What Is The Transactional Model Of Communication? Transactional Model Of Communication In A Nutshell

The transactional model of communication describes communication as a two-way, interactive process within social, relational, and cultural contexts. The transactional model of communication is best exemplified by two models. Barnlund’s model describes communication as a complex, multi-layered process where the feedback from the sender becomes the message for the receiver. Dance’s helical model is another example, which suggests communication is continuous, dynamic, evolutionary, and non-linear.

Understanding the transactional model of communication

The transactional model of communication differs from other models in the way it conceptualizes the flow of information and makes allowances for context.

While other communication models describe communication between a sender and a receiver who alternate roles, the transactional model defines each person as a communicator who embodies both roles simultaneously.

In a job interview, for example, a candidate may exchange a formal greeting to the panel and introduce themselves. But before the candidate has even finished speaking, the panel is already reacting to them via body language and gestures. In other words, the panel is receiving a message and sending one back at the same time. 

Similarly, the candidate is reading the body language and gesturing of the panel to gauge their reaction and determine what to do or say next. The most adept communicators can adapt their message mid-sentence according to the non-verbal messages the receiver is sending.

The role of context in transactional communication

The transactional model of communication also considers communication as a force that shapes the realities of each communicator. Indeed, these realities are shaped before and after a specific interaction occurs according to three, specific contexts:

  1. Relational – the relational context includes the interpersonal history and type of relationship a person has with another person. For example, two old friends communicate differently than the job candidate meeting a selection panel. These interactions will be different again to the relational context of a nurse treating patients, who must use professional but polite and empathetic communication. 
  2. Cultural – including various aspects of identity such as ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender, class, and ability. Individuals whose identities have been culturally repressed may find that their communication style has been altered to suit. However, the transactional model also suggests that some cultural influences will be much harder to identify during communication.
  3. Social – or the stated (or unstated) rules and norms that govern the communication process. These include apologizing for mistakes, smiling, saying thank you, and being respectful of elders, among many other norms. Most people learn these rules by trial and error, practice, and observation. Each strategy is supported by the communicator simultaneously embodying the role of sender and receiver.

Transactional model of communication examples

Barnlund’s transactional model

Barnlund’s transactional communication was first proposed in 1970 by theorist and researcher Dean Barnlund. 

Barnlund’s model is a complex, multi-layered feedback system where messages are passed back and forth with feedback provided by both parties. 

Though Barnlund does not use the term “communicator”, he nevertheless recognized that the sender and receiver swapped roles almost imperceptibly. Indeed, the feedback for one individual is the message for the other, and vice versa.

Dance’s helical model

Dance’s helical model was developed by American communication professor Frank Dance.

Dance used a helix to represent communication as a dynamic, non-linear, continuous, and evolutionary process. Essentially, the helical shape of the model describes the various communication contexts a person will encounter during their life.

Communication, Dance argues, begins from the moment we are born. Babies cry or make noise to communicate cold, hunger, or pain. This progresses to simple words, phrases, and sentences as the individual becomes a toddler and then a school-age student. A similar evolutionary process describes how two strangers meet by exchanging pleasantries and gradually progress to less formal communication as they become comfortable with one another.

Importantly, communication in both scenarios is shaped by previous experiences or behavior.

Advantages and disadvantages of transactional communication models

Let’s round off this article by taking a look at some of the main advantages and disadvantages of transactional communication models in general terms.


  • Breadth of understanding – since transaction models account for relational, social, and cultural contexts, the model enables individuals to better understand the various factors that influence communication itself. These three contexts also account for the vast majority of communication contexts, which makes the model more versatile. For example, it can easily describe the leader-subordinate dynamic or the relationships that exist between family and friends.
  • Accounts for non-verbal cues – transactional models account for non-verbal cues such as body language and gestures, which tends to make it an accurate representation of face-to-face interactions. Ultimately, the ability for one person to understand non-verbal cues and embody the sender and receiver roles simultaneously facilitates better communication. For this reason, some posit that transactional models of communication are the most accurate such interpretations.
  • See communication as evolving and complex – Dance’s model in particular is one of the few models that sees human communication as complex and evolving. While his contemporaries studied the effect of mass media radio messages or other one-way forms of communication, Dance was more interested in the evolution of non-linear communication as a function of time, familiarity, and experience.


  • Potential misunderstanding – the greatest strength of transactional communication may also be its greatest weakness. While the model does make room for a variety of contexts, it nevertheless relies on the individual to possess a basic understanding of various political, historical, and social structures. Some may call this a “worldly” attitude, which helps an individual understand the motivations that impact communication in the other without offending them or indeed being offended. Where there is not a sufficient understanding of the other person, the transactional model may only be useful in scenarios where each communicator shares a similar cultural or social background.
  • Does not account for noise – most transactional models of communication do not account for noise, which is defined as any factor that impedes the transmission and understanding of the message. However, one could argue that relational, social, and cultural contexts are a form of noise that the individual must contend with. Those who have underdeveloped social skills may also find it difficult to receive and send messages at the same time, which is itself another form of noise.
  • Does not account for non-verbal communication – transactional models also have less relevance in non-verbal forms of communication such as email, telephone, instant messaging, or radio. In other words, there is no scope to consider feedback in the communication process.
  • Relies on the active involvement of both parties – transactional communication relies on a cooperative process between the sender and receiver where each is responsible for contributing to the conversation. If one individual chooses to respond in short sentences or shows neutral or no body language, for example, it can make it difficult to maintain effective dialogue. 

Difference between interactive and transactional models of communication

Interactive models of communication see communication as a two-way process between a sender and a receiver. Feedback is given slowly and deliberately.

Transactional models, on the other hand, see communication as the same two-way process but with more immediate or simultaneous feedback. 

Understanding interactive models of communication

Interactive models of communication, sometimes known as interactional models, propose that a person is only ever a sender or a receiver. 

Wilbur Schramm, whom many consider being the founder of modern communication studies, was the first to posit that communication was a two-way process between both entities. In other words, communication moves from sender to receiver and then from the receiver to sender.

Importantly, one person under the interactive model embodies both the sender and receiver to maintain communication. But they do not embody both roles at the same time. The sender transmits a message to the receiver who then interprets the message in terms of noise and the choice of communication medium. The receiver then becomes the sender as information is transmitted as feedback.

In addition, interactive models consider two broad contexts:

  • Physical – which includes environmental contexts such as size, temperature, light levels, and layout. The communication between a nurse and a patient in a public hospital, for example, will differ from a similar interaction over a Zoom telehealth call.
  • Psychological – these are the mental and emotional factors that influence communication, such as anxiety, stress, excitement, and love.

Interactive models include the Osgood-Schramm and Westley and Maclean models.

Differences with the transactional models of communication

The transactional model of communication sees communication as the same two-way process but with much more immediate feedback.

Unlike the interactive model, where two individuals alternate between sender and receiver, one person under the transactional model can embody both roles simultaneously. As a result, both individuals are simply known as communicators and may transmit information via verbal or non-verbal cues.

The transactional model places more emphasis on a shared field of experience. Put differently, each communicator must have some aspect of their culture, language, or experience in common with the other for communication to be successful. The model also posits that individual messages are interrelated, with each connected to (or reinforcing) the last. 

Transactional models of communication include Dance’s helical model, Becker’s mosaic model, and Barnlund’s model. They are mostly used to describe complex and dynamic face-to-face conversations.

Summarizing the differences between interactive and transactional models of communication

  • Interactive models of communication see communication as a two-way process between a sender and a receiver, with feedback slow and deliberate. Transactional models also see communication as a two-way process but with one key difference: feedback is rapid and in some cases simultaneous.
  • Wilbur Schramm was the first to posit that communication was a two-way process between a sender and receiver, with each taking turns to communicate based on the feedback of the preceding message.
  • The transactional model is much more dynamic and instead categorizes the sender and receiver as a communicator. For communication to be effective, the model argues that the two individuals need to share similar values, cultures, or experiences.

Transactional communication examples

Let’s describe some hypothetical scenarios where transactional communication is common.

Buying a car

Consider the example of a consumer who walks into a car dealership to look at a car. From his office and before the two have even communicated, the salesperson can tell that the consumer is in the mood to purchase. 

He witnesses the consumer purposefully and confidently stride toward a particular car where he spends several minutes looking it over. While the two have never met before, the salesperson can sense this non-verbal body language before any verbal communication takes place.

He then walks over and introduces himself in a friendly and disarming manner. Safe in the knowledge that the consumer is motivated to buy, he resists the urge to oversell the car’s features. Up close, the salesperson determines the buyer is from an upper-middle-class background by the way he is dressed and from the elocution of his words.

As the salesperson works toward closing the sale, the consumer detects the eagerness in his facial expression at the same time. As the consumer starts to feel pressured, his tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions shift as a consequence.

Sensing the shift, the salesperson changes the subject and eventually learns that the consumer is purchasing the vehicle to accommodate a new family member. Since he has a family of his own, the salesperson can build rapport with the consumer. At the appropriate moment, he then presents the consumer with a price and warranty package he cannot refuse.

A meeting with foreign clients

In this example, the executive of a shoe company travels to Japan to establish a relationship with an international manufacturer. 

The executive’s schedule is such that he must visit the first factory the same day after an 11-hour flight, which sees him tired, anxious, and a little confrontational. Compounding his stress is the fact that his former supplier recently cut ties with the company without warning, impacting its ability to meet demand back in the United States.

After he arrives at the first factory ten minutes late, the executive can sense that the factory owners are displeased. Their body language is closed off and their initial verbal communication is somewhat curt. 

In his rush to make the appointment on time, the executive fails to consider the cultural context of communication in Japan. He forgets the customary Japanese bow and wears a suit that contradicts the country’s business dress code which favors conformity over individual expression. As he attempts to explain the reasons for his delay, he instinctively raises the tone of his voice and gesticulates excessively. 

The factory owners, whose culture values modesty, humility, and a quiet tone of voice, start to appreciate that the foreign executive is not presenting the best version of himself. They can see the pained expression on his face and subtle fidgets that signify his anxiousness.

Fortunately, one of the factory owners has dealt with foreign businessmen before and is willing to forgive the executive’s cultural transgressions. With a preference to build relationships before doing business, he allows the executive to recompose himself and start the interaction from scratch.

Key takeaways:

  • The transactional model of communication describes communication as a two-way, interactive process within social, relational, and cultural contexts.
  • The transactional model of communication suggests communication is shaped by interactions before and after it occurs. These are categorized according to relational, social, and cultural contexts. 
  • The transactional model of communication is best exemplified by two models. Barnlund’s model describes communication as a complex, multi-layered process where the feedback from the sender becomes the message for the receiver. Dance’s helical model is another example, which suggests communication is continuous, dynamic, evolutionary, and non-linear.

Connected Communicational Frameworks

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The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, and transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.
The five canons of rhetoric were first organized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his treatise De Inventione in around 84 BC. Some 150 years later, Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored each of the five canons in more depth as part of his 12-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria. The work helped the five canons become a major component of rhetorical education well into the medieval period. The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication.
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The 7Cs of communication is a set of guiding principles on effective communication skills in business, moving around seven principles for effective business communication: clear, concise, concrete, correct, complete, coherent, and courteous.

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