your preparation:

  1. Who specifically is your reader? Are there multiple readers?
  2. What do your readers already know about the subject?
  3. Do you need to modify your message for international readers? Are there cultural issues that you need to address or avoid?

As a writer, your most important responsibility is determining who makes up your audience. You should continue to analyze your audience throughout the composing process. You can build a legitimately accurate representation of your audience by asking yourself key questions before and while you write. 

Once you identify your audience, decide how to get the best results from your communication by determining your audience’s knowledge, ability, and interests. See course specific suggestions and Figure 1 to see how a specific audience compares to a more generalized one.

Tech Writing for the Health Sciences

While it might be acceptable for a physician to refer his patient to a specialist for their exanthema, that patient is more likely to understand the term “skin rash”. As a writer in the medical field, the importance of writing appropriately for your audience could be lifesaving and it will be far less stressful on patience to not keep a medical dictionary on-hand just to decipher what ails them.

Communications for Engineers

As an engineer, you will likely need to communicate with several different audiences and possibly all in one document. For example, should you draft a technical report on your latest project, the company president will be more interested in the executive summary and the financial reporting whereas fellow experts will be more interested in the technical details of the project and you can easily communicate with them using charts, mathematical expressions, and technical terms. Both audiences will read the entire document, but focusing those areas to each group will allow you to communicate your purpose more efficiently and effectively.

 Professional Writing

At some point, you have probably received instructions on how to complete a task or put something together and have been left wondering what exactly you are supposed to do. You know it’s in English, but it just doesn’t make sense. Professional Writers can adapt instructions written by technical experts to be comprehended by a general audience. Many products purchased today require some sort of assembly. You can easily identify which companies have invested money in hiring skilled professional writers by how effortless the instructions are to follow.

Specific Generic

Are your readers knowledgeable or have the same background and familiarity with the subject as you, or are they layperson, unfamiliar with technology or process you are writing about? The less your audience knows about the subject, the less technical your document should be and all terms should be clearly defined. If your audience is a group of people with diverse knowledge, or you don’t know your immediate audience, you may need to make an educated guess on needs and interests. In this case, you should err on the side of caution by clearly defining all process and terms that could be confusing.

Primary, Secondary, and Hidden Audience

Primary audiences are those who receive the communication directly and are also known as the target audience. The person is also usually the decision maker. Secondary audiences are those readers who are not the primary addressee, but are still included as viewer. Figure 2 shows an example of both a primary and secondary audience. This typical business memo is being directly sent to Stan Jobs, who is the main, or primary, audience. Linda Smith, the sender, has also decided to send George Jones a copy of this message, as shown on the CC line of the memo.


A hidden audience are all those who fall outside of the primary and secondary assignment. This could be someone who shares a common interest with either the primary or secondary or is just an indirect recipient of your document. Looking at that same memo, let’s say that it is standard practice at the Green Bean Company to post all new policies in a common area. All employees and those who see the posted memo would be considered a hidden audience. They aren’t specifically mentioned in the memo heading, but knowing that the document will be posted, Linda would be sure to use language that would be understood by that hidden audience as well.

Using Bias-Free Language

Technology has not only made our lives easier but it has bridged our World closer together making it accessible to conduct business on global level. When adapting a message to your audience, be sure to use language that is both unbiased and sensitive. Use caution with expressions could be biased in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, and disability. Avoid use of idioms and phrases as they are often confusing or offensive in other cultures.


To learn more about Audience Analysis, check out these resources on line:

Online textbook

Helpful planner for determining your audience

  • Bias-Free Language Guide

2.2 Practicing Intercultural Communication

Category: Audience Analysis
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Knowing basic greetings in a foreign language are a great way to be polite when communicating interculturally, however, to fully communicate across cultures you need to be aware of the differences between each culture represented. Culture is much more than simply art or music; it is a deeply held set of beliefs, values, and expectations within a group that differentiates it from other groups (Hofstede, 1991). Culture impacts many of the tasks we undertake every day, and many actions that we do out of habit in the United States are conducted differently elsewhere. For example, in an American business meeting it is considered efficient and polite to get right to business. Taking ten minutes to see how everyone is doing may be seen as a waste of time. Meanwhile, in Pakistan it is considered impolite to begin this way, and meetings are opened with brief conversations asking about people’s family, friends, etc.

Intercultural Communication (IC) is concerned with the ways individuals, organizations, and groups interact across cultural differences. We work in a world where corporate and non-profit organizations are moving toward transnational status at an ever-increasing pace. IC is a sub-field of technical communication and focuses on how we can communicate between culturally varied groups while still adhering to each one’s social nuances and expectations. As technical communicators, our responsibility includes acknowledging easy-to-see cultural differences (e.g., do I bow or shake hands?) as well as those that are more subtle (e.g., how do I work on an intercultural team in a way that doesn’t offend someone’s values?).

Since so many of the decisions made in IC emphasize cultural values writers dealing with IC often encounter matters of ethics. Two very important pitfalls that writers need to overcome are ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Ethnocentrism occurs when we consider our own culture to be of the highest importance and, in turn, judge all other groups in relation to our own standards (Dong, Day, and Collaco, 2008). Comparing all other cultural norms to our own devalues the other culture instead of appreciating it. Xenophobia takes this a step further, as a person is actually fearful of a new or unknown culture. Such reactions to cultures can lead to stereotyping and alienation. When working on a cross-cultural team or with an international client, it’s important that all involved acknowledge each other’s cultural differences and work respectfully within those parameters. Being ethnocentric or xenophobic in our communication makes us unable to build strong relationships or work cohesively within a cross-cultural group.

What does unethical IC look like?

Unethical or ineffective IC can ruin a professional relationship. In 2013, a group of native English speakers in Japan were hired as communication consultants for a Tokyo-based human resources company. The company wanted its English-speaking presentation materials to be clear and the Japanese presenters to improve their English speaking skills. The company clarified with the consulting team that it was not concerned with the Japanese presenters’ ability to function in an American, Australian, or British boardroom—just to be easily understood.

One of the American consultants took an ethnocentric approach to these consultations and repeatedly corrected the presenters on matters of culture (e.g., telling presenters to add humor to a presentation) and not following the agreed-upon strategy. Furthermore, the consultant routinely skipped over the company’s established hierarchy and emailed supervisors with questions and concerns instead of addressing these issues with the team’s appointed liaison. As a result of this ethnocentrism, the company did not receive the results it wanted from the consulting sessions, and the supervisors and liaison were insulted. Consequently, the consultant was fired.

In this situation, the consultant was convinced that the presenters needed to work within an American cultural frame, and therefore ignored the needs of the Japanese company. In order to meet the goals of the consultations, the consultant needed to first be aware of the Japanese presentation style and how this differed from American style. Additionally, since professional hierarchy is very important in Japanese business, the consultant was expected to operate within that framework.

Should I be concerned with the role of my own culture?

The short answer is yes. While it is important for a technical communicator to acknowledge and respect the variances of culture in the workplace, his or her own culture should be respected as well.

For example, in the United States and many other Western countries, it is important to recognize authorship when conducting research. We do this through a variety of citation styles and consider intellectual property important enough to be written into law. Copyright law and the elements associated with it (plagiarism, piracy, etc.), however, do not translate into all cultures.

In giftcultures, common in Asian and African societies, the role of copyright differs from that of the West. Some Asian cultures have traditionally viewed plagiarism in a much different light, and in China, for example, it’s not uncommon for published work to be considered free to use at will (Wan, 2008). While not adhering to Western cultural norms like citation can cause an ethical problem, it can also lead the Western-based technical communicator into legal issues.

How do we practice ethical IC?

While it can be difficult to prepare for all IC circumstances, discussing specific strategies can help prepare you as an Intercultural Technical Communicator. Consider the following scenarios and come up with ethical ways to manage these situations:

  • You’re working on an international team to develop a feasibility report on water distribution. The report is due in one week, but half of the team will be celebrating a religious holiday for three of those days. How do you ensure the report meets the deadline?
  • You receive an email from a client regarding a project you’ve been assigned. The email is very abrupt and difficult to understand due to errors in English. You’re not sure what the client is asking. How do you respond?
  • Halfway through a project, you realize that the task would require you to infringe upon the intellectual property laws of your country, but not of the client’s country. How do you proceed?


Dong, Q., Day, K., & Collaco, C. (2008) Overcoming Ethnocentrism through Developing Intercultural Communication Sensitivity and Multiculturalism.Human Communication,11, 27-38.

Hofstede, G. (1991).Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.

Wan, C. (2008). Creative Commons License: An Alternative Solution to Copyright in the New Media Arena.Trans. Array Copyright Law, Digital Content and the Internet in the Asia-Pacific(). Sydney, AU: Sydney University Press.

2.3 Self-Understanding Is Fundamental to Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the factors that contribute to self-concept.
  2. Describe how the self-fulfilling prophecy works.

In the first of the Note 3.1 “Introductory Exercises” for this chapter, you listed terms to describe yourself. This exercise focuses on your knowledge, skills, experience, interests, and relationships. Your sense of self comes through in your oral and written presentations. Public communication starts with intrapersonal communication, or communication with yourself. You need to know what you want to say before you can say it to an audience.

Understanding your perspective can lend insight to your awareness, the ability to be conscious of events and stimuli. Awareness determines what you pay attention to, how you carry out your intentions, and what you remember of your activities and experiences each day. Awareness is a complicated and fascinating area of study. The way we take in information, give it order, and assign it meaning has long interested researchers from disciplines including sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Your perspective is a major factor in this dynamic process. Whether you are aware of it or not, you bring to the act of reading this sentence a frame of mind formed from experiences and education across your lifetime. Imagine that you see a presentation about snorkeling in beautiful Hawaii as part of a travel campaign. If you have never been snorkeling but love to swim, how will your perspective lead you to pay attention to the presentation? If, however, you had a traumatic experience as a child in a pool and are now afraid of being under water, how will your perspective influence your reaction?

Figure 3.4

Two scuba divers diving near a wall in the ocean

Peaceful or dangerous? Your perception influences your response.

sandwich – bryan and jason, diving a wall – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Learning to recognize how your perspective influences your thoughts is a key step in understanding yourself and preparing to communicate with others.

The communication process itself is the foundation for oral and written communication. Whether we express ourselves in terms of a live, face-to-face conversation or across a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) chat via audio and visual channels, emoticons (:)), and abbreviations (IMHO [In My Humble Opinion]), the communication process remains the same. Imagine that you are at work and your Skype program makes the familiar noise indicating that someone wants to talk. Your caller ID tells you that it is a friend. You also know that you have the report right in front of you to get done before 5:00 p.m. Your friend is quite a talker, and for him everything tends to have a “gotta talk about it right now” sense of urgency. You know a little bit about your potential audience or conversational partner. Do you take the call? Perhaps you chat back “Busy, after 5,” only to have him call again. You interpret the ring as his insistent need for attention, but you have priorities. You can choose to close the Skype program, stop the ringing, and get on with your report, but do you? Communication occurs on many levels in several ways.


When we communicate, we are full of expectations, doubts, fears, and hopes. Where we place emphasis, what we focus on, and how we view our potential has a direct impact on our communication interactions. You gather a sense of self as you grow, age, and experience others and the world. At various times in your life, you have probably been praised for some of your abilities and talents, and criticized for doing some things poorly. These compliments and criticisms probably had a deep impact on you. Much of what we know about ourselves we’ve learned through interaction with others. Not everyone has had positive influences in their lives, and not every critic knows what they are talking about, but criticism and praise still influence how and what we expect from ourselves.

Carol Dweck, a psychology researcher at Stanford University, states that “something that seems like a small intervention can have cascading effects on things we think of as stable or fixed, including extroversion, openness to new experience, and resilience.” (Begley, 2008) Your personality and expressions of it, like oral and written communication, were long thought to have a genetic component. But, says Dweck, “More and more research is suggesting that, far from being simply encoded in the genes, much of personality is a flexible and dynamic thing that changes over the life span and is shaped by experience.” (Begley, 2008) If you were told by someone that you were not a good speaker, know this: You can change. You can shape your performance through experience, and a business communication course, a mentor at work, or even reading effective business communication authors can result in positive change.

Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values

When you consider what makes you you, the answers multiply as do the questions. As a baby, you learned to recognize that the face in the mirror was your face. But as an adult, you begin to wonder what and who you are. While we could discuss the concept of self endlessly and philosophers have wrestled and will continue to wrestle with it, for our purposes, let’s focus on self, which is defined as one’s own sense of individuality, motivations, and personal characteristics (McLean, 2003). We also must keep in mind that this concept is not fixed or absolute; instead it changes as we grow and change across our lifetimes.

One point of discussion useful for our study about ourselves as communicators is to examine our attitudes, beliefs, and values. These are all interrelated, and researchers have varying theories as to which comes first and which springs from another. We learn our values, beliefs, and attitudes through interaction with others. Table 3.1 “Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values” defines these terms and provides an example of each.

Table 3.1 Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values

AttitudesLearned predispositions to a concept or objectSubject to changeI enjoyed the writing exercise in class today.
BeliefsConvictions or expressions of confidenceCan change over timeThis course is important because I may use the communication skills I am learning in my career.
ValuesIdeals that guide our behaviorGenerally long lastingEffective communication is important.

An attitude is your immediate disposition toward a concept or an object. Attitudes can change easily and frequently. You may prefer vanilla while someone else prefers peppermint, but if someone tries to persuade you of how delicious peppermint is, you may be willing to try it and find that you like it better than vanilla.

Beliefs are ideas based on our previous experiences and convictions and may not necessarily be based on logic or fact. You no doubt have beliefs on political, economic, and religious issues. These beliefs may not have been formed through rigorous study, but you nevertheless hold them as important aspects of self. Beliefs often serve as a frame of reference through which we interpret our world. Although they can be changed, it often takes time or strong evidence to persuade someone to change a belief.

Values are core concepts and ideas of what we consider good or bad, right or wrong, or what is worth the sacrifice. Our values are central to our self-image, what makes us who we are. Like beliefs, our values may not be based on empirical research or rational thinking, but they are even more resistant to change than are beliefs. To undergo a change in values, a person may need to undergo a transformative life experience.

For example, suppose you highly value the freedom to make personal decisions, including the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet while driving a motorcycle. This value of individual choice is central to your way of thinking and you are unlikely to change this value. However, if your brother was driving a motorcycle without a helmet and suffered an accident that fractured his skull and left him with permanent brain damage, you might reconsider this value. While you might still value freedom of choice in many areas of life, you might become an advocate for helmet laws—and perhaps also for other forms of highway safety, such as stiffer penalties for cell-phone talking and texting while driving.

Self-Image and Self-Esteem

Your self-concept is composed of two main elements: self-image and self-esteem.

Your self-image is how you see yourself, how you would describe yourself to others. It includes your physical characteristics—your eye color, hair length, height, and so forth. It also includes your knowledge, experience, interests, and relationships. If these sound familiar, go back and look at the first of the Note 3.1 “Introductory Exercises” for this chapter. In creating the personal inventory in this exercise, you identified many characteristics that contribute to your self-image. In addition, image involves not just how you look but also your expectations of yourself—what you can be.

What is your image of yourself as a communicator? How do you feel about your ability to communicate? While the two responses may be similar, they indicate different things. Your self-esteem is how you feel about yourself; your feelings of self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-respect. Healthy self-esteem can be particularly important when you experience a setback or a failure. Instead of blaming yourself or thinking, “I’m just no good,” high self-esteem will enable you to persevere and give yourself positive messages like “If I prepare well and try harder, I can do better next time.”

Putting your self-image and self-esteem together yields your self-concept: your central identity and set of beliefs about who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing. When it comes to communicating, your self-concept can play an important part. You may find that communicating is a struggle, or the thought of communicating may make you feel talented and successful. Either way, if you view yourself as someone capable of learning new skills and improving as you go, you will have an easier time learning to be an effective communicator. Whether positive or negative, your self-concept influences your performance and the expression of that essential ability: communication.

Looking-Glass Self

In addition to how we view ourselves and feel about ourselves, of course, we often take into consideration the opinions and behavior of others. Charles Cooley’s looking-glass selfreinforces how we look to others and how they view us, treat us, and interact with us to gain insight of our identity. We place an extra emphasis on parents, supervisors, and on those who have some degree of control over us when we look at others. Developing a sense of self as a communicator involves balance between constructive feedback from others and constructive self-affirmation. You judge yourself, as others do, and both views count.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Now, suppose that you are treated in an especially encouraging manner in one of your classes. Imagine that you have an instructor who continually “catches you doing something right” and praises you for your efforts and achievements. Would you be likely to do well in this class and perhaps go on to take more advanced courses in this subject?

In a psychology experiment that has become famous through repeated trials, several public school teachers were told that specific students in their classes were expected to do quite well because of their intelligence (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). These students were identified as having special potential that had not yet “bloomed.” What the teachers didn’t know was that these “special potential” students were randomly selected. That’s right: as a group, they had no more special potential than any other students.

Can you anticipate the outcome? As you may guess, the students lived up to their teachers’ level of expectation. Even though the teachers were supposed to give appropriate attention and encouragement to all students, in fact they unconsciously communicated special encouragement verbally and nonverbally to the special potential students. And these students, who were actually no more gifted than their peers, showed significant improvement by the end of the school year. This phenomenon came to be called the “Pygmalion effect” after the myth of a Greek sculptor named Pygmalion, who carved a marble statue of a woman so lifelike that he fell in love with her—and in response to his love she did in fact come to life and marry him (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; Insel & Jacobson, 1975).

In more recent studies, researchers have observed that the opposite effect can also happen: when students are seen as lacking potential, teachers tend to discourage them or, at a minimum, fail to give them adequate encouragement. As a result, the students do poorly (Schugurensky, 2009; Anyon, 1980; Oakes, 1985; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

When people encourage you, it affects the way you see yourself and your potential. Seek encouragement for your writing and speaking. Actively choose positive reinforcement as you develop your communication skills. You will make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from them. Keep in mind that criticism should be constructive, with specific points you can address, correct, and improve.

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which someone’s behavior comes to match and mirror others’ expectations, is not new. Robert Rosenthal, a professor of social psychology at Harvard, has observed four principles while studying this interaction between expectations and performance:

  1. We form certain expectations of people or events.
  2. We communicate those expectations with various cues, verbal and nonverbal.
  3. People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match the expectations.
  4. The outcome is that the original expectation becomes true.

Key Takeaway

You can become a more effective communicator by understanding yourself and how others view you: your attitudes, beliefs, and values; your self-concept; and how the self-fulfilling prophecy may influence your decisions.


  1. How would you describe yourself as a public speaker? Now, five, and ten years ago? Is your description the same or does it change across time? This business communication text and course can make a difference in what you might write for the category “one year from today.”
  2. How does your self-concept influence your writing? Write a one- to two-page essay on this topic and discuss it with a classmate.
  3. Make a list of at least three of your strongly held beliefs. What are those beliefs based on? List some facts, respected authorities, or other evidence that support them. Share your results with your class.
  4. What are some of the values held by people you know? Identify a target sample size (twenty is a good number) and ask members of your family, friends, and peers about their values. Compare your results with those of your classmates.
  5. Make a list of traits you share with your family members. Interview them and see if anyone else in your family has shared them. Share and compare with your classmates.
  6. What does the field of psychology offer concerning the self-fulfilling prophecy? Investigate the topic and share your findings.


Anyon, J. (1980, Fall). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162(1), 67–92.

Begley, S. (2008, December 1). When DNA is not destiny. Newsweek, p. 14.

Cooley, C. (1922). Human nature and the social order (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Scribners.

Insel, P., & Jacobson, L. (1975). What do you expect? An inquiry into self-fulfilling prophecies. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

McLean, S. (2003). The basics of speech communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. Birmingham, NY: Vail-Ballou Press.

Rosnow, R., & Rosenthal, R. (1999). Beginning behavioral research: A conceptual primer (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How America’s schools cheat girls. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Schugurensky, D. (Ed.). (2009). Selected moments of the 20th century. In History of education: A work in progress. Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Retrieved from in the Classroom was followed by many other school-based studies that examined these mechanisms in detail from different perspectives. Prominent among the works on this subject conducted by U.S. scholars are Rist, R. C. (1970, August). Student social class and teacher expectations: The self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. Harvard Educational Review, 40(3), 411–451.

Business Communication for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

2.4 Listening and Reading for Understanding

Learning Objective

  1. Explain the importance of becoming an active listener and reader.

As the popular author and Hollywood entrepreneur Wilson Mizner said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.” Learning to listen to your conversational partner, customer, supplier, or supervisor is an important part of business communication. Too often, instead of listening we mentally rehearse what we want to say. Similarly, when we read, we are often trying to multitask and therefore cannot read with full attention. Inattentive listening or reading can cause us to miss much of what the speaker is sharing with us.

Communication involves the sharing and understanding of meaning. To fully share and understand, practice active listening and reading so that you are fully attentive, fully present in the moment of interaction. Pay attention to both the actual words and for other clues to meaning, such as tone of voice or writing style. Look for opportunities for clarification and feedback when the time comes for you to respond, not before.

Active Listening and Reading

You’ve probably experienced the odd sensation of driving somewhere and, having arrived, have realized you don’t remember driving. Your mind may have been filled with other issues and you drove on autopilot. It’s dangerous when you drive like that, and it is dangerous in communication. Choosing to listen or read attentively takes effort. People communicate with words, expressions, and even in silence, and your attention to them will make you a better communicator. From discussions on improving customer service to retaining customers in challenging economic times, the importance of listening comes up frequently as a success strategy.

Here are some tips to facilitate active listening and reading:

  • Maintain eye contact with the speaker; if reading, keep your eyes on the page.
  • Don’t interrupt; if reading, don’t multitask.
  • Focus your attention on the message, not your internal monologue.
  • Restate the message in your own words and ask if you understood correctly.
  • Ask clarifying questions to communicate interest and gain insight.

When the Going Gets Tough

Our previous tips will serve you well in daily interactions, but suppose you have an especially difficult subject to discuss, or you receive a written document delivering bad news. In a difficult situation like this, it is worth taking extra effort to create an environment and context that will facilitate positive communication.

Here are some tips that may be helpful:

  • Set aside a special time. To have a difficult conversation or read bad news, set aside a special time when you will not be disturbed. Close the door and turn off the TV, music player, and instant messaging client.
  • Don’t interrupt. Keep silent while you let the other person “speak his piece.” If you are reading, make an effort to understand and digest the news without mental interruptions.
  • Be nonjudgmental. Receive the message without judgment or criticism. Set aside your opinions, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • Be accepting. Be open to the message being communicated, realizing that acceptance does not necessarily mean you agree with what is being said.
  • Take turns. Wait until it is your turn to respond, and then measure your response in proportion to the message that was delivered to you. Reciprocal turn-taking allows each person have his say.
  • Acknowledge. Let the other person know that you have listened to the message or read it attentively.
  • Understand. Be certain that you understand what your partner is saying. If you don’t understand, ask for clarification. Restate the message in your own words.
  • Keep your cool. Speak your truth without blaming. A calm tone will help prevent the conflict from escalating. Use “I” statements (e.g., “I felt concerned when I learned that my department is going to have a layoff”) rather than “you” statements (e.g., “you want to get rid of some of our best people”).

Finally, recognize that mutual respect and understanding are built one conversation at a time. Trust is difficult to gain and easy to lose. Be patient and keep the channels of communication open, as a solution may develop slowly over the course of many small interactions. Recognize that it is more valuable to maintain the relationship over the long term than to “win” in an individual transaction.

Key Takeaway

Part of being an effective communicator is learning to receive messages from others through active listening and reading.


  1. Pair up with a classmate and do a role-play exercise in which one person tries to deliver a message while the other person multitasks and interrupts. Then try it again while the listener practices active listening. How do the two communication experiences compare? Discuss your findings.
  2. Select a news article and practice active reading by reading the article and summarizing each of its main points in your own words. Write a letter to the editor commenting on the article—you don’t have to send it, but you may if you wish.
  3. In a half-hour period of time, see if you can count how many times you are interrupted. Share and compare with your classmates.
  4. Business Communication for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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