7.1 Communication Climate

Learning Objectives

Type your learning objectives here.

  • Explain communication climate.
  • Differentiate confirming and disconfirming messages.
  • Distinguish supportive and defensive messages.
  • Explore strategies to create a positive communication climate.

Communication Climate

Do you feel organized or confined in a clean work-space? Are you more productive when the sun is shining than when it’s gray and cloudy outside? Just as factors like weather and physical space impact the way we feel, communication climate influences our interpersonal interactions. Communication climate is the “overall feeling or emotional mood between people” (Wood, 1999). If you dread going to visit your family during the holidays because of tension between you and your sister, or you look forward to dinner with a particular set of friends because they make you laugh, you are responding to the communication climate—the overall mood that is created because of the people involved and the type of communication they bring to the interaction.

Interpersonal Communication Now: “Sticks and Stones Can Break my Bones But Words Can Hurt Me Too”

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers reported that the sickening feeling we get when we are socially rejected (being ignored at a party or passed over when picking teams) is real. When researchers measured brain responses to social stress they found a pattern similar to what occurs in the brain when our body experiences physical pain. Specifically, “the area affected is the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain known to be involved in the emotional response to pain” (Fox). The doctor who conducted the study, Matt Lieberman, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “It makes sense for humans to be programmed this way. Social interaction is important to survival.” (Nishina, Juvonen, & Witkow, 2005)


Principles of Communication Climate

In this section we will discuss five principles of communication climate: messages contain relational subtexts that can be felt: climate is conveyed through words, action, and non-action; climate is perceived; climate is determined by social and relational needs; and relational messages that create climate are multi-leveled.

Messages contain relational subtexts that can be felt

In addition to generating and perceiving meaning in communicative interactions, we also subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) convey and perceive the way we feel about each other. As we discussed in Chapter 1, almost all messages operate on two levels: content and relational. As a reminder, the content is the substance of what’s being communicated (the what of the message). The relational dimension isn’t the actual thing being discussed and instead can reveal something about the relational dynamic existing between you and the other person (the who of the message). We can think of it as a kind of subtext, an underlying (or hidden) message that says something about how the parties feel toward one another. For example, when deciding on a TV program, your partner might politely suggest, “I’d like to watch this show, how about you?” The content of the message is about what they want to watch. The relational subtext is subtle but suggests your partner values your input and wants to share decision-making control. The climate of this interaction is likely to be neutral or warm. However, consider how the relational subtext changes if your partner insists (with a raised voice and a glare): “We are watching this show tonight!” The content is still about what they want to watch. But what is the subtext now? In addition to what your partner wants to watch, they seem to be sending a relational message of dominance, control, and potential disrespect for your needs and wants. You might be hearing an additional message of “I don’t care about you,” which is likely to feel cold, eliciting a negative emotional reaction such as defensiveness or sadness.

Climate is conveyed through words, action, and non-action

Relational subtexts can be conveyed through direct words and actions. A student making a complaint to an instructor can be worded with respect, as in “Would you have a few minutes after class to discuss my grade?” or without, as in “I can’t believe you gave me such a crappy grade, and we need to talk about it right after class!” We can often find more of the relational meaning in the accompanying and more indirect nonverbals—in the way something is said or done. For example, two of your coworkers might use the exact same words to make a request of you, but the tone, emphasis, and facial expression will change the relational meaning, which influences the way you feel. The words “can you get this done by Friday” will convey different levels of respect and control depending upon the nonverbal emphasis, tone, and facial expressions paired with the verbal message. For example, the request can be made in a questioning tone versus a frustrated or condescending one. Additionally, a relational subtext might also be perceived by what is NOT said or done. For example, one coworker adds a “thanks” or a “please” and the other doesn’t. Or, one coworker shows up to your birthday coffee meetup and the other doesn’t. What do these non-actions suggest to you about the other person’s feelings or attitude towards you? Consider for a moment some past messages (and non-messages) that felt warm or cold to you.

Climate is perceived

Relational meanings are not inherent in the messages themselves. They are not literal, and they are not facts. The subtext of any communicative message is in the eye of the beholder. The relational meaning can be received in ways that were unintentional. Additionally, like content messages, relational messages can be influenced by what we attend to and by our expectations. They also stand out more if they contrast with what you normally expect or prefer.

You might interpret your partner’s insistence on watching a certain show to mean they are bossy. However, your partner might have perceived you to be the bossy one and is attempting to regain the loss of decision control. Control could be exerted because doing so is the accepted relational dynamic between you, or it could be a frustrated reaction to a frequent loss of decision control, which they want to regain. Here, it needs to be noted that the relational message someone hears at any given time is a perception and doesn’t necessarily mean the message received was the message intended. Meanings will depend on who is delivering it and in what context. Cultural and co-cultural context will also impact the way a message is interpreted, which we will discuss later.

Climate is determined by social and relational needs

While relational messages can potentially show up in dozens of different communicative forms, they generally fall into categories that align with specific types of human social needs that vary from person to person and situation to situation. In addition to physical needs, such as food and water, human beings have social and relational needs that can have negative consequences if ignored. Negative consequences can range from frustrating work days to actual death (in cases of infants not getting human touch and attention and the elderly who suffer in isolation). Scholars categorize social needs in many different ways. Recall the discussion earlier in the book indicating that we are more likely to develop relationships with people who meet one or more of three basic interpersonal needs: affection, control, and belonging. We want to be liked or loved. We want to be able to influence others and our own environments (at least somewhat). We want to feel included. Each need exists on a continuum from low to high, with some people needing only a little of one and more of another. The level of need also varies by context, with some situations calling for more affection (e.g., romantic relationships) and others calling for less (e.g., workplace).

Another framework for categorizing needs comes from a nonviolent communication approach used by mediators, negotiators, therapists, and businesses across the world. This approach focuses on compassion and collaboration and categorizes human needs with more detail and scope. For example, categories include freedom, connection, community, play, integrity, honesty, peace, and the need to matter and be understood. When people from all cultures and all walks of life all over the world are asked “Do you need these to thrive?” the answer—with small nuances—is always “yes” (Sofer, 2018).

During interactions, we detect on some level whether the person with whom we are communicating is meeting a particular need, such as the need for respect. We may not really be aware, on a conscious level, of why we feel cold toward a coworker. But, it is likely that the coworker’s jokes, eye rolls, and criticisms toward you feel like a relational message of inferiority or disrespect. In this case, your unmet need for dignity, competence, respect, or belonging may be contributing to your cold reaction toward this person. When other people’s messages don’t meet our needs in whole or in part, we tend to have an emotionally cold reaction. When messages do meet our needs, we tend to feel warm.

Consider how needs may be met (or not met) when you are in a disagreement of opinion with someone else. For example, needs may be met if we feel heard by the other and not met if we feel disrespected when we present our opinion. In a different example, consider all the different ways you could request that someone turn the music down. You could do both of these things with undertones (relational subtexts) of superiority, anger, dominance, ridicule, coldness, distance, etc. Or you could do them with warmth, equality, playfulness, shared control, respect, trust, etc.

Relational messages are multi-leveled

On one level, we want to feel that our social needs are met and we hope that others in our lives will meet them through their communication, at least in part. On another level, though, we are concerned with how we are perceived; the self-image we convey to others is important to us. We want it to be apparent to others that we belong, matter, are respected, understood, competent, and in control of ourselves. Some messages carry relational subtexts that harm or threaten our self-image, while others confirm and validate it.

To help better understand this second level of relational subtexts, let’s revisit the concept of “face needs.” Face refers to our self-image when communicating with others (Ting-Toomey, 2005; Brown and Levinson, 1987; Lim and Bowers, 1991). Most of us are probably unaware of the fact that we are frequently negotiating this face as we interact with others. However, on some level, whether we are aware of it or not, many of our social needs relate to the way we want to be perceived by others. Specifically, we not only want to feel included in particular groups, but we also want to be seen as someone who belongs. We want to feel capable and competent, but we also want others to think we are capable and competent. We want to experience a certain level of autonomy, but we also want to be seen as free from the imposition of others. Communication subtexts such as disrespect tend to threaten our face needs, while other behaviors such as the right amount of recognition support them. Effective communication sometimes requires a delicate dance that involves addressing, maintaining, and restoring our own face and that of others simultaneously.

Because both our own needs and the needs of others play an important role in the communication climate, throughout the rest of this chapter we will utilize the following three general categories when we refer to social needs that can be addressed through communication:

  • Need for Connection: belonging, inclusion, acceptance, warmth, kindness
  • Need for Freedom: autonomy, control, freedom from imposition by others, space, privacy
  • Need for Meaning: competence, capability, dignity, worthiness, respect, to matter, to be understood

Confirming and Disconfirming Messages

Positive and negative climates can be understood by looking at confirming and disconfirming messages. We experience positive climates when we receive messages that demonstrate our value and worth from those with whom we have a relationship. Conversely, we experience negative climates when we receive messages that suggest we are devalued and unimportant. Obviously, most of us like to be in positive climates because they foster emotional safety as well as personal and relational growth. However, it is likely that most of our relationships fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Let’s start by looking at three types of messages:

  • Recognition Messages: Recognition messages can confirm or deny another person’s existence. For example, if a friend enters your home and you smile, hug them, and say, “I’m so glad to see you” you are confirming their existence. On the other hand, if you say “good morning” to a colleague and they ignore you by walking out of the room without saying anything, they may create a disconfirming climate by not recognizing your greeting.
  • Acknowledgment Messages: Acknowledgement messages go beyond recognizing another’s existence by confirming what they say or how they feel. Nodding our head while listening, or laughing appropriately at a funny story, are nonverbal acknowledgment messages. When a friend tells you she had a really bad day at work and you respond with, “Yeah, that does sound hard, do you want to talk about it?”, you are acknowledging and responding to her feelings. In contrast, if you were to respond to your friend’s frustrations with a comment like, “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me today,” you would be ignoring her experience and presenting yours as more important.
  • Endorsement Messages: Endorsement messages go one step further by recognizing a person’s feelings as valid. Suppose a friend comes to you upset after a fight with his girlfriend. If you respond with, “Yeah, I can see why you would be upset” you are endorsing his right to feel upset. However, if you said, “Get over it. At least you have a girlfriend” you would be sending messages that deny his right to feel frustrated at that moment. While it is difficult to see people we care about in emotional pain, people are responsible for their own emotions. When we let people own their emotions and do not tell them how to feel, we are creating supportive climates that provide a safe environment for them to work through their problems.

A communication climate triangleDisconfirmating messages imply, “You don’t exist. You are not valued.” There are seven specific types of disconfirming messages:

  • Impervious response fails to acknowledge another person’s communication attempt through either verbal or nonverbal channels. Failure to return phone calls, emails, and letters are examples.
  • In an interrupting response, one person starts to speak before the other person is finished.
  • Irrelevant responses are comments completely unrelated to what the other person was just talking about. They indicate that the listener wasn’t really listening at all, and therefore doesn’t value with the speaker had to say. In each of these three types of responsesthe speaker is not acknowledged.
  • In a tangential response, the speaker is acknowledged, but with a comment that is used to steer the conversation in a different direction.
  • In an impersonal response, the speaker offers a monologue of impersonal, intellectualized, and generalized statements that trivializes the other’s comments (e.g., what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger).
  • Ambiguous responses are messages with multiple meanings, and these meanings are highly abstract or may be a private joke to the speaker alone.
  • Incongruous responses communicate two messages that seem to conflict along the verbal and nonverbal channels. The verbal channel demonstrates support, while the nonverbal channel is disconfirming. An example might be complimenting someone’s cooking, while nonverbally indicating you are choking.

Supportive versus Defensive Messages

Another useful framework for understanding communication climate can be found in the six defensive and supportive behavior pairs proposed by psychologist Jack Gibb in 1965, adapted here with some pairs re-named for clarity. These six behaviors are, on the one hand, likely to generate an emotional climate of defensiveness (cold) and are, on the other, likely to generate a supportive climate (warm).

In the box below, we define and give examples of each of the six pairs: evaluation/description, manipulation/straightforwardness, control/collaboration, indifference/empathy, superiority/equality, and certainty/flexibility. In addition, we propose some possibilities for how climate might be perceived by the recipients of such behavior and why it might be perceived that way.


John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship scientist identified four communication styles that have been shown to accurately predict the end of a relationship because of the negative climate they create. The below video talks about the “Four Hoursemen of the Aplocalypse.”



Creative a Positive Climate: Cognitive and Behavioral Skills

Cognitive skills involve thinking about others and behavioral skills involve actionable things we can actually say and do.



You may have heard empathy defined as the ability to (metaphorically) “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” to feel what another may be feeling. This description is technically accurate on one level, but empathy is actually more complex. Our human capacity for empathy has three levels: cognitive, affective, and compassionate.

The first is cognitive and involves more thinking than feeling. A more appropriate metaphor for this level is “putting on someone else’s perception glasses,” to attempt to view a situation in the way someone else might view it. It requires thinking about someone else’s thinking, considering factors that make up someone’s unique perceptual schema, and trying to view a situation through that lens. For example, employees don’t always view things the way managers do. A good manager can see through employee glasses and anticipate how workplace actions, decisions, and/or messages may be interpreted.

The second level is affective, or emotional, and involves attempting to feel the emotions of others. The “shoes” metaphor fits best for this level. Attempting to truly feel what other humans feel requires envisioning exactly what they might be going through in their lives. Doing so effectively might even require “taking off your own shoes.” For example, to empathize with a complaining customer, we can temporarily put our own needs aside, and really picture what it would feel like to be the customer experiencing the problem situation. Your own need might be to take care of the complaint quickly so you can go to lunch. Yet, if it were you in the problem situation, you would likely want someone to be warm, attentive, and supportive, and take the time needed to solve the problem.

This level of empathy is often confused with sympathy, something with which you are probably already very familiar. The two are related but are not the same. Feeling sympathy means feeling bad for or sorry about something another person might be going through, but understanding and feeling it from your own perspective, through your own perception glasses, and in your own shoes. We all recognize that losing a pet is likely to be devastating for someone. We, therefore, feel sympathy for our friend because their dog died. However, feeling empathy requires making an effort to see the situation through their glasses and shoes. What this means is that we consider how they may see and feel the situation differently from us. For instance, we may have experienced many pet losses and even human losses in our life, so yet another pet loss may not feel that significant to us. But, if this is your friend’s first significant loss, they may likely feel more devastation than we would. We can respond more appropriately and with more warmth by letting go of our own perspective and attempting to see and feel the situation as they might. Another way to distinguish between sympathy and empathy is by seeing sympathy as “feeling for…” (as in feeling sorry for or feeling compassion for another person) and empathy as “feeling with…” as in actually feeling the emotions of another person.

The third level of empathy is the compassionate concern for the well-being of our fellow humans (Goleman, 2006). Feeling empathy at this level motivates us to act compassionately in the interest of others. Examples may include dropping off a casserole for a grieving friend, taking some of your coworker’s calls when they are especially busy or stressed, or organizing a neighborhood clean-up. With this level of empathy, we sense what people need and feel compelled to help. Most of us are usually able to empathize at this level with people who are important to us.

Strategies for Building Empathy

While empathy comes more naturally for some people than others, it is a skill that can be developed (Goleman, 2006) with a greater awareness of and attention to the perception process. Remember that perception is unique to each person. We all interpret and judge the world through our own set of perception glasses that are framed by factors such as upbringing, family background, ethnicity, age, attitude, knowledge of person and situation, past experiences, amount of exposure to others, social roles, etc.

Below addresses specific ways to build our empathy muscles. The strategies fall into two categories: adding information to the rims of our perception glasses and bringing attention to the perception process itself.

Add more information to our perception glasses

In order to add more information to our perception glasses, we need to find out what we can about a situation or person with whom we are seeking to understand and empathize. We can do this by:

  • Taking in information: When we observe, listen, question, perception check, paraphrase, and pay attention to nonverbals and feelings, we take information in rather than putting information out (e.g., listening more and talking less).
  • Broaden or narrow our perspective: Sometimes we feel stuck, allowing one interaction with one person to become all-consuming. If we remember how big the world is and how many people are dealing with similar situations right now, we gain perspective that helps us see the situation in a different way. On the other hand, sometimes we generalize too broadly, seeing an entire group of people in one way, or assuming all things are bad at our workplace. Focusing on one person or one situation at a time is another way to helpfully shift perspectives.
  • Imagine or seek stories and info (through books, films, articles, and technology): We can learn and imagine what people’s lives are really like by reading, watching, or listening to the stories of others.
  • Seek out actual experiences to help us understand what it’s like to be in others’ shoes: We can do something experiential like a ride-along with a police officer or spend a day on the streets to really try to feel what it’s like to be in a situation in which we are not familiar.

Bring attention to the perception process

Pull down your own perception glasses and try on a pair of someone else’s. Thinking about our thinking is a process called metacognition. By turning our attention toward the way we perceive information and how that perception makes us feel. What factors make up the rims of our glasses and how do these factors shape our perspectives, thoughts, feelings, and actions? Consider what makes another person unique, and what rim factors may influence the person’s perspectives and feelings. We should try to see the situation through those glasses, inferring how unique perceptual schemas might shape the others person’s emotions and actions too. Remember, though, we can never be certain how or why people do what they do. Only they know for sure. But communication can be more effective if we at least give some type of speculative forethought before we act or react. And when in doubt, we can always ask.


Metacommunication requires mindfully elevating awareness beyond the content level of communication, but also requires us to actually discuss things such as needs and relational messages aloud. Metacommunication literally means communicating about communication, and occurs when we talk to each other about any part of the communication process, including what is said or done, how it is interpreted, how we feel, and what we wish had been said or done, etc. For example, metacommunication occurs anytime you say “I feel frustrated when you interrupt me,” or “I wish you’d have asked me before you made that decision.” Other forms of metacommunication bring relational messages and social needs right to the surface level for discussion. For example, if you said “when you brought that up in front of my friends, I felt embarrassed and undignified,” or “when I don’t hear from you, It makes me think we are not connected.”

Metacommunication can involve any of the skills we’ve learned so far (“I” messages, perception checking, etc.) and can be used deliberately to address our own wants, needs, or to clarify our intentions when something we’ve expressed may have been ill-received. Scholar and speaker Brene Brown recommends using phrases such as “the story I’m making up about this is…” to explain the way we perceived something and “help me better understand” as a form of listening to understand how another person may have perceived something. Metacommunication can help us in the middle of interactions to clarify and prevent misunderstandings as we both send and receive messages. For example, if you notice someone reacting in a way you didn’t intend, you can ask about it (“how are you feeling right now? What are you hearing me say?”) or you can clarify your intent and adjust (“My intent was not for you to feel disrespected. How can I say this differently so that you hear my respect for you?”). We can also respond to the cold relational messages of others with “When you say it that way, I hear not only what you’re saying but an extra message that you don’t think I’m capable” or “not giving me options leaves me feeling boxed in and I really want to feel more freedom in this relationship.”

Reflective Communication: Mindfulness

The word mindfulness refers to “paying attention on purpose,” and has many uses in personal and work life. For interpersonal communication purposes, mindfulness relates to becoming more conscious of how we encode and decode messages. We can better meet our communication goals with increased awareness of how communication carries relational subtexts, how those subtexts may be perceived to meet (or not meet) social needs, and how those perceptions might result in a warm or cold emotional temperature. As with all communication competence skills, awareness helps us shift from a habitual or automatic state of being and thinking to a mindful and thoughtful state where we put more effort, attention and forethought into what we hope to accomplish and why.

Becoming mindful of climate means increasing awareness of the needs of self and others before, during, and after interactions. It requires reflecting on of our own desires, thought processes and emotional reactions, and with applied forethought, thinking about and speculating about those of others. Learning about relational messages and social needs gives us access to a greater variety of perceptual frameworks through which to view communication (e.g., how might this message be received by others?). It also requires that during interactions we observe, reflect on, and attend to others’ emotional reactions and shift gears midstream if necessary. For example, if mid-interaction we observe a person’s outward response that seems to indicate embarrassment, shame, agitation or defensiveness, we can adjust our behavior or discuss and clarify our intent. We may even take notice of an interaction after it occurred, reviewing it and considering how well it went or how we might do better next time. Through awareness, reflection, mindfulness we can build a cognitively complex repertoire of skill, knowledge, and motivation that helps us engage in a skillful dance of communication that attempts to honor social needs.

Climate-centered message planning

Climate-Centered Message Planning (CCMP) is a term coined by Gerber and Murphy (2019). CCMP refers to the conscious encoding (planning and forethought) involved in meeting communication goals. CCMP requires two steps and takes the basics of empathy a bit further into message construction. The steps include:

  1. Think about what we want to say or do. What is our goal? What outcome(s) do we hope to achieve? What message or behaviors are we considering? What needs do we hope to fulfill? What emotional temperature do we hope to create? Which behaviors or message strategies will help us achieve it?
  2. Think about how the other person (or persons) might hear (or perceive) what we say. Here, we should put on their perception glasses and consider as many factors as possible that affect how the person might see and feel our message. We should think about whether the message is likely to be perceived and received as intended. If not, rethink what we want to say so that they will be more likely to hear what you want them to hear (so a person is more likely to interpret your messages as you intend it to be interpreted).

Remember once again, we can never completely ensure that someone “hears what we want them to hear” (interprets what we intended). However, with some awareness and forethought, we can ensure there’s a better chance of it. CCMP also helps us with better awareness of how what we say and how we say it may impact another person’s relational or face needs. Our consideration of what human beings “need” will help us infer how they might react to messages emotionally, intellectually, or relationally. Doing so helps us communicate more effectively and appropriately whatever our goal may be.


Key Takeaways

  1. Communication climate influences our interactions.
  2. Confirming and supporting messages can create positive communication cliamtes.
  3. Disconfirming and defensive messages can create negative communication climates.
  4. Empathy, thoughtful communication, and reflection can help us to create positive communication climates.


References and Licensing

6.1 Self-Disclosure & Communication Climate by Department of Communication, Indiana State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Gerber, P. J., & Murphy, H. (2021, September 6). Frameworks for Identifying Types of Climate Messages. Central New Mexico Community College. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/114785


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Relationship Dynamics Copyright © 2021 by Maricopa Community College District is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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