Linear communication is a model of communication in which the communication process does not include feedback, or the feedback is quite delayed. In order to fully understand linear communication, we need to also understand the communication process, channels of communication and the other models of communication.

It's also helpful to consider how linear communication may be used in business settings, and why it may not be the most effective mode to choose.

What Is the Communication Process?

Every single time we communicate information, we follow a process. Of course, all of these steps happen very quickly and naturally, without us having to think about them. But if you do stop to think about them, you can identify each of the following phases:

  1. Encoding Information: You, the sender, have an idea of something you want to communicate. It could be a complex idea, like telling someone the date of an event. Or it could be something relatively simple, like expressing joy. Understanding what you want to communicate is called encoding. 
  2. Channel of Communication: Now that you know what you want to express, you need to pick a way to send it to the recipient. Will you say it out loud? Write it down? Give someone a hug? You decide what to do and then do it.
  3. Receipt of Information: Now it's over to the recipient's senses of sight, hearing or touch to receive the information you sent. If you write something down but the recipient doesn't have their reading glasses, the communication process comes to a stop here because the information was never received. 
  4. Decoding Information: The recipient's brain needs to unpack the information you sent. Here's where communication can get tricky: the recipient will not always understand the information the same way you did. They will decode it based on their previous experiences, culture, environment and other factors. 
  5. Sending Feedback: This step in the communication process is optional, and as we'll see below, its presence is the determining factor in defining a linear conversation. In this step, the recipient begins the communication process all over again; they become the sender by encoding their feedback, choosing a channel of communication and sending it. 

Next, it's helpful to understand the myriad channels of communication available to us for this process.

What Are the Different Channels of Communication?

We are hardwired from birth to be receptive to physical, verbal and visual communication, and our understanding of the nuances of each gesture and word become more refined as we socialize throughout our lives.

  • Verbal communication: This denotes communication received through our auditory system. Spoken language is just one example of verbal communication. We also make sounds, like grunts and sighs, that communicate information like displeasure or fatigue. We can also use artificial sounds to send information, like sirens to warn about tornadoes or ringtones to tell us to pick up our phones. 
  • Visual communication: Sign language is an organized way of communicating complex ideas without words, but we use our eyes to receive other forms of visual communication too. Body language can tell other people that we're feeling nervous, confident, tired, flirtatious and more. We even send signals based on the clothes we wear about things like authority (i.e., security uniforms), respect (i.e., wearing black to a funeral), preferences (i.e., name-brand clothes) or lifestyle (i.e., work boots). And let's not forget written words: these are processed through our sense of sight and thus are a form of visual communication.
  • Physical communication: This type of communication is transmitted and received through our sense of touch. We can use physical gestures like gentle hugs to send messages of love and support. But we can also send intimidating or hurtful messages through painful physical touch, like getting into an altercation with someone. Holding hands, patting someone on the back or giving a high-five all send different messages in a physical way. And because the information is processed through one's sense of touch, Braille also constitutes physical communication. 

Note that the other two senses, taste and smell, are not common communication methods among people. Interestingly enough, scent is still a powerful way for animals to communicate with their superior sense of smell. As humans, our language skills take precedence as our more sophisticated way of communication.

What Are the Three Models of Communication?

We can now combine our knowledge of the communication process and the various communication channels to understand models of communication.

But scholars have identified three major models of communication. These are differentiated from one another based on whether or not feedback is received at all, and if so, whether or not that feedback is simultaneous.

  • Linear Communication: The linear communication style is a one-way street in which no feedback is received after the message is sent or there is a significant delay in receiving a response. Examples include letters, emails, blogs or vlogs. In fact, the article you are reading right now is an example of the linear model of communication. This information is being sent to you, but no feedback is expected. And if you were to give feedback via a comment, it would probably reach the sender/author a long time after the information was sent. 
  • Interactive Communication: The original sender receives feedback from the recipient, but there is a slight delay in when this feedback is received. Scholars consider this communication style to be two linear conversations happening together. An instant messenger or text conversation is an example of interactive communication, because both parties expect a response but that response is slightly delayed. 
  • Transactional Communication: The individuals communicating act as both senders and receivers simultaneously, both giving and receiving feedback in verbal and non-verbal communication. The face-to-face conversations we have on a daily basis are examples of transactional communication. While you send verbal information, your recipient sends you information via body language or might even speak over top of you. 

Linear Communication in Business Settings

Linear communication is common in the business world. But is it a good thing? If you are in a managerial position, do you feel like you understand how your employees feel about their assignments, work environment and policies?

If not, think about how you communicate important information to your employees. Do you too often choose a linear model of communication, in which you do not expect or welcome quick feedback?

When you send an email to announce new policy changes, this may seem like it must always take the form of linear communication. But you can change it to an interactive model of communication if, for example, the email announcement includes the line, "Please respond so I know you read this." Now the sender expects feedback, even though there will be a delay.

Also think about how you run meetings. If all you do is get up and talk to a room of people, you may be relying too much on linear communication. This is especially true if you present by staring at your PowerPoint and fail to notice the visual communication being relayed to you by your audience. Whether you like it or not, they're giving you feedback via their body language. Welcome their input by regularly stopping and asking for comments or questions. Turn the meeting into a transactional model of communication by accepting their feedback and responding to it.