The current communication skill categories are not helpful

17 Jan 2022

Communication skills are often grouped together into categories. The thing is, the normal communication skill categories are not helpful. In this article, I explain what’s wrong with the current communication skill categories and propose a new approach.

The current categories are not logical

The most commonly used categories of communication skills are:

  • Verbal
  • Non-verbal
  • Written
  • Interpersonal

The biggest problem with this list is the overlap between the categories. For example, written skills are also a type of non-verbal skill. And interpersonal skills include verbal and non-verbal skills.

Some skills clearly belong to one group or another, for example tone of voice is obviously a verbal skill.

But there are many communication skills that fit into more than one category. Public speaking is described as a communication skill, but to be a good public speaker required verbal and non-verbal skills.

This contradiction shows the current categories are not fit for purpose. It doesn’t make logical sense to have a skill be a subset of of two categories while also need skills from both categories.

The current categories make it harder to improve communication skills

The problem with the current categories goes beyond the issue of logic. The categories make it harder for someone to improve their communication skills. If we try to learn communication skills using the common categories, we don’t have a clear goal.  I mean, do you think verbal communication a clearly defined goal?

We learn skills because we want to solve a problem or achieve a goal. We also learn skills for fun. Non-verbal communication isn’t a problem, nor it is a goal. I’m also pretty sure non-verbal communication doesn’t score high on the fun scale. We want to improve our communication skills for the following reasons:

  1. To make situations easier. For example, to be more comfortable when presenting, or make difficult conversation less difficult.
  2. To achieve specific outcomes. For example, to persuade others to support our ideas, or write shorter emails.

By doing these two things we can do things like make our jobs easier and can improve our career options.

Communication skills should be listed by situation and outcome

Instead of grouping skills by category, it makes more sense to group skills by communication situation and desired outcome. For example, public speaking is a situation we find ourselves in and the desired outcome is a successful speech. Similarly, presenting is a situation and the delivered presentation is the outcome. Finally, difficult conversations are situations for which we want to achieve specific outcomes.

Grouping skills by situation would change how we search for and learn communication skills. We would no longer look at lists of non-verbal skills and try to work out which ones will help improve our communication at work. Instead, we would look for the situation we want to have better communication and find the list of specific skills that help in that situation.

  • Stop thinking ‘I need to improve my communication skills so it is easier to present’
  • Start thinking ‘I want to present better and these are the specific skills I need to improve’

An example of the new approach

Instead of verbal, non-verbal, and so on, communication skills should be listed for these situations:

  • Presenting
  • Difficult conversations
  • Writing emails
  • Phone calls
  • Facilitating meetings
  • Giving feedback

Each situation would have a list of communication skills necessary to have a good outcome. you can see more examples in my list of communication skills you need at work.

Situation = Presentations.

Desired outcome = Approval for a new idea.

Skills required:

  • Getting to the point
  • Creating a clear summary
  • Logical thinking
  • Understanding the audience
  • Identifying what’s most important
  • Knowing when to stop
  • Jargon-free communication
  • Using visual aids
  • Controlling the voice
  • Answering questions

There are more skills that could be added to the list, but these are enough for the example. The skills on this list are specific and obviously support the desired outcome.


The current categories of communication skill are no longer fit for purpose. There is some value in knowing if a skill is verbal or non-verbal, but it doesn’t help us pick the skills to learn. To improve our communication, it is best to focus on a specific situation. Then learn the skills needed to get the outcome you want.

It’s time for new communication skill categories.