Communication as Process

One Of The Most Significant Discoveries Of The 20th Century Is That Communication Isn’t An Event; It Is A Process.

By Thomas J. Roach

From the time of Aristotle to the early days of mass media, we composed arguments that were meant to produce instant results: Give me liberty or give me death, and walk don’t run to your nearest store.

Then in the last 75 years, research in several fields began producing evidence that opinion formation is a process. In 1946 the rhetorical scholar Hebert Wichelns challenged his colleagues to look beyond the single-speech, single-rhetor model of communication.

In 1962 philosopher Jürgen Habermas redefined democracy as a social process where ideas are exchanged over a period of time not only through mass media and print, but face to face, and that they can be challenged and amended many times before consensus is reached. In 1969 psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross postulated that we go through a series of steps when dealing with death and dying. And in 1974 political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced research that showed how the interaction of group members determines what becomes the dominant opinion.

The discoveries of process communication in these fields aren’t exceptions to the rule; they are the rule. All communication is process. Even a simple fire alarm is part of a process that involves creating an awareness of the danger of fire, teaching procedures for alerting others, and developing safe habits to govern how we react to the alarm. The difference between single-speech, single-rhetor communication and process communication is the difference between the fire alarm and the fire drill.


Hiring is a good example of process communication. A job description is prepared to establish qualifications. An advertising message is written to reflect the job description and project the organization in a positive light.

Resumes are screened for qualifications. Candidates are interviewed. An offer is made. Salary is negotiated. The new employee goes through orientation and training. This is followed by regular evaluations and eventually even an exit interview, which leads to a rewording of the job description.

Community relations is also best handled as a process. We encourage employees to become involved in community organizations. We assist with local fundraising projects. We meet monthly with advisory boards. We send press releases to the local publications. We assemble and promote a slate of employee speakers and make them available to schools and clubs. And when new developments are being considered, we talk to advisory boards, host meetings and negotiate with neighbors, and finally, apply for zoning variances and permits with the support and confidence of the community.

Non-Process Communication

Compare these examples to non-process communication. Somebody has a brother who needs a job. A phone call, a handshake, a W2 form, and you are done. The neighbors don’t want you to expand the quarry, go to the city council and call them whiners standing in the way of progress and threaten to leave town. Things were simpler in the old days, but they weren’t very effective.

My wife and I bought an abandoned mansion in Joliet, Ill., in 1979. Over the last 35 years we founded the local historical society, sat on preservation boards, served on fundraising campaigns, were interviewed for newspaper stories, gave talks, and hosted tours. A few years ago we acquired 500 ft. of wrought iron fence from the old Cook County jail.

It was 8 ft. tall, and we needed a zoning variance to install it. The night of the zoning commission meeting we were prepared to make arguments about the scale of the house and the historic significance of the fence, and to promise that it would make the neighborhood look better not worse.

When our issue came up on the agenda, the head of the commission introduced us to the board and the spectators. Before we could speak, he spent 10 minutes telling everyone about all the work we did to revive an important structure that would otherwise have been torn down. When he was done we received enthusiastic applause. Then he asked if we wanted to say anything. “No, I guess not,” I said. “Thank you.” He then called for a vote, and our variance passed unanimously.

We were elated and a little dumbfounded when we left. On the way home, I realized we didn’t get to make our argument because it had already been made. We made it by giving tours, speaking at meetings, and appearing in the newspaper as the project dragged on for over 30 years.

Public affairs, internal communication, politics, family relationships, all communication is process. Professional communication is not about crafting and delivering messages anymore; it is about facilitating and feeding the process.

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