This page forms part of the Transcultural Health resource, published in 2004, and is preserved as a historical document for reference purposes only. Some information contained within it may no longer refer to current practice.

Section five: Argyle's social skills model

The discussion in the previous section of the elements of communication produce insight into the means whereby communication is achieved. It provides an introduction to the building blocks of interpersonal communication that underpin the processes outlined in Hartley's model. However, knowledge of the broad structure provided by Hartley and insight into the operation of the multiple channels of communication still leaves a gap in our understanding: namely about the intermediate process that links the macro and the micro levels of analysis.

The 'social skills' model provides such a necessary link. In this model, our ability to effectively employ the basic elements of communication is seen as based upon our cumulative experience of using them. In other words, interpersonal communication is based, like any other motor skill, on:

  • learning;
  • repetition with feedback; and
  • fine tuning of sequences of action so that they become routine and unconscious in our practice.

Further reading

  • Trower, P., Bryant, B., Argyle, M. and Marzillier, J. (1978) 'The Analysis of Social Behaviour' in Social Skills and Mental Health, London: Methuen

The 'social skills model', as developed by the social psychologist Michael Argyle, suggests that the processes of social interaction can be compared to the processes of co-ordinating a physical task, like driving a car or playing tennis. As Trower et al (1978) put it:

This model conceptualises man as pursuing social and other goals according to rules and monitoring his performance in the light of continuous feedback from the environment. (1978:8)

The model therefore assumes a motivated actor who has goals she/he wishes to accomplish and which she/he pursues in a systematic manner by progressively adjusting her/his behaviour in order to respond to the outcomes of previous actions. The model is graphically depicted in the following manner.

Figure II: A Motor skill model

Motor skill model, Trower et al (1978:8)







Fig. 2.1 Motor skill model, Trower et al (1978:8)

The Elements of the 'Social Skills' Model

Motivation, goals

The model starts from an expectation that the person is motivated and that consequently they have definite goals about which they are developing plans for action. Such plans are likely to include final goals and the smaller sub-goals or tasks that will cumulatively generate the desired result. It is important to realise that whilst the planning element may be conscious many of the elements of the sequences of action may be habitual and largely unconscious.


As we have already noted above perception is a complex process of seeking out information, filtering it in relation to our existing categories and interpreting the result and 'evidence'. We have seen that this is a highly selective process. What information is accessed is a function of current plans and agendas (selective attention); whilst interpretation of data is likely to reflect the partisan interests, and culturally acquired cognitive habits, of the observer, selective perception.


The social skills model requires us to recognise the key element of interpersonal interaction lies in translating an understanding of a situation into appropriate action that is consistent with the actor's goals for the interaction. Quite typically the range of actions available are routine and culturally prescribed. In health care, for example, much professional socialisation aims at enabling the professional carer to rapidly produce the 'correct' behaviour. Unfortunately, the fact that much learned behaviour is comfortably routine, does not guarantee that it is always appropriate. Trower et al (1978:10) suggest that this translation process might involve:

  • considering the available information
  • identifying alternative courses of action
  • selecting the 'best'/most effective action
  • solving problems and
  • making decisions.

It is not difficult to imagine how in relation to each of these activities their culture will shape the actors response and possibly unintentionally produce inappropriate responses that are far from 'best' for a specific patient. We cannot act on cultural knowledge we do not have and we cannot select behaviour that is not part of our personal or professional repertoire.

Motor responses

Having made a decision about how to act the model subsequently raises the question of whether the actor possesses the behavioural capacity to effectively put the decision into action. As Trower et al (1978:10) noted 'a repertoire of skilled behavioural responses is required, so that translation stage decisions can be implemented'. We are all aware of the awkward gap between knowing what to do, and the ability to do it. Motor responses would include everything from an ability to give an injection to the capacity to pronounce a name correctly. Sometimes in cross-cultural contacts the challenge is as much in suppressing a habitual response as in being comfortable with a novel behaviour. For example, not shaking hands or not keeping a 'usual' distance between yourself and the person you are speaking to.


A continuous monitoring of our interaction with others is essential to provide feedback about how effective our actions have been in achieving our intentions. People who do not seek feedback, or who are inept at it, are typically seen as socially incompetent. They are likely to be perceived as boorish and insensitive. Feedback closes the cycle in the social skills model; and this fact reminds us that without the right perceptual skills we cannot access reliable feedback data.

Exercise 5.1 Reflective activity

Think of a specific clinical interaction. See if you can fit the stages of that interaction into the social skills model. Consider where in the cycle things could have gone wrong.

Continue to read on...

The Model revisited


The model is usefully centred by the left hand box, 'motivational goal'. If we assume that a person is devoid of any intentional purpose then their behaviour would be highly distressing to others. If they have no motivation what can their actions mean; how should we respond to them? Even their responses to our action require that they have a perspective from which to judge our behaviour. Thus, the Argyle model starts from an assumption of purposive behaviour.

For example: If we intend to drive from London to Brighton we have a clear goal of intending to arrive in Brighton. However, this aspiration must be translated into action and as the model suggests this translation involves a sustained interaction between perception and motor responses. This perception process requires us to place our intention in its social and physical context. Knowing the route between London and Brighton is a necessary prerequisite to accomplishing our goal: as is remembering where we parked the car and where we left the car keys. However, in addition to these physical concerns, we may also need to consider that we have been disqualified from driving or that today is a Bank Holiday. Perhaps we should reconsider our goal, or if not, then at least our means of achieving it, and take the train.

Repetition and learning

Sensitivity to the complexity of the context provides an actor with the accurate information that they need to execute their plans; to translate their intentions into actions. However, just as we may misinterpret our physical world; not notice the 'No Entry' sign or believe that a flashed headlight means 'come on' when, in fact, it means 'Slow Down - Fool'; so too we may misread the social context. We have already seen how partisan and selective human perception can be. It is possible that our choice of motor responses may be flawed.

The multiple channels of communication that we possess and the range of codes we may employ provide a tremendous range of options for translating our social goals into action. However, just as the accomplished driver does not have to self-consciously change gear as they negotiate inner city traffic, so too much of our social repertoire is employed with unthinking ease.

In addition, as we have noted above, we tend to develop and employ routine strategies for interaction. But, we may also choose our actions consciously and carefully: how should I dress for the interview, how should I account to my superior for a blunder in my clinical practice or, how do I relate to a patient who speaks very little English? The selection of inappropriate options can seriously damage our successful pursuit of our intended goal.

Feedback and fine tuning

Whatever motor responses we employ we are concerned to monitor their impact upon our environment. Just as the motorist who switches on their right indicator on a motorway checks the mirror to see if the following traffic has made space for their manoeuvre into another lane, so we monitor the feedback from our social actions. The literature on the micro-behavioural changes of social interaction has revealed just how subtly we may modulate our phrasing, gestures or accent in reaction to the response of the other actor. Interpersonal communication is capable of very fine-tuning as actors through presentational strategies negotiate their interaction.

However, if we refer back to the Argyle model it is apparent that this feedback loop is part of the perceptual cycle. We interpret the feedback that we receive and hence, yet again, our reading of the situation may be flawed.

The Argyle model therefore provides a sketch of the dynamic processes whereby individuals are able to integrate their communicative skills in order to operate in a changing social environment. As a guide to how these elements may be integrated efficiently, it also provides insight into how our communicative behaviour may be flawed and/or break down.

For example: Our goals may be inappropriate to the social context. If our goal in work is to give a colleague or student a hard time this is hardly likely to contribute to the efficient delivery of health care. We may have failed to acquire appropriate social skills and hence our translation of intention into action may be inherently flawed by the absence of necessary social skills. Or we may be so egocentric that our perceptual processes routinely provide distorted feedback. This model therefore provides a very useful tool for aiding our reflexive understanding of our own social skills.

When we consider the ease with which communication may become unintentionally flawed in our interaction with someone we know well it becomes all to apparent how much easier it is for misunderstanding to occur in cross cultural interaction. As we shall see in the next section, we have need of specific cultural knowledge to enable us to look for the appropriate clues, and cultural sensitivity in order to appropriately interpret this 'evidence'. And, we need to be capable of producing the appropriate behavioural responses that enable us to translate our perceptions into action.

Exercise 5.2 Group activity

Consider how, in the context of your practice:-

i) Motivations may be inappropriate.
ii) The translation of intention into action may fail or be flawed.
iii) The feedback may be mistaken.

Discuss your response with two or three other members of the group.