Structure of Interaction – A Model

Models are simplified representations of complex processes. Different models are useful in illuminating different principles. The pragmatic model of interpersonal communication below highlights principles not addressed by the transactional model in typical communication textbooks. One model is not necessarily more correct than the other; they are just useful in different ways.


The pragmatic model emphasizes the creative and motivational characteristics of human interaction. Communication is creative in two senses of the term:

  1. The history of interaction between people forms the pattern of relationships and the sense of individual behavior which we refer to as self-concept. Interpersonal communication modifies these as time passes.
  2. The dialogue which is created when two or more people interact is unique in many ways. While using a common language and underlying structure, the participants collaborate to produce an infinite number of different dialogues throughout their lifetimes. Talking with someone is like an improvisational dance or musical jam session, and at its best, it is just as marvelous and enjoyable.

The pragmatic model shows that communication is motivated. We communicate to achieve purposes, whether or not we are conscious of these purposes. The model above shows two people, each responding to the other based on the nature of their experience which includes the following parts:

  1. Observation refers to the processes by which we recognize information coming through our five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. In communicating, we observe not only what others are saying and how they are behaving, but also features of the environment and other events which are unfolding.
  2. Meaning refers to the interpretations and judgments we form using our processes of thought. Observations do not remain as simple recognition of what is happening around us. A smile on somebody’s face may mean that she enjoys our company or that he is mocking a mistake that we have just made. We might judge the person as friendly or vicious.
  3. Affect refers to the feeling, emotion, and mood which we bring to a situation and which are aroused by the meanings which we create from observations. We may feel happy when we see a friendly smile, but hostile when we see one which we consider mocking.
  4. Motive refers to the wants, needs, desires, and intent which we bring to situations or which are aroused by events. We need and want many things, some of which are not compatible in an immediate situation. For example, the intent to “tell somebody off” may interfere with attaining the desire “avoid a scene.”
  5. Action refers to the behavior we engage in, including talk, of course, and the results of our actions which others can observe in the present. In this sense, action is not always movement. A stare may be an absence of movement, but it can communicate many things. The clothes we choose to wear and the way we arrange our environment are also actions which communicate.

The box in the center of the model indicates the immediate moment in which events take place. The shaded box on the left indicates the past, while the shaded arrowhead on the right indicates the future. A sequence of motivated dialogue will have consequences:

  1. Short and long term effects will occur as a result of communicating. We may obtain very immediate effects: the pleasure of an interesting conversation; the angry attack of an offended person; an apology for thoughtless behavior; or something very concrete like a dinner order. Long term, we may achieve such things as gaining another person’s trust, making a fortune, or staying married until death parts us.
  2. The patterns of interaction established over time will provide expectations for the future communication between the members of relationships. We can anticipate how others will act, and we can select appropriate and effective behavior for future situations.