Constructivism: A General Theory
of Communication Skill
Brant R. Burleson
This chapter is about communication skills and one particular theory of these skills— constructivism. As you’ve probably discovered in your reading of this book, communication is a broad term that encompasses lots of different things. So, I will begin by presenting some examples of what I mean by “more and less skilled communication.” Consider two young adults, each of whom is trying to comfort a friend who has recently been “dumped” by a long-term dating partner:
Ben broke up with you? He’s an idiot! But, this isn’t the end of the world, you know. I mean, it’s not the worst thing that could happen to you, and to be honest, I think you’ll be better off without Ben. Anyway, there are tons of cute guys on this campus, you know, lots of fish in the sea. You just gotta get out there and catch another one! Keep in mind that no guy is worth getting all worked up about. I mean, it’s just not that big a deal, not at this point in life. You can do a lot better than Ben. Just remember that Ben isn’t worth any heartache and you’ll stop being so depressed about the whole thing.
Michael: Barb broke up with you? Oh man! I’m really sorry; I know you must be hurting right now. Do you want to talk about it? You were together a long time and were really involved with her, so you must have some real heartache. This just sucks; I’m really sorry, man. The same thing happened to me last year, and I remember how rotten it makes you feel. It’s especially tough when it’s sudden like that. It’s probably gonna take some time to work through it—after all, breaking up is a really hard thing. I know it may not mean very much right now, but keep in mind
that you’ve got some good friends here—people who really care about you. I’m here whenever you want to talk about things.
Who does the better job of comforting their distressed friend, Mary or Michael? Why? The second instance represents what most of us intuitively recognize as a more sensitive, sophisticated, and effective performance—in a word, more skillful communication. Why do most of us regard the second instance as more skillful conduct? That is one of the questions this chapter seeks to answer.
Across a broad set of situations, some people consistently communicate more skillfully than do others. You probably know some really skillful communicators—people who with great regularity are able to recognize quickly what is going on in social situations, who can understand the meanings and messages of others, who are able to convey their ideas to others in effective and appropriate ways, and who can smoothly enter and manage conversations. You also almost certainly know people who seem clueless about the social situations they enter, who never seem to get the point of another’s message, who can’t convey their own ideas in ways understandable by others, and who always seem abrasive, if not rude, in conversation. What is it that some people know that enables them to be highly successful and effective communicators? What qualities, abilities, and knowledge do they have? And how did they come by or acquire these qualities and abilities? These are some of the questions this chapter tries to answer.
I begin this chapter by previewing different kinds of communication competencies and describing in some detail the type of competency with which this chapter is most concerned— functional communication competence. I then present a brief overview of the theory that will guide our exploration of different kinds of functional communication competence, a theory known as constructivism. Most of the chapter examines skilled behavior with respect to three major communication processes: social perception, message production, and message reception.1 For each...
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