A Receiver's Role in Clear, Effective Communication Is an Important One

Protect Yourself Better Knowing What Goes Wrong in Conversations

Someone picking up a telephone call on a red landline handset
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In the communication process, the "receiver" is the listener, reader, or observer—that is, the individual (or the group of individuals) to whom a message is directed. The receiver is also called the "audience" or decoder.

The person who initiates a message in the communication process is called the "sender." Put simply, an "effective" message is one that's received in the way that the sender intended. Problems can arise on both ends that prevent the intended message from getting through to the receiver.

The Message and Potential Problems

For example, Paige asks Bill a question verbally. The message travels through the air, the "channel," to Bill's ears. He responds. Paige is the sender, the question is the message, and Bill is the receiver and gives Paige feedback by answering the question.

Myriad areas and ways exist where problems could arise even in this short exchange. If Paige whispers, Bill might not hear it. Maybe he hears only a portion of it and responds to a question that wasn't actually asked, and so Paige is confused. Maybe there's background noise, or the question isn't clear. If Bill is distracted by something and not paying attention, he might miss some of the words and respond inappropriately—or he might miss the question entirely so that the exchange needs to begin again. If he's not looking at Paige when she asks the question, he would miss any body language that would provide subtext to the question.

If Paige sends an email or text message to Bill, problems might arise because Bill doesn't have Paige's body language or tone of voice to interpret, which could add information to the message. Autocorrect might have inserted errors into the text, or a missing question mark might make a question seem like a statement.

These are all hindrances to effective communication. The degree of effectiveness is determined by how much of the message is understood by the receiver.

Decoding the Message

In the book, "Business Communication," authors Carol M. Lehman and Debbie D. DuFrene lay it out this way:

"The receiver's task is to interpret the sender's message, both verbal and nonverbal, with as little distortion as possible. The process of interpreting the message is known as decoding. Because words and nonverbal signals have different meanings to different people, countless problems can occur at this point in the communication process:

"The sender inadequately encodes the original message with words not present in the receiver's vocabulary; ambiguous, nonspecific ideas; or nonverbal signals that distract the receiver or contradict the verbal message.

  • The receiver is intimidated by the position or authority of the sender, resulting in a tension that prevents effective concentration on the message and failure to ask for needed clarification.
  • The receiver prejudges the topic as too boring or difficult to understand and does not attempt to understand the message.
  • The receiver is close-minded and unreceptive to new and different ideas.

"With the infinite number of breakdowns possible at each stage of the communication process, it is indeed a miracle that effective communication ever occurs."

Even the environment or the receiver's emotional state can affect the decoding of the message, for example, distractions in the room, discomfort on the part of the receiver, or stress or anxiety that allow the receiver to insert subtext that the sender didn't intend. Knowledge of social or cultural contexts can hinder the receiver from picking up cues or responding appropriately as well. Relational contexts can color a message, too, as messages from close friends could be received differently than a message from a work supervisor.

Importance of Feedback

When it's not clear to the sender that understanding has occurred on the part of the receiver, communication continues, for example, through follow-up questions from either party, further discussion, or the sender giving examples, rephrasing the information, or other means of clarification to get the sender and receiver on the same so-called "wavelength." In a presentation, the sender might show charts or images to make a point more clear to the audience or reader.

The more cues and channels that the receiver has and is open to receiving is often better; for example, it can be easy to misconstrue tone or subtext in an email or text message, while that same message would come through clearly if the receiver hears the person's voice or is speaking with them face to face. 

In the book, "Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Targeted Communication Programs," authors Gary W. Selnow and William D. Crano note that body language and tone aren't just communication on the sender's side: "Feedback in the interpersonal setting provides a running account of a receiver's reception of a message. Obvious cues such as direct questions show how well a receiver is processing the information. But subtle indicators also may provide information. For instance, a receiver's yawn, silence when comments are expected, or expressions of boredom suggest that selective exposure gates may be in operation."

A receiver also may have tone and subtext in the feedback given to the sender, such as responding with sarcasm or anger, which might be missed if the feedback is text-only but likely would not be missed if the parties can either see or hear each other or both.