Interpersonal Communication: A Course with Career Impact
Interpersonal communication skills are a vital asset to anyone in the modern workplace. The failure of professional relationships, which can contribute to poor or even disastrous work output, is often blamed on a breakdown of communication between individuals. Given the potential consequences of poor communication skills in adulthood, it’s surprising that interpersonal communication courses aren’t taught to students from a younger age.
Dr. Louis E. Rumpf, Lead Faculty of the B.A. in Strategic Communications program at National University, believes this lack of understanding about interpersonal communication skills can lead to dysfunctional communication practice once young people enter employment, creating opportunities for conflict, stress and reduced levels of productivity.
“An interpersonal communication course is probably one of the most important classes that a student can take,” says Dr. Rumpf. “Unfortunately, we never have interpersonal communication courses in grade school, junior high school or high school classes. In fact, students frequently go through their entire education never understanding the principles of interpersonal communication and because of that, many people communicate dysfunctionally.”
The fact that everyone has an individual approach to the way they communicate with others adds an extra layer to an already complex challenge.
What is an Interpersonal Communication Class?
The Interpersonal Communication course at National University aims to help students identify the various theories around interpersonal communication and apply them to real-life experiences in the workplace.
“Communication skills vary between the upbringing people had, where they went to school, and where they lived,” says Dr. Rumpf. “The family situation is very important because we learn a lot of our communicative skills from someone in our family. As we grow up, we develop these skills in conjunction with a brother or a sister or maybe a parent. People are unique, that's what makes us such wonderful, interesting people to interact with.”
In a business sense, individuality isn’t limited to the human condition. Highlighting the fact that businesses are as unique as the people who work in them, Dr. Rumpf believes that the word "regular" doesn’t really apply in the workplace because each work environment has its own unique co-culture (a set of values, beliefs or behaviors). The Interpersonal Communication Course at National helps students learn communications skills that can help them navigate through a variety of work environments.
The journey to improved interpersonal communication skills for students in National University’s Interpersonal Communication course begins with understanding the theory of self-concept.
“The very first thing that we do is we talk about a person's self-concept,” says Dr. Rumpf. “A person's self-concept is made up of their self-esteem and their self-image; in other words, how they feel about themselves, positively or negatively, and how they view themselves and what they see themselves doing.”
He adds, “Everyone has a unique blend of the things they like doing, the things they're good at, and the things that in their life experience they've learned that they're not good at doing.”
The theme of self-concept runs through the course. It is the first and last thing students talk about. “Many of our students have great self-concept. They are very positive about themselves and their image,” says Dr. Rumpf. “Other students, not so much, and some students have a very low self-concept/self-image.”
According to Dr. Rumpf, it is very important to realize where you are on the scale of positive to negative in terms of your self-concept and it’s very important to understand this in other people you're communicating with because it can explain a lot of human behavior. “Sometimes when people don't feel very positive about themselves, they don't have a good self-worth, they'll try to insult other people to make themselves look better than the other person,” says Dr. Rumpf. “You need to have that idea of what are the motivations, why is someone communicating to me rudely? Is this maybe because of their environment or is this because they don't like me and they want to get rid of me?”
Understanding your own self-concept can help you manage your communications with others based on your perception of their self-concept. This is particularly true when communication is combative or even abusive.
As Dr. Rumpf explains, “Some people can be very full of themselves. When learning how to manage those people, we talk about having relational maintenance, establishing relational norms and positivity. We want to guard our openness with people until we get to know them. We want to communicate with insurances. We want to understand social networks that we belong to and others belong to.”
Highlighting the benefits of relational maintenance, Dr. Rumpf adds: “We share tasks if we manage conflict effectively together. If you can talk to someone, at times you can get past some of those traits that people have where they think that they are the best thing since fried fish!”
Personal Goal Statements
As part of the class, personal goal statements help keep students on track and allow them to measure progress towards reaching their objectives.Typical goal statements might include:
- To strive to speak less and listen more when you communicate with your supervisor or subordinates
- To strive to be cognizant of your non-verbal communication channels, that you are going to keep proper, expected eye-contact for the context in which you are speaking
- To strive to employ empathy for the people you are working with
By the end of the course, students use their final paper to talk about how they improved their communication confidence based on the criteria they set via their personal goal statement.
Interpersonal Communication Theory
Understanding a range of interpersonal communication theories and being able to put them into practice is a core element leading to the successful completion of an interpersonal communication course at National University.
One of the many theories studied during the course is the theory of uncertainty reduction. The theory of uncertainty reduction addresses the problem of fear when we go into new communicative situations — a common problem for many people.
“A good example is a job interview with a particular company,” says Dr. Rumpf. “We may have been through job interviews in our lives, but each job interview is different. The people we meet there are different. So the question is: If that creates fear in you, how do you manage that fear and how do you reduce that fear?”
Dr. Rumpf explained there are a number of strategies you can adopt to help manage this fear:
- Passive Strategies: This could include doing some research on the web about the organization and the people who will be conducting the interview.
- Active Strategies: This might include asking other people about the people you're going to be in the interview with.
- Interactive Strategies: Equipping yourself with some good interactive strategies will help you in the interview by enabling you to assess the people you are talking with and also judge the non-verbal feedback they give you as the interview progresses.
According to Dr. Rumpf, careful adoption of these strategies can really help your employment prospects. “If you feel relaxed and confident and you portray that through your verbal and non-verbal communication in interviews,” he says, “you have a much higher chance of being hired than someone who is nervous, someone that doesn't seem comfortable or someone that's not trying to figure out how to bond with the people they are being interviewed by.”
He continues: “At the end of the day, outside of all the work skills you have, the people in that interview have to be sold on the fact that they are going to enjoy working with you. Communication skills are often listed as the top-three, top-five or top-ten skills for getting jobs when you read the different research studies.”
The One Skill I Wish I Attained at a Younger Age
It’s interesting to note that the theory of uncertainty reduction is the one interpersonal communication skill that Dr. Rumpf wishes he personally had attained at a younger age.
“For a long time, decades, I had severe communication apprehension in new situations and it inhibited me from going and talking with people that nowadays would present no problem,” he confesses. “I still get some fear in some particular communication situations, but after many years, I've mastered most of it and I've learned how to deal with it.”
So what advice would Dr. Rumpf offer someone with similar anxiety around specific communicative situations?
“Think to yourself, OK, I'm going to be a little afraid of this situation, I'm going to be nervous, but I can take deep breaths,” he advises. “I can do visualizations in my presentation the night before and all these things can help make me feel more confident and help to improve my self-esteem and self-image.”
The Theories Behind Conflict and Conflict Resolution
The various theories behind conflict and conflict resolution also play a key role in the National University Interpersonal Communication course.
“Recognizing and dealing with conflict is really a deal breaker in interpersonal communications. It’s easy to get along with people that you've known for quite a while in your life,” says Dr. Rumpf, “but when you go into a new situation, then you have to assess what are the conflict styles that you use and what are the conflict styles that other people use.”
Typical conflict management styles include:
- Avoidance: Where people just avoid conflict. This is a very bad strategy to employ because sooner or later, like a volcano, that conflict boils over and blows up.
- Distributive: When someone blames the other person for all the conflict that exists. In such cases, someone may take all the credit for the successful outcomes of a project and insist that other people pick-up all the slack.
- Integrated: A much more positive solution of conflict management, where both parties realize they each have a role in the conflict that exists and attempt to constructively see what they can do to resolve this conflict.
However, the big question arises: What happens when conflict occurs with someone who is not going to change?
Knowing When to Walk Away
There will be times when communication just breaks down between individuals. Understanding which relationships can be salvaged and which are beyond repair is an essential life-skill if you are to maintain a positive self-concept.
Dr. Rumpf explains that there are times, particularly when dealing with a rude or abusive person in a business situation, that a positive attitude to communication can help resolve certain conflicts. He suggests “stroking their ego” may help because these people usually like to be “stroked.”
However, if the person is abusive and the organization doesn't respond to stop that behavior, it may be time, for the sake of your own self-esteem and self-image, to walk away from that professional relationship.
“You shouldn't be afraid of doing that because it's going to be better for you in the long run than to stick around in an abusive situation,” he says.
Technology Has Changed the Way We Communicate
Technology, especially social media, has changed the way many of us communicate with each other. This raises a number of challenges as well as opportunities.
“Go into a Starbucks and more than seeing people there communicating, you are seeing people communicating with their devices,” Dr. Rumpf observes. “We've had this shift from interpersonal communication to mediated communication through our devices and this is just a part of a shifting reality. In one way that can be a negative thing because it puts more distance between people, we don't get to know people as well, we don't have the ‘being there’ non-verbal cues which are very important in personal communication — eye contact, body position and especially if you are into texting, you lose the tone of voice. You miss all those things that make communication rich. “
According to Dr. Rumpf, as we shift a lot of our interpersonal communication to the mediated environment, that has an effect on interpersonal communication. Paradoxically, the shift also facilitates interpersonal communication in many ways. “If you look at something like Facebook,” says Dr. Rumpf, “the original draw that was really good, was that it had the ability to connect people who were distances apart. So you learn to communicate interpersonally through the mediated devices also.”
Dr. Rumpf believes that the exploration of digital disruption of interpersonal communication via social media will be of particular interest to students with an interest in furthering their careers in a field like marketing or public relations.
Technology Has Changed the Way We Study
National University’s Interpersonal Communication course is taught totally online. The challenges of “remote” learning, particularly in an area where face-to-face communication is so important, are met with the innovative use of technology.
Video and audio are used throughout the lectures, participants can go into breakout groups to discuss particular learning needs, and students are encouraged to collaborate in a weekly online meeting which can last up to one-and-half-hours.
The online format of many of the courses offered by National University has enabled a diverse group of individuals to access a university education.
“This course is part of a strategic communications bachelors program. It serves a wide variety of people who take this particular degree and this particular course,” says Dr. Rumpf. The majority of people who take the course are looking to work in organizations; possibly for the government or private organizations in management positions.
“The last couple of classes in our degree focus on marketing, PR and creating and using apps; so a significant number of our students are also working in the PR or marketing field, and they want to continue their education in that field. This course prepares them for that. It has a strong emphasis on interpersonal and organizational communication, and throughout the course, we also talk about interpersonal skills in the workplace, which are very important as research shows.”
Dr. Rumpf has taught the course for many years and says it is always a positive experience for his students. “By the time they get to the end of the class, they think, ‘This is one of the best classes I've had and I understand so much more about myself, why I do things, why people in my family do things, why people in my work environment do things.’”
The course lasts one month and fits in with the National University format which is designed to make education accessible for working adults. Students typically work every night on the course and they have access to recorded lectures on the content that complements the course textbook. There is also a live interaction session, called a “collaborate session,” where tutors meet with students via video and audio conferencing. At the end of each week, students are given a significant written assignment.
As Dr. Rumpf points out, the flexibility inherent in National University’s online courses has an added major benefit. “If the student has the ability to self-motivate themselves they can save a lot of time over an on-site class. In terms of the commute alone, you can have so much more that you can apply in terms of time to learning, versus sitting on the freeway.”
The format of National University’s courses also enables people who may have difficulty accessing “traditional” education to attend class.
“I'm just amazed by the single women who are working, taking care of two or three kids and taking the class at the same time,” says Dr. Rumpf. “I don't think they would be able to do what I see many of them do at National University in a traditional class environment. I just really respect that.”
To learn more about National University’s Interpersonal Communication course or to speak with an advisor about how improving your interpersonal communication skills can help you in your future career, please visit the website.