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:
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.
The relational context also clarifies the tone of voice and language an individual will choose.
For example, employees who converse with their co-workers at lunch do so casually with relaxed non-verbal cues and informal word choices.
However, they are unlikely to converse in this way with superiors in a performance review. In this case, non-verbal cues and word choice will be more formal, polite, and restrained.
Including various aspects of identity such as ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender, class, and ability.
It stands to reason that two individuals who share any of these cultural traits will find the communication process to be smoother.
By extension, two people from different cultures will find communication more difficult and may find that knowledge of the various disparities in advance is beneficial.
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.
They may also find that this context influences the way they communicate with others and how others communicate with them.
Cultural differences can sometimes create uncertainty and serve as perceived barriers to communication.
Nevertheless, the most skilled communicators are effective in various cultural contexts.
Since many cultural influences are invisible or not immediately obvious, they never assume they know everything there is to know about the other person in transactional communication.
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.
Social rules define how the communication process should be carried out. In Japanese culture, for example, it is customary to greet the other party with a bow.
In many parts of India, individuals join their palms in a worship pose, nod their heads, and utter the word “Namaste”.
Most people learn these rules by trial and error, practice, and observation.
Sometimes, the individual may not understand that a social norm has been broken until they receive a negative reaction in the communication process.
In some situations, however, norms may be deliberately broken. A manager may lie to a subordinate about their performance to avoid hurting their feelings, while a team of employees celebrating a milestone may interrupt others in their excitement.
Characteristics of transactional communication
Here are some of the characteristics that distinguish transactional communication from other types of communication.
Both parties in a transactional communication process embody both the sender and receiver roles simultaneously.
In other words, the receiver receives the sender’s message while also sending a message back at the same time in the form of body language or facial expression.
Once the sender has finished talking, they become the receiver and the roles are reversed. For this reason, the two parties are often referred to as communicators.
Note that the purpose of transactional communication is not to deliver a message necessarily.
In the workplace, it is used to forge relationships, build rapport, and create alliances.
This is facilitated when the two parties share (or understand) the various social, relational, and cultural contexts inherent to this model.
To enable the individual to embody the sender and receiver role simultaneously, the transactional model is one of a few that incorporates non-verbal communication.
In addition to body language and facial expression, other forms of non-verbal communication include gestures, appearance, eye gaze, haptics (touch), and paralinguistics (the loudness or tone of one’s voice).
Non-verbal communication can be the primary form of communication in some circumstances.
In a meeting where an individual provides an important project update, the audience may simply nod or smile to indicate the message was received and understood.
Since transactional communication also considers non-verbal channels, there is an increased potential for noise to enter the process.
Seemingly obvious facial expressions in one culture may be misinterpreted by another – especially in the absence of words. Indeed, by its very nature, non-verbal communication leaves a lot to interpretation.
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.
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 model of communication examples in business
Here are two more examples of how companies use the transactional model of communication.
In 2009, Domino’s Pizza found itself embroiled in a scandal after a series of videos showing unsafe food handling practices went viral. The rate at which the videos were viewed caught the company off guard and it was subsequently criticized for the slowness of its response.
As part of the response, Domino’s used the transactional model of communication to engage with customers. It created a Twitter account known as @dpzinfo where customers could share their concerns or have their questions answered by company representatives.
In this case, communication occurred mostly in the social context. The company apologized for its mistakes and was respectful of the opinions put forward. Both Dominoes and its customers embodied the sender and receiver roles simultaneously.
The Pizza Turnaround campaign
To restore its damaged reputation, Domino’s established The Pizza Turnaround campaign. Central to the campaign was a short documentary where footage of the company holding focus groups featured prominently. In one conversation, a customer noted that “Domino’s crust is like cardboard” while another complained that “microwave pizza is far superior.”
Instead of ignoring the negative comments, Domino’s engaged in constructive dialogue with customers to find out how its pizzas could be improved. Under transactional communication, the company operated under norms that dictate social contexts. It was patient with customers, encouraged them to share their complaints, and most importantly, was truthful and authentic when it later admitted its pizzas were sub-par.
Ultimately, Domino’s abandoned its existing recipes and started from scratch. The company used tastier cheeses and sauces and developed pizzas with a rich, buttery crust among other initiatives. Domino’s is now the #1 pizza chain in the United States with annual sales of $17.8 billion in 2022.
Apple’s famous “Get a Mac” campaign is an example of how the transactional model of communication can be used in marketing. First released in 2006, the campaign humanized the Mac computer and Windows PC with humorous dialogue used to encourage consumers to consider the Mac a superior option.
Each ad featured characters named Mac and PC engaged in conversation with the former listing the benefits of the Mac and the latter defending the benefits of the PC. Both were communicators who embodied the sender and receiver role simultaneously, and both touched on cultural norms and various aspects of identity to make their points.
For example, Apple positioned the Mac character as the casual, young, and trendy embodiment of Mac users. Conversely, the PC character was an old, nerdy, and drab Windows user whom many believed resembled Bill Gates. These personas played on prominent cultural disparities between the typical users of both companies and influenced the way Apple used transactional communication to position its brand.
In other videos, including one titled “Viruses”, the Mac character shows empathy (to some extent) for its PC competitor as it comes down with a virus. The ad then mentions that Windows is exposed to over 114,000 known viruses that don’t affect the Mac, which thus draws attention to Apple as a company that empathizes with customer concerns over safety and security.
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.
Since palliative care is a shared experience for both the healthcare professional and the patient, models of communication that emphasize asymmetrical or one-way communication are inadequate.
These models consider information to be a commodity where information is provided by someone in the know to someone else who is less informed.
This form of communication, which had been a staple in the healthcare industry for decades, tends to create a power imbalance.
Healthcare professionals are assumed to hold more information than the patient and are often given free rein to set the tone and define the terms of the interaction.
In one study, it was found that three-quarters of physicians interrupted their patient’s initial concerns within 16.5 seconds.
The conclusion of other studies paints the same picture, with many academics noting that it was an ineffective communication method in healthcare and particularly so for palliative care.
Instead, a more effective form of communication is a transactional model where the balance of power is more evenly distributed.
Transactional communication in palliative care
While many patients are quick to defer to the expertise a healthcare professional, palliative care relies more on the professional’s ability to show compassion, understanding, and empathy.
To that end, transactional communication takes a palliative care nurse beyond tangible “book smarts” toward a more rewarding relationship that may be outside their comfort zone.
During palliative care, transactional communication has several benefits:
- Equitable power distribution – transaction communication minimizes status differences. Patients’ spouses are considered to be as influential in healthcare treatment as the physician, which increases patient satisfaction. Indeed, studies have shown that patients are less stressed when their loved ones are actively involved in their care with free and open communication.
- Physician sensitivity – professionals who use transactional communication learn to be more attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues exhibited by the patient. The most sensitive physicians adjust their words and actions based on how they’re received. They also ask for feedback, observe feedback cues, and practice active listening.
- Appreciation for context – inherent to the model of transaction communication is an appreciation of how different environmental, social, and cultural contexts impact the ways in which messages are interpreted. It was noted that while many cultures found silence awkward during palliative care, some such as those with a Native American background found silence comforting. Among other things, culture also influenced attitudes toward death, definitions of family, and beliefs around spiritualism.
Transactional communication and noise
As one might expect in a palliative care setting, there are numerous sources of noise in the communication process. These sources include past experiences, emotions, physical distractions, pain, personality, family members, and difficulties seeing or hearing.
These are all factors that can interfere with mutual understanding of the messages that are sent and received.
However, the transactional model here does not advocate that noise be minimized or eradicated entirely.
Physicians and their patients instead accept the potential for misunderstanding and find unique ways to communicate based on emotion, respect, sensitivity, empathy, and presence at all times.
Transactional model of communication examples in business
Here are some of the myriad ways the transactional model communication is present in business contexts.
In a negotiation, the discussion between two parties tends to be stable, predictable, and dictated by rules or norms considered culturally acceptable.
The negotiation process relies on transactional communication to trade or exchange ideas, points of view, and items of value. It facilitates the discussion of perspectives and ideas that in turn shape the common ground upon which a successful negotiation is based.
As each party works toward securing a favorable outcome, they decode the sent message and subtle behavioral cues of the other party to determine their intentions.
They then exhibit subtle behavior themselves and encode a message that may provide some clarity on their BATNA or WATNA, for example.
The communication process may be influenced by relational contexts. In other words, the two parties may be well known to each other and have a history of arriving at successful outcomes in the past.
In this case, the negotiation may be slightly less formal than a meeting that occurs between two parties for the first time.
But, in any case, the purpose of transactional communication in a negotiation is to convince, persuade, or alter the perceptions of the other party to secure the best deal.
Employee resource groups
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are employee-managed groups whose primary objective is to foster an inclusive and diverse workplace within their respective organizations.
ERGs usually coalesce around certain characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, lifestyle, or religious affiliation. In the transactional model of communication, the context we are most interested in is the cultural context.
To explain why this should be the case, note that culture itself was responsible for the formation of ERGs.
Indeed, the first such group was created at Xerox in the 1960s when black workers organized to discuss issues that impacted them in the workplace.
These discussions were precipitated by racial tensions near where Xerox was headquartered and also the civil rights movement of the time.
While we can never be certain, ERGs likely owe their existence to at least two black workers who started a conversation because they were from the same cultural group.
Once the first ERG was established at Xerox, employees were able to hold meetings where members were invited to share their experiences and advocate for change within the company.
In the decades since, employee resource groups for other cultures, ethnicities, and religions have been started in a similar fashion and for similar reasons.
All ERGs, however, stay true to the principles of the transactional model of communication.
These groups are self-governing and communication is effective since each member holds similar beliefs and values.
The social context of transactional communication is also relevant to ERGs.
Many employees, who feel unable to express themselves in society because of certain values or norms, join ERGs to communicate with like-minded individuals in a safe and supportive community.
Transactional model of communication vs. Linear model
The linear model of communication is a one-way model where a sender encodes a message and transmits it to a receiver via a communication channel.
The receiver, on the other side, decodes the message, thus providing a response.
The linear model is often used to explain how information is transmitted through various forms of media, such as radio or television.
That is an effective tool for understanding technical media of communication, but contrary to the transactional model, it doesn’t take into account the two-ways interpersonal relationships between sender and receiver and the context.
Transactional model of communication vs. Shannon weaver
Where the transactional model of communication emphasizes it is a two-way process between sender and receiver by taking into account the context in which communication occurs.
The Shannon-Weaver model of communication – developed in the 1950s by mathematician Claude Shannon and scientist Warren Weaver – emphasizes communication as a one-way process where the sender’s message is encoded and transmitted to a receiver through a channel.
Then, the receiver decodes the message, thus providing a response.
In short, where the Shannon-Weaver model is useful for a technical understanding of communication media, but that does not take into – like the transactional model of communication – interpersonal and contextual factors that are critical in human communications.
- 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.
Read Next: Lasswell Communication Model, Linear Model Of Communication.
What is an example of transactional model of communication?
Take the case of a salesperson with a consumer who walks into a car dealership to look at a car, and the salesperson can infer already, from body language, whether the consumer is interested or not. Or take other cases where noise in the communication can affect it, like in in-person or virtual meetings where participants might verbally express their ideas and yet misunderstand each other.
What are the 5 parts of the transactional communication model?
A transactional model of communication can have various elements. A linear communication model also called the Shannon-Weaver model, developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, consists of six components: sender, encoder, channel, noise, decoder, and receiver.
Why is transactional model important?
Compared to another linear communication model, the transactional model of communication enables to factor in context, thus giving a more comprehensive understanding of communication flows.
Connected Communication Models
Aristotle’s Model of Communication
Helical Model of Communication
Transactional Model of Communication
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