Module VI: Interpersonal Communication

Section 1: Relationship Dynamics

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. define interpersonal communication and intrapersonal communication.
  2. discuss the differences between an impersonal relationship and a personal relationship
  3. explain field of experience and its impact on communication effectiveness.
  4. compare the difference between a content message and a relationship message.
  5. categorize relationship tensions and how to address those tensions.

In our daily encounters, we participate in interpersonal communication or the verbal and nonverbal interaction between two interdependent people (sometimes more) (Devito, 2009).  Interpersonal communication is our everyday, typically spontaneous, interaction with a range of people.  It is, by far, the most common form of communication in which we engage.  Ranging from those we encounter briefly to long, detailed conversations with friends, interpersonal communication is at the core of our human relationships.  Disclosure forms the substance of relationships.  Through the process of reciprocal self-disclosure, we work to negotiate the dynamics of the relationship.

The level of disclosure determines the type of relationshipSee the discussion of relationship types as a function of disclosure in Module V, Section 2, whether it is transient, an acquaintance, colleague, casual friend, close friend, or intimate.  We also can separate relationships into impersonal and personal.

In addition to interpersonal communication, we should note there is also the area of intrapersonal communication, communication occurring within oneself.   We always carry on an internal dialogue, processing the world, thinking through things, and making decisions.  While this internal dialogue occurs in fragmented sentences, images, and impressions, it is nonetheless a distinct form of communication.  At times this dialogue may become more noticeable if we speak aloud when alone, practicing what to say to another in a conflict, or how to respond to some situation. 

An impersonal relationship is one in which we interact only about superficial, necessary topics.  Quick encounters, like in our transient relationships, fall into this, but even longer term connections can be impersonal.  In our relationship with a physician, they may know a lot about us and our life, but typically that level of disclosure is not reciprocated; it is a one-sided relationship.  The doctor learns about our life as part of creating a diagnostic picture, which is necessary for the specific relationship. However, we rarely learn much about our physician.  It is more of an impersonal relationship.  Our transient relationships, acquaintances, and some colleagues remain at the impersonal level.

A personal relationship is one in which we reciprocate a depth and breadth of disclosure to increase mutual understanding.  Unlike in impersonal relationships, we will each engage in disclosure at a depth to give the other person insight into our personality.  Certainly our intimates, close friends, and casual friends fall into this category.  Some colleagues may also be more personal than impersonal, depending on the depth and breadth of disclosure.

While it may be easy to conclude personal relationships are better than impersonal, that would be an erroneous conclusion.  We need them both, and given how little time we have to actively work to maintain our personal relationships, some simply must remain as impersonal.  We cannot be friends with everyone.

Additional terms used to describe and understand our relationships include voluntary and involuntary, which indicate how much choice was involved in entering the relationship.  We choose our friends and lovers, but we do not choose our family (mother, brother, cousin).  Whether a friendship is platonic or romantic also figures into how we talk about the relationship.  Our choice of terms may indicate a level of closeness, as when we say someone is a co-worker or colleague, friend or best friend.

Stages of Relationships

If we think about our current or past relationships, we may begin to see some patterns for the ways relationships develop.  Since communication is the basis for relationships, conversations ranging from routine to deep help us manage our relationships as they grow and change.  To explain the development of interpersonal relationships, scholars have created several models of the relationship stages (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2013).  While the models have distinct variations, they all encompass three general phases: coming together, maintaining, and coming apart.

The beginning stages are ones in which people come together.  As we meet others, we engage in initial conversations that help us present ourselves and learn about others.  We make introductions and talk about safe social topics like the weather or sports.  From these first contacts, we reduce our uncertainty about the other person and make decisions (consciously or unconsciously) about whether to pursue more involvement with another person.  As we gradually get to know one another, we spend more time together and add more personal sharing to our conversations. 

As our relationships become closer and more intimate, our communication intensifies to include more sharing of emotions, supporting of one another, and merging of social groups.  During this phase, we focus on maintaining the relationship.  We spend more time with our closest friends, and they often become involved with our family and other social groups.  In romantic relationships, we likely think of ourselves as a couple and let others know about our shared identity.  Bonding may include living together and making a public commitment to one another.  However, partners in close relationships inevitably experience tensions.  How they manage those tensions may determine the future of the relationship.  Each person in the relationship may feel a need to assert their autonomy even as the relationship continues and they remain interdependent.

Relationships commonly deteriorate over time, and this may be when the relationship comes apart.  After the initial excitement of the new relationship, the routine of life and interactions may result in less time spent together and less communication between them.  Boredom with the relationship can lead to avoiding each other or terminating the relationship.  However, this does not have to be the progression.  Close friends or couples may decide to repair their relationship by using communication to address their issues and resolve problems.

Relationships do not necessarily proceed in a linear progression through stages.  The process may move forward and back or with stages happening simultaneously; however, the broader phases of coming together, maintaining, and coming apart are often recognizable in relationships.

Field of Experience

No matter the relationship, an important factor to consider in any interaction is each person in the dyad (two people interacting) brings a wealth of personal history to the interaction.  In an encounter, if the respective fields of experience share much in common, higher quality communication usually occurs. However, when there are significant differences, the quality of communication usually drops dramatically.

Field of experience
Image 1

Personal history may include moods, biases, attitudes, knowledge, stereotypes, ways of thinking, religious beliefs, and political beliefs.  "Field of experience" dictates how we will interact with the world: how we use language, understand language, and in general view the world around us.  For example, if a woman has been the victim of a sexual assault, her experience will affect how she sees males today; the previous traumatic experience comes forward to impact her present encounters.  A male raised in a “traditional” home where women were expected to fulfill traditional female roles may bring the assumption into his own relationships, affecting how he interacts today with a female partner.

Different cultures have different expectations and understood rules of behavior that seem obvious and self-evident to them, and those play out in their interactions.  The role of women varies widely through cultures.  Most western cultures see women as equal to men, affording them all the rights and responsibilities of any individual within that culture.  However, other cultures see more disparity in the roles of the sexes, treating women as property of the husband or her father, who can treat her any way he sees fit.  As a result, in some cultures, women are forbidden to speak to men to whom they are not related, or must divert their eyes, or always defer to the opinions of men.  Clearly, the style of communication within these various cultures will vary due to the differences in fields of experience.

Our field of experience also impacts the ways in which we experience and express emotions.  Whether we are referring to basic emotions such as fear, joy, anger, sadness, or more complex ones like guilt or shame, our feelings and our communication of them are mutually influential.  What we feel impacts our communication and our communication impacts what we feel (Adler, 2017; Cuddy, 2016).

Emotions are reactions to stimuli that may be both physical (our heart rate increases or we blush) and behavioral (we frown or clench our fists).  Research shows that we use nonverbal communication as our main channel for conveying emotions (Mehrabian, 1972).  However, we also think about our feelings and put them into words.  Whichever we use, the way we express our emotions is learned and it is important.

Over time, humans learned regulating their emotions was good if they wanted to survive and live with others.  The attachment we develop to our parents is the basis for our emotional lives. From our culture, we learn who can display emotions, which emotions to display (positive or negative or both), and how intense those displays should be.  Other influences include personality, gender, social norms, and increasingly, social media.  We share emotions with others as part of developing and maintaining relationships. 

We cannot look at a specific encounter being comprised solely of what is happening at the moment; rather, we need to see whatever is happening at the moment as a result of the vast fields of experience dictating how we interact with the world.

Communication Dimensions

Interpersonal communication includes both a content and relationship dimensions. The content dimension refers to the obvious topic, or the noticeable, overt topic being addressed. The relationship dimension is what is being said about the nature of the relationship itself. Most often, relationship comments are not openly stated; they are implied in the content dimension. Frequently, the content is secondary to the relationship, even if overt statements about the relationship are never made. A good example is the interaction between partners.  We often carry on conversations with our significant others simply to connect with them and to demonstrate we are interested in them and their thoughts.  What we actually talk about is less important than the fact we are talking and listening.  The relationship act of sharing thoughts enhances the sense of intimacy and caring between partners, more than simply gaining useful content information.  How something is communicated can be more important than what is being communicated.

Within the relationship dimension, we are expressing something about power, affection, or both.  According to Simposon, Farrell, Orina, and Rothman (2015), interpersonal power is the ability of one person in a relationship to have influence with the other person, while at the same time being able to resist being influenced by the other person (p. 393). Human beings, especially males, are typically conscious of power dynamics when around other men; they are concerned about determining a power hierarchy. One-upping is an expression of power in which the individuals are negotiating dominance by sharing messages of greater magnitude than the one before. For example, if a group of fishermen is talking about their adventures, inevitably one-upping will start in which the fish get larger and the drama of landing them more intense.  Students gather and share stories of “you will not believe what my teacher said/did,” and will often get into the same sort of one-upping.   This drive to express power is very strong.  Unfortunately, excessive behavior such as binge drinking, risk taking, and fast driving can be manifestations of the need to express power and be seen as a powerful person.  We want attention and feel a sense of belonging, and at times such behaviors seem the obvious way to show who we are and where we fit in.

Even in an intimate relationship, power is continually reasserted.  In doing laundry, Keith's wife has a system that, after more than 30 years of marriage, he still cannot comprehend.  When she tells him how the clothes should be sorted, he does as she says.  They talk about sorting clothes, which is the content level. but following her directions is an implied statement in the relationship dimension that she has more power than he in this specific situation.   

We also send implied messages about affection.  Affection does not always mean "love"; it refers to any message communicating a degree of liking for the person, so the messages can range from love to hate.  Asking your partner how their day went may trigger a conversation about what occurred at work or school but more importantly, it sends a message of caring that says, “I care what you do during the day, how it affects you, and how you feel about it.”  Speaking to children is a great example of the relational message of affection.  An adult may speak to a 5-year old about rather childish topics, such as what Ava is having for dinner, but in doing so they are showing the child she is interesting to speak to and cared about as a person.  Sometimes the messages are equally negative.  If a woman turns down a man’s request for a date with something like, “You have got to be kidding,” the implied affection message is fairly clear.

Relational (Dialectical) Tensions

Relationships can be a challenging act of balancing individual needs/wants with relationship needs/wants.  At times, what we need individually becomes more important, and at other times, what our partner needs takes precedence.  In effect, we have to walk a bit of a tightrope at times to be sure we do not sacrifice our individuality for the relationship and, conversely, that we do not sacrifice the relationship for our individual needs.  Leslie Baxter (1988) identified a number of “relational dialectics.”  Of these, three common tensions must be managed in a relationship.

Openness vs Privacy
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We have to balance the need to be open with our partners with the desire to maintain some personal privacy.  The nature of the relationship is determined by the depth and breadth of disclosure, so it is very important to continue to reinforce an intimate relationship with an ongoing sharing of personal thoughts and feelings.  However, there are times, and topics, we prefer to keep to ourselves.  We have to find a balance between sharing our lives while maintaining a sense of control over our disclosure.

The tension increases when the two partners have different openness/privacy needs.  We know from gender differences in communication men tend to be less open about emotional issues, while women tend to be more comfortable with emotional disclosure.  In a given relationship, she may think he discloses too little, while he thinks she discloses too much.  He may feel pressured to be more open, while she may feel shut out of part of his life.

Individuality vs Partnershipo
Image 3

A relationship, especially an intimate relationship, is a blending of two lives into one life streamPartners moving through life in an interdependent manner, in effect sharing one life..  We live together, raise a family together, age together, and suffer life’s pleasures and pains together.  However, we are still two individual people with our own wants and needs.  For some, the need to maintain a strong sense of autonomy is paramount, yet for others, connection and togetherness is more important.

The tension increases when two partners have different autonomy/connection needs.  Perhaps he wishes to spend most of his free time with her, assuming they will do everything together.  He finds operating as a partner to be satisfying.  She, on the other hand, may value spending time by herself or with friends.  She may find her time away from him to be invigorating, recharging her to come back to him with renewed energy.

Novelty vs Predictability
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A core facet of human nature is we enjoy predictability and certainty, to varying degrees.  Some of us feel best with significant planning, few surprises, and a recurring pattern of activity.  Routine is good, giving a sense of comfort.  Others, however, favor the novelty end of the continuum, looking for more spontaneity and "spur of the moment" decisions.

The tension increases when the partners have different novelty/predictability needs.  Imagine a couple who fall on each end of this continuum taking a vacation together.  If he is more on the predictable end, he may feel a powerful need to plan the details of the trip well in advance, research what to do, develop a detailed budget, and map the route.  She, on the other hand, valuing novelty, may be more inclined to “just go” and see what happens, to let the road lead them where it may, seeing what they find.

Handling Relational Tension

The core to handling the natural tensions is to identify and discuss them as partners.  By acknowledging the differences, we can plan to satisfy both persons' needs in a healthy way.  An openness-oriented person will need to accept that a more privacy-oriented partner will disclose only when comfortable doing so, but the privacy-oriented partner also needs to realize the openness-oriented partner needs disclosure to feel connected.  For instance, instead just answering, “Fine” when asked “How was your day?”, the answer should provide some more detail.  The novelty-oriented person may need to accept a predictability-oriented partner’s need for planning allows more enjoyment of the experience, and at the same time the predictability-oriented person needs to accept too much planning takes the fun out for the novelty-oriented person.  Through open communication, the partners should be able to identify strategies to accommodate both partners’ needs to a large degree.

Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:

Interpersonal Communication

Types of Interpersonal Relationships

Stages of Relationships

Field of Experience

Communication Dimensions

Relational (Dialectical) Tensions


Adler, R.B., & Proctor, R. F. II. (2017). Looking out looking in (15th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Baxter, L. A. (1988). A dialectical perspective of communication strategies in relationship development. In S.W. Duck (Ed.),  Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 257-273). New York, NY: Wiley.
Cuddy, A. (2016). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges.  Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.
Devito, J.A. (2009). Messages: Building interpersonal skills (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing.
Knapp, M. L., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2013). Interpersonal communication and human relationships (7th ed.). London: Pearson.
Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
Simpson, J. A., Farrell, A. K., Oriña, M. M., & Rothman, A. J. (2015). Power and social influence in relationships. In Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. (Eds), Interpersonal Relations: Vol 3, APA handbook of personality and social psychology (pp. 393-420). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.