The Outcome

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to consider the importance of outcomes in a communication interaction.
  • Learn to recognize multiple desired outcomes in any given interaction.
  • Learn to think of outcomes as one element of the ongoing process of communication rather than as merely an endpoint.


“If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you’ve arrived.”

“To communicate is to influence with intent”
—Berlo (1960)


The outcome often refers to the end-point of an interpersonal exchange. Multiple factors influence outcomes in communication, including your personal characteristics and those of the other person [See Other], your relationship with that person [see The Relationship], and the words you use. Identifying in advance what you want to achieve from a particular interaction can help guide you in the communication process. Whether you are pursuing one objective or many, obtaining a desirable communication outcome will require clear thinking about what’s really important to you, as opposed to what might seem easy and comfortable.


Your outcome is most easily undermined by:

Although “d” is the only way to ensure that your outcome will not be obtained, all of the options could lead to an unsuccessful outcome. To have the chance at reaching a successful outcome, it is important for you to identify your desired outcome, consider all of the elements that might influence the results—both positively and negatively—and plan and deliver your message effectively.

Communication as a Goal-directed Behavior

Although we may not always think of it in this way, communication is inherently a goal-directed process. We do not often engage in communication with another person simply to refine our use of language or practice turn-taking1; instead we primarily communicate with others in order to achieve goals2. It is easy to communicate without even thinking of your desired outcome, but dedicating a small amount of time to considering your intentions in advance will go far in terms of achieving your goals. The information below is designed to help you understand the outcome element of the communication process. By giving thought to the outcomes you want from your interactions, you will understand how to communicate more effectively.

Identifying Your Desired Outcomes

There is a good bit of debate among communication scholars3 as to whether our communication goals are conscious or unconscious. The truth is that given the type of communication interaction you are engaged in, you will likely have a number of goals, some of which will be central to the construction of your message, and others that will not be as obvious to you. Whatever the case, the purpose of this module is to make you more aware of your multiple goals in any communication interaction in order to communicate more effectively.

Multiple outcomes

Whether you realize it or not, each communication interaction likely has a number of desired outcomes. Awareness of various desired outcomes can influence how you decide to approach your communication interaction. Generally, your desired outcomes might include4, 5 wanting to:

  • Inform (e.g. sharing your research findings with others)
  • Gain information (e.g. soliciting ideas about how to proceed in an experiment)
  • Persuade the recipient to:
    • Follow your advice (e.g. sharing your experiences with the incoming cohort)
    • Assist you (e.g. asking for help with data analysis)
    • Grant permission (e.g. asking the graduate director for a course over-ride)
    • Provide support (e.g. finding others who have experienced a similar challenge)
  • Create a good impression (e.g. proving to your advisor that you are capable of working independently on a research paper)
  • Understand the issues being discussed (e.g. sending a follow up email after an intense research meeting)
  • Share an activity (e.g. inviting a colleague to come with you to a research presentation)
  • Change the relationship (e.g. building, ending, or maintaining ties with your cohort or research team)
  • Be heard or vent about something that is bothering you (e.g. voicing disagreement with sexist remarks that go on in the lab)
  • Overcome fears or try something new (e.g. assertively making a request)

Additionally, your emotions play into the formation of these desired outcomes and affect the way you communicate to achieve those outcomes 6.

Primary and secondary goals

It is important to understand that identifying your desired outcome is likely not a simple process because any interaction can have a number of outcomes, each of which might require a different approach. Making progress toward one outcome (such as changing a relationship by becoming friends with a labmate) can often delay or subvert progress toward another goal (such as completing your project together since you have a new relationship dynamic to manage). These simultaneous (and sometimes competing) goals/objectives are referred to as primary and secondary goals. One way to distinguish between the two is that primary goals can be thought of as exerting a “push” or compelling someone to act while secondary goals exert a pulling back or restraint on the most efficient course of action4. Goals are also often guided by the priorities you set for yourself. For example, you may choose to prioritize completing your project (primary) and need to set boundaries on the friendship (secondary) if the relationship is getting in the way of your work.

Consider another example:

After weeks of having to clean dirty kits before running your experiments, you come in for a busy day in the lab to see your labmates goofing off on the computer, ignoring the sink full of used kits.

Your primary goal (e.g. getting labmates to clean up after themselves) may compel you to use the most efficient means of communication available to you (e.g., yelling at them). But your secondary goal of social appropriateness places constraints on the way you choose to communicate in any given circumstance1. Thus, you might end up sitting down with your labmates to discuss shared responsibilities.

Awareness of Others’ Desired Outcomes

The variety of desired outcomes you may have are not the only consideration, however. Others’ desired outcomes may be compatible with yours (e.g., sharing the workload to be included as an author on a publication) or they may interfere with them (e.g., needing more time on your lab report when your professor expects you to meet deadlines). Anticipating the other person’s desired outcomes increases the likelihood of achieving your desired outcomes as well1, 7 because you can structure your communication in a way that also recognizes their needs.

Sometimes, through the course of a conversation (and in realizing the other person’s goals) your desired outcomes will change. For example, while getting feedback about an early draft of a paper you wanted to ask Dr. Shumaker to be your advisor, but after she mentions that she is interviewing for another job, your desired outcome changes to simply getting her feedback on this paper. Not to worry, goals are highly adaptable and change all the time1, 8. By focusing on your ultimate (and perhaps longer term goals) you can quickly shift your communication to meet your needs and the needs of the situation.

Outcome as a Product or Process

Assuredly, in your many communication interactions, some will result in your desired outcome and others will not. You should take both the successful attainment of goals and the failures as information upon which to assess your communication skills (although failure is not always a result of lack of skill1) and reassess your desired outcomes. Whatever the case, the outcome is not the end; each outcome serves as a beginning point for new communication interactions.


  1. Berger, C.R. (1997). Planning strategic interaction: Attaining goals through communicative action. Mahwaw, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers.
  2. Cappella, J. N. (1998). The dynamics of nonverbal coordination and attachment: Problems of causal direction and causal mechanism. In M. T.Palmer & G. A.Barnett, (Eds.), Progress in communication sciences, Vol. 14 (pp. 19–37). Stamford, CT : Ablex.
  3. Dillard, J. P. (1997). Explicating the goal construct: Tools for theorists. In J. O. Greene (Ed.). Message production: Advances in communication theory. (pp. 47-69). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers.
  4. Wilson, S. R. (2002). Seeking and resisting compliance: Why people say what they do when trying to influence others. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
  5. Wyer, R. S., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (1995). Information processing in interpersonal communication. In D. E. Hewes (Ed.) The cognitive bases of interpersonal communication. (pp. 7-47). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers.
  6. Burleson, B.B., & Planalp, S. (2000). Producing emotion(al) messages. Communication Theory, 10, 221-250. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2000.tb00191.x
  7. Bogdan, R. J. (1997). Interpreting minds: The evolution of a practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  8. Berger, C. R. (2000). Goal detection and efficiency: Neglected aspects of message production. Communication Theory, 10(2), 156-166. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2000.tb00185.x

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The importance of knowing what you want and expecting tradeoffs on the path to get it.

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Suggestions for defining research.

The Good, the Bad, the "Only"
The pros and cons of being the only woman in a department and the importance of setting boundaries and knowing your own limitations.

Coming Full Circle
The process of overcoming setbacks related to career options and personal relationships.

Critical Mass
Captures the annoyance of male colleagues making sexist assumptions and the challenges with conference travel as a female graduate student.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Lin
How to seek support and not be shy in asking for help.

Compromises Outside the Realm of Children
Addresses personal relationship sacrifices.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Burrows
The importance of allowing yourself the opportunity to change your mind and reconsider your goals.


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