Last modified on 9 November 2013, at 15:54

Development Cooperation Handbook/Cooperation and Communication/The relational content of communication

Communication always involves at least two persons (or two groups of persons) who, while talking about "something" also define their relationship and the reciprocal expectations. Usually when the communication "fails" it is not because of disagreement about "what" the two are talking about, but rather because they do not agree on the relationship model proposed by the counterpart.

The relational content of communication
The relational content of communication.jpg
Every communication has the purpose of establishing a relationship. Relationships are basically of three orders: the equal (between friends) and hierarchical relationship on both sides: adult-child and child-adult. There are also relationships, for instance, between man and woman thatmove through all three orders of relationships in different phases and different moments. Human relationships are established if both accept the identification of the degree of relationship proposed by the other. In our case, for instance, I’m the father and you’re the child- I’m teaching and you’re learning. We accept this. The moment one of the students reacts and the teacher perceives that he is refused as a teacher, there is tension between the two until, for instance, the teacher realises that in that particular subject matter it is the student who knows more. So, I accept the other as the teacher (for instance, when you put doubts on the hardware list). The elasticity or the capacity of persons to accept changes in the levels of the relationship at different points is extremely important for the relationship. Even if we consider language to be different from communication, we must always consider the hierarchical relationship as an essential purpose of the fact of communicating. We communicate in order to establish the level of the relationship and only after we’ve established it. This again is a problem of punctualization.

When we communicate we also tell to to the counterpart how we portray our relationship: as superior, inferior or as equal. And the other does the same. We feel comfortable if the counterpart con organization our interpretation (he/she acts as inferior while we proposed us as superior, etc.); we feel uncomfortable if the counterpart refuses our interpretation and proposes one that we think it is unacceptable ( (e-g- both the counterparts wants to be considered as reciprocally superior).

Another factor of uneasiness can be the modality of interpreting and otherwise established hierarchy: the hierarchical order is established as functional to the achievement of specific objectives or is it expression of a natural superiority/inferiority amongst the persons?

In any case the reciprocal definition of roles is never static: the constant redefinition or reiteration of the relationship represent the axis upon which interpersonal communication moves. Along with the processes of communication therefore, are constantly redefined the spheres of competence, the sectors where one is superiors to the other are better defined, it is better understood how much there are common stakes and common interests and how much interests are diverging or become effective. So we can say that communication is the process through which social ties are established and that there is no community (or society) without group identity: this identity is formed when communication achieves its objective

The objective of communication is achieved when a group of "I"s accept to identify themselves as a "we" (with a common purpose and common stakes).

For most of the time the communication about the relationship is not explicit. Most of the time in communication is spent referring to to the "objective" world (beyond their relationship). So reciprocal interpersonal intentions are clarified implicitly, by the way people communicates and relates to each other. Only rarely messages refers explicitly to the human relationship. In fact to communicate about "things" is easier then communicating about "relationships". In order to be explicit about the relationship one need a higher level of intimacy.

Technically to communicate about the relationship is considered a way of "communicating about communication" : that is why it is defined as "meta-communication ". It is important to realize that in each human relationship we can find elements of solidarity and elements of competition.  

In fact each indivisual is at the same time in a communion of interests with the other in the organization of the economical and cultural structure of the social system where she lives and work; and in competition with the others in the effort of getting for herself as many good things produced by this system. Along this dynamics various smaller social units are generated, that are also at the same time in solidarity and in competition amongst themsellves, and produce various forms of unions and alliances. Along this dynamic of simultaneus solidarity¾competition are formed varius levels of social aggregation. 

Technically we call competition the zero sum and solidarity the positive sum in social gaming.

Communication is what allows us to manage the reciprocal conflict of interests maintaining the bound of solidarity for the achievement of the shared objectives.

kind of relationship Logical Model Characteristics example
Competition Zero sum game Every advantage obtained on the one side corresponds to an equal disadvantage on the other side price fixing in a negotiation
Solidarity Positive sum game The player have a common interest at stake: they can be either both winner or both losers the relationship physician-patient in the therapy



Communication is never an objective in itself, but it is always a means to produce an effect, that according to the three modalities of human relationship that we identified can be

  • increase the power of the protagonist by generating persuasion in the target audience;
  • allow the counterpart to make informed choices by providing knowledge of facts and intentions;
  • educate so that the counterpart can extend her/his horizon of possible choices.


See alsoEdit

Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg The relationship between "power" and "authority"


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