Comparing Symmetrical & Complementary Interpersonal Communication

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  • 0:01 Interpersonal Communication
  • 1:11 Symmetrical Communication
  • 2:52 Complimentary Communication
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Communication is a very big part of our daily lives, and different styles of communication can have different impacts. Explore symmetrical and complementary interpersonal communication, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Interpersonal Communication

Let's talk about this! Better yet, let's talk about talking about this! Communication is one of the fundamental aspects of our lives, our societies, and really, our entire species. We like to talk. We like to communicate, whether verbally or nonverbally, and so there has been quite a bit of study that's gone into our communication. But communication can happen at various levels.

One of the most common throughout our daily lives is interpersonal communication, or the sharing of information between two or more people. This is a personal form of communication, one that requires individuals directly engaging each other, as opposed to, say, watching the nightly news. So, interpersonal communication is a very important part of our lives. But just because two people are communicating, doesn't mean they communicate the same way. And just like that, interpersonal communication becomes a bit trickier.

Symmetrical Communication

When we are studying interpersonal communication, one effective way to categorize major patterns is through the relationships between people, or simply relational patterns. The question is how do different relationships define the way people interact while communicating? Well, let's look at some common examples, starting with the communication patterns between people who communicate in the same way.

This is called symmetrical communication because each person responds just like the other, so it's a continual back and forth. Thus, symmetrical communication tends to be very forward, direct, and well understood by both parties. After all, when someone communicates in the same manner as you, it's pretty easy to understand where they're coming from.

Does this mean that symmetrical communication never leads to conflict? I'm sorry - have you met people? We can always find conflict! Especially if both people have communication styles that are high-conflict, then a symmetrical relationship is not going to decrease that. In fact, most power struggles in conversations are between people with symmetrical relationships. With each person responding in the same way, this sort of communication can escalate quickly unless one person chooses to give in. Despite this, symmetrical communication still tends to be very efficient, since there is little time or effort that has to go into understanding why the other person is acting the way they are, or what exactly they are trying to communicate.

Complementary Communication

The opposite of symmetrical communication is one in which people have opposing communication styles. This is called complementary communication. And I know what you're wondering - how many times can I possibly say the word communication in this lesson? The answer - a lot! But more importantly, you're probably wondering what opposing styles of communication look like.

Well, consider three groups consisting of two people each. One group is an example of symmetrical communication: two direct, no-nonsense kinds of people. Their conversation is quick and to the point. Another group is also symmetrical with both members communicating indirectly, taking awhile to get to the point and implying or inferring key points rather than saying them aloud.

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