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Transactional Communication with Fractal Thinking
Three Communication Models
A lesson describing the evolution of communication models from a one-way linear model of Aristotle and Claude Shannon, to the Interaction and transactional model of Schramm and Berlo, to the new Iterative Fractal Models. Updated March 3, 2024

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July 31, 2023

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This lesson will describe three communication models we need to understand. They represent an evolution of our understanding of how we communicate, why we communicate, and how to ensure we have the best communication.

Two of the three communication models are old and would be considered standard in any communications textbook. The third is new and is my addition to the other.

The first model was proposed by Aristotle, all the back to the beginning of writing. It was enhanced by Claude Shannon in the middle of the 20th Century.

transmission, interaction, and transaction models.

These models are not different models, rather they are an evolution. One builds on the other and all contain the same original elements of the model that came before it.

The first group of models, the linear models, contained participants, messages, encoding, decoding, and channels. Claude Shannon’s model added noise.

The next group of models the “Interaction” models added interaction between the parties of the communication driven by feedback. Where the linear models were simple one-way models, the interaction models were complex and dynamic. This group of models retained all the linear model elements and added “feedback” and “new message.”

The last group of models, the “iterative” use all the same elements as previous models and adds “time.” Communication is view as movement to a goal over time. The iterational models use “fractal thinking” as the basis for measuring communication effectiveness over time.

The Transmission Model of Communication

The transmission model of communication describes communication as a linear, one-way process in which a sender intentionally transmits a message to a receiver (Ellis & McClintock, 1990).

This model focuses on the sender and message within a communication encounter.

Although the receiver is included in the model, this role is viewed as more of a target or end point rather than part of an ongoing process.

We are left to presume that the receiver either successfully receives and understands the message or does not.

The scholars who designed this model extended on a linear model proposed by Aristotle centuries before that included a speaker, message, and hearer.

They were also influenced by the advent and spread of new communication technologies of the time such as telegraphy and radio, and you can probably see these technical influences within the model (Shannon & Weaver, 1949).

Think of how a radio message is sent from a person in the radio studio to you listening in your car. The sender is the radio announcer who encodes a verbal message that is transmitted by a radio tower through electromagnetic waves (the channel) and eventually reaches your (the receiver’s) ears via an antenna and speakers in order to be decoded. The radio announcer doesn’t really know if you receive his or her message or not, but if the equipment is working and the channel is free of static, then there is a good chance that the message was successfully received.

Since this model is sender and message-focused, responsibility is put on the sender to help ensure the message is successfully conveyed.

This model emphasizes clarity and effectiveness, but it also acknowledges that there are barriers to effective communication.

Noise is anything that interferes with a message being sent between participants in a communication encounter.

Even if a speaker sends a clear message, noise may interfere with a message being accurately received and decoded.

The transmission model of communication accounts for environmental and semantic noise. 

Environmental noise is any physical noise present in a communication encounter.

Other people talking in a crowded diner could interfere with your ability to transmit a message and have it successfully decoded.

While environmental noise interferes with the transmission of the message, semantic noise refers to noise that occurs in the encoding and decoding process when participants do not understand a symbol.

Semantic noise can also interfere with communication between people speaking the same language because many words have multiple or unfamiliar meanings.

Think of text messaging for example. The transmission model of communication is well suited for describing the act of text messaging since the sender isn’t sure that the meaning was effectively conveyed or that the message was received at all.

Noise can also interfere with the transmission of a text. If you use an abbreviation the receiver doesn’t know or the phone autocorrects to something completely different than you meant, then semantic noise has interfered with the message transmission.

Transactional Communication Model

The transactional communication model adds “SYSTEM” thinking to the one-way linear model.

The transactional model describes communication as a process, or system, in which participants alternate positions as sender and receiver and generate meaning by sending messages and receiving feedback within physical and psychological contexts (Schramm, 1997).

Rather than illustrating communication as a linear, one-way process, the transactional model incorporates feedback, which makes communication a more interactive, two-way process. 

Feedback includes messages sent in response to other messages.

The inclusion of a feedback loop also leads to a more complex understanding of the roles of participants in a communication encounter.

Rather than having one sender, one message, and one receiver, this model has two, or more sender-receivers who exchange messages.

Each participant alternates roles as sender and receiver in order to keep a communication process going.

Although sometimes this transactional process can be a conscious deliberate process, there is actually a lot going on without conscious thought.

A key to this model is that it suggests there are many messages being sent at one time and how the parties to the communication understand those messages affects the effectiveness of the communication.

Some messages are also unintentionally sent. Therefore, communication isn’t judged effective or ineffective based on the aggregate effect, not on whether or not a single message was successfully transmitted and received.

Transactional Communication Model 8-11-22

The transational model takes physical and psychological context into account.

Physical context includes the environmental factors in a communication encounter. The size, layout, temperature, and lighting of a space influence our communication. Imagine the different physical contexts in which job interviews take place and how that may affect your communication.

Psychological context includes the mental and emotional factors in a communication encounter. Stress, anxiety, and emotions are just some examples of psychological influences that can affect our communication.

Feedback and context help make the transactional model a more useful illustration of the communication process.

Social Context

Social Context refers to the stated rules or unstated norms that guide communication.

As we are socialized into our various communities, we learn rules and implicitly pick up on norms for communicating.

Some common rules that influence social contexts include don’t lie to people, don’t interrupt people, don’t pass people in line, greet people when they greet you, thank people when they pay you a compliment, and so on. Parents and teachers often explicitly convey these rules to their children or students.

Rules may be stated over and over, and there may be punishment for not following them.

Norms are social conventions that we pick up on through observation, practice, and trial and error.

Relational Context

Relational context includes the previous interpersonal history and type of relationship we have with a person.

We communicate differently with someone we just met versus someone we’ve known for a long time. Initial interactions with people tend to be more highly scripted and governed by established norms and rules, but when we have an established relational context, we may be able to bend or break social norms and rules more easily.

Since communication norms and rules also vary based on the type of relationship people have, relationship type is also included in relational context.

For example, there are certain communication rules and norms that apply to a supervisor-supervisee relationship that don’t apply to a brother-sister relationship and vice versa. Just as social norms and relational history influence how we communicate, so does culture.

Cultural Context

Cultural context includes various aspects of identities such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and ability.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have multiple cultural identities that influence our communication.

Some people, especially those with identities that have been historically marginalized, are regularly aware of how their cultural identities influence their communication and influence how others communicate with them.

Conversely, people with identities that are dominant or in the majority may rarely, if ever, think about the role their cultural identities play in their communication.

Cultural context is influenced by numerous aspects of our identities and is not limited to race or ethnicity.

When cultural context comes to the forefront of a communication encounter, it can be difficult to manage. Since intercultural communication creates uncertainty, it can deter people from communicating across cultures or lead people to view intercultural communication as negative.

But if you avoid communicating across cultural identities, you will likely not get more comfortable or competent as a communicator.

While you may be able to identify some aspects of the cultural context within a communication encounter, there may also be cultural influences that you can’t see.

A competent communicator shouldn’t assume to know all the cultural contexts a person brings to an encounter, since not all cultural identities are visible.

As with the other contexts, it requires skill to adapt to shifting contexts, and the best way to develop these skills is through practice and reflection.

Linguistic Context

Linguistic context is closely related to Cultural context.

Linguistic context notes the influences of the specific language we use. This most obvious in technical contexts where there exists a lot of “jargon.”

The linguistic context is heavely intertwinded with the cultural context. The important point is the linguistic context can help illuminate the cultural context.

Iterative Communication Model

The iterative communication model adds the dimension of “TIME” and “MOVEMENT TOWARD A GOAL” to the existing communication model.

Transactional Communication with Fractal Thinking

Using the fractal model, you can see communication happens over time.

It’s iteration one on top of the other. This is where fractal math fits perfectly.

An excellent example of fractals is the Mandelbrot set.

Mandelbrot Set
Mandelbrot Set

It uses the equation:

Based on this formula I’ve come up with a Communication formula.

Fractals provide a predictive model of iterative stability. And Feedback is the new starting point for the iterative Fractal Model.

Fractal Communication Formula

f(e)x+1 =eC((t+i)-n)x + Starting Point

f = Feedback, Fractal, Function
e = Efficiency as measured by the distance to the Endpoint (or Goal)
C = Communication = ((t+i)-n) – ((Technical Value of the Communication + Information Value of the Communication) – Noise)
x=Iteration

In words, this would be:

“Fractals” describe the chances of reaching our goals

Reaching our Goals are dependent on our Communication Efficiency. 

Our Communication Efficiency is based on our ability to maximize our technical and informational aspects of communication and minimize the noise in our communication.

I’ve come up with a fractal communication formula where the function of the communication is to achieve a goal.

Communication efficiency is measured by how each iteration moves closer or further to the goal.

Summary

Communication models are not complex enough to truly capture all that takes place in a communication encounter, but they can help us examine the various steps in the process in order to better understand our communication and the communication of others.

Each model is an evolution adding a better understanding of what communication is and what communication does.

The transmission model views communication as a thing, like an information packet, that is sent from one place to another. From this view, communication is defined as sending and receiving messages.

The interaction model views communication as an interaction in which a message is sent and then followed by a reaction (feedback), which is then followed by another reaction, and so on.

From this view, communication is defined as producing conversations and interactions within physical and psychological contexts.

The Iterative Fractal Communication model views communication over time and its usefullness moving the communicators toward some goal.

References

Barnlund, D. C., “A Transactional Model of Communication,” in Foundations of Communication Theory, eds. Kenneth K. Sereno and C. David Mortensen (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1970), 83–92.

Ellis, R. and Ann McClintock, You Take My Meaning: Theory into Practice in Human Communication (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), 71.

Schramm, W., The Beginnings of Communication Study in America (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).

Shannon, C. and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949), 16.

Thurlow, C., Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic, Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet (London: Sage, 2004), 14.

https://atlantisschoolofcommunication.org/communications-foundations/communication-models/communication-models-list/

https://atlantisschoolofcommunication.org/communications-foundations/history-of-communication-models/