The Relationship

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to recognize the role of the relationship in communication.
  • Learn to understand the importance of being interpersonally flexible.
  • Learn to understand the importance of attending to power differences in relationships.


Communication between two or more people is interpersonal by nature and involves the “relationship” between the communicators as much as it does the “content.” The relationship includes each person’s interpersonal style and preferences, the role that each person plays, and power differentials. The match or mismatch of interpersonal communication styles of those involved can have profound effects on how well two people communicate. The extent to which you are interpersonally flexible or rigid may dictate how well you match others’ styles and subsequently how well you communicate with different types of people. Flexibility entails being sensitive to the other person’s communication style and adjusting your own style accordingly. Put more simply, if your interpersonal style is too rigid, you may have difficulty communicating with many people. On the other hand, being interpersonally flexible allows you to make a deliberate choice to complement the other person’s interpersonal style. Knowing your role in a relationship (e.g., employee vs. student) and being aware of power differentials (e.g., subordinate vs. equal) can be helpful in guiding your choices.


The relationship component of communication is best dealt with by _____________________.

The best answer is “d“. By making deliberate choices about how you relate interpersonally to others, you can improve your communication with most people. This is different from answer “b”, in that you are not trying to change your interpersonal style altogether (for example, trying to be less extraverted in all situations), but rather you are choosing to deliberately act or not act in a particular manner in a given situation. Although “a” is true— in that we cannot change others’ styles—as an approach it is not ideal, because it’s more like giving up rather than recognizing what we can control: our own behaviors. Similarly, answer “c” is not ideal because it involves trying to control another person’s behavior.

The Role of Relationships in Communication

If you’re like most people, you find that you relate to some types of people better than others. As a graduate student, this becomes a particularly salient issue when you feel like you’re having difficulty connecting with someone who plays an important role in helping you progress through your program (e.g., your advisor). In fact, you may have noticed that graduate school requires individuals to get along and communicate well with many different kinds of people such as colleagues, professors, advisors, committees, and external organizations from whom you need funding, training, or other support. In managing relationships with these many individuals, it is rather common that you will prefer interacting with some more than others. However, regardless of your preference for certain personalities and styles, it is necessary to at least maintain professional relationships with these people and know how to use the relationship dynamics between you for your benefit in order to achieve your goals. Having a better relationship with these and other individuals will likely facilitate more open and productive communication and help curb and address defensiveness, intimidation, dismissiveness, and passivity.

People bring a personal part of themselves to their communication interactions. Your interpersonal communication style can enhance communication when it complements the person with whom you’re trying to communicate1. However, in those situations when you are having trouble connecting with others, it may be that you have mismatched interpersonal styles. This can often be easy to recognize at the extremes (e.g., two people with dominant interpersonal styles competing for control of a situation), but more difficult to notice when differences are more subtle (e.g., two people with culturally different norms about the physical distance between two people when having a conversation). Most people find the interpersonal side of communication difficult to conceptualize and even more difficult to navigate.

Interpersonal Compatibility

The ways in which people relate to each other is often referred to as Interpersonal Style. Interpersonal communication styles can be general or situation-specific. However, unlike personality, your style can be adapted to fit various contexts.

Being Flexible

Deliberately acting in a complementary manner might improve your interpersonal connections with different types of people, which in turn might help to facilitate better communication. This ability to shift the way you interact with others is referred to as interpersonal flexibility2.

Individuals who are interpersonally flexible fare better than those who are interpersonally rigid3. This is because being flexible in your interpersonal style will likely help you to get along with multiple types of people. On the other hand, being interpersonally rigid means doing one thing (such as taking charge) in all situations, which may work with some types of people but will not likely work with everyone.

Power in Relationships

It is important to understand power differences in relationships and how they affect interpersonal communication. Power differences can take a number of forms. They are defined by the characteristics of the individuals or the situation that give one person a real or perceived sense of authority or control over the other.

Keep in mind that sometimes it’s best not to complement someone’s interpersonal style, especially if complementing means you will be taken advantage of or will move you farther from your goal. For example, if your advisor has a dominant interpersonal style and you need to challenge him on some decision, you should deliberately choose not to be submissive.

Legitimate power and referent power are two different types of power in relationships. Legitimate power is power that is bestowed on an individual based on his/her status and training, such as what your advisor holds in the relationship, since by design he/she has more training or expertise than you.

Referent power is power that is afforded to someone who may or may not deserve it, such as when people assume that a man is in charge, simply by virtue of his gender, even though the woman has a superior title.

Recognizing who in any relationship has more legitimate power can help you determine how you should respond to the other person. For example, you may be more likely to make deliberate decisions to complement your advisor’s interpersonal style since he/she has actual authority in the relationship. However, in situations where one is assuming power when no actual authority was given, you may make choices to change your interpersonal style accordingly, such as adopting a more assertive style in lab groups or team settings where power should be equally shared.


  1. Keisler, D.J. (1983). The 1982 interpersonal circle: A taxonomy for complementarity in human transactions. Psychological Review, 90 (3), 185-214.
  2. Paulhus, D.L., & Martin, C.L. (1988). Functional flexibility: A new conception of interpersonal flexibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(1),88-101. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.55.1.88
  3. Tracey, T.J.G. (2005). Interpersonal rigidity and complementarity. Journal of Research in Personality, 39 (6),592-614. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2004.12.001

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