Two employees decide to ask their boss for a day off. The first one walks into the supervisor’s office and says, “I’d like to take this Friday off. I know that’s our busiest day, but I’ve been working really hard lately and think I deserve a break. Jamie can do my work that day since she usually just hangs out by the water cooler anyway.” The boss promptly denies his request.

The second employee enters the office and says, “I’d like to take this Friday off, but I know it’s our busiest day and I don’t want to leave the office short-handed. If Friday won’t work, I can take Tuesday off instead. I’ve already talked to Jaime, and she said she’d be happy to cover my duties while I’m gone on either day.” The boss grants him the desired day off.

Two people made the same request, but only one had it fulfilled. Why? Constructivism, a theory of communication, can provide some insights.

Constructivism seeks to explain how some people are able to communicate more skillfully than others to achieve certain goals. It studies the social, behavioral, cognitive and linguistic aspects that influence message formation and reception. It also identifies the skills employed by highly effective communicators and examines how those skills are acquired. Constructivism is based on the idea that people’s individual interpretations of the social realm shape, or construct, their communicative behavior.

Constructivism focuses on four competencies that skilled communicators possess:

Linguistic Competence – Involves the proper use of grammar and syntax, as well as the ability to linguistically comprehend messages received from other speakers. People who have suffered brain damage and struggle to speak words in the correct order, for example, often have their messages misinterpreted by others.

Sociolinguistic Competence – Refers to a person’s ability to understand the social rules that govern communication in different situations. Aspects of communication that vary from group to group include turn-taking, personal distance, voice volume and tone, use of titles or honorific language, appropriate use and interpretation of verbal expressions, and size and range of gestures.

Rhetorical Competence – Refers to how speakers extract meaning from the messages of others and, in response, create messages that can achieve goals. Successful messages are informative, persuasive and sensitive to others’ needs.

Conversational Management – Refers to how people manage face-to-face interactions by allocating speaking turns, directing conversation topics and adjusting communication goals according to others’ responses.

These competencies can be found in communicators whom constructivists call “cognitively complex.” In other words, highly skilled communicators possess cognitive functions that allow them to detect social or verbal nuances in conversation and respond to them appropriately. Skilled communicators can also “read” people to determine their desires, attitudes and goals, and then use that information to create messages specifically tailored to appeal to those individuals. Such messages are “person-centered,” meaning they offer listeners an opportunity to accomplish their goals as well—a compelling proposition. The more person-centered a message is, the more likely it is to sway someone to a desired course of action.

Consider, for a moment, the second employee from the opening example who asked to take Friday off from work. What made his message so successful? Like the first employee, he claims to understand the magnitude of his request (Friday is a busy day). Unlike his abrasive co-worker, however, the second employee expresses sensitivity to the situation; he doesn’t want his absence to cause a problem for the boss or others. Next, he offers his boss an alternative option for his day off, demonstrating flexibility while doubling his chances of getting some time away from the office. Finally, by revealing his agreement with Jamie to cover his duties, the second employee exudes a person-centered attitude. Not only has he showed consideration for Jamie’s feelings, he’s also saved his supervisor the trouble of having to arrange the matter himself. In the end, the employee’s request almost comes across as a personal favor or compliment to the boss, which makes it easy to accept.

Constructivism helps people recognize and cultivate the qualities of effective communication, which has enormous benefits. Cognitively complex communicators tend to be very successful in life, enjoying deeper relationships and faster career advancement. Skillful communication also improves the lives of listeners by effectually relaying life-enhancing information, leading to healthier behaviors. Today, constructivism continues to have vital applications in fields like business, education, health care, journalism and politics, and has broadened our understanding of socialization, language acquisition, instruction, relationship development and communication’s cultural influences.

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