2.1 Managing Relationships

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the benefits of social interactions with a variety of people in the university environment.
  2. List personal characteristics and skills that contribute to one’s ability to get along well with others.
  3. Improve your communication skills.
  4. Use online social networking beneficially.
  5. Balance your social life with your schoolwork.
  6. Describe how to successfully resolve a conflict with another person.

As students, you will continually interact with other students and instructors, and these interactions can heighten the learning process. University students depend on their instructors, but just as importantly, they depend on other students in many ways.

As important as our interactions with others are, we do not automatically possess the skills that help us form good relationships and make the most of our experiences.

Recognize the Value of Social Interaction

Building good relationships is important for happiness and a successful university experience. University offers the opportunity to meet many people you would likely not meet otherwise. Make the most of this opportunity to gain a number of benefits:

  • A growing understanding of a range of people, how they think, and what they feel that will serve you well throughout your life and in your future career
  • A heightened sense of your own identity, especially as you interact with others with different personalities and who are from different backgrounds
  • Emotional comfort from friendship with someone who understands you and with whom you can talk about your problems, joys, hopes, and fears
  • An opportunity to grow with wider intellectual and emotional horizons

University often offers an opportunity to be stimulated and excited by new relationships and interactions with people who will challenge your thinking and help you become your best. Still, it can be difficult to get started with new relationships in university.

Making New Friends

Figure 2-2: Making connections with others will improve your academic experience. Here, students connect at the University of Saskatchewan graduation Powwow.  Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usask/14367773053/in/album-72157644903277322/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some people just make friends naturally, but many first-year university students are more shy or quiet and may need to actively seek new friends. Here are some starting points:

  1. Keep all doors open for meeting new people. If you live in residence, keep your door open. Try to sit with different people at meals so you can get to know them better. Study in a common area or lounge where you’ll be among others.
  2. Be open in your interests. Don’t limit yourself to people who share only certain interests. Meeting people by studying together is an excellent way to get to know people with different interests.
  3. Don’t try to get involved in everything going on around you. Committing to too many activities or joining too many social groups will create stress in the long term, and you may not spend enough time with anyone to get to know them.
  4. Let others see who you really are. Let people get to know the things you’re interested in, your real passions. People who really know you are more likely to become good friends.
  5. Make an effort to get to know others, too. Show some interest. Don’t talk just about your interests—ask them about theirs. Show others that you’re interested, that you think they’re worth spending time with, and that you really do want to get to know them.
  6. Once a friendship has started, be a good friend. Respect your friends for who they are and don’t criticize them or talk about them behind their back. Give emotional support when your friends need it and accept their support as well when you need it.

Are You Shy?

If you’re shy, try meeting and talking to people in situations where you can interact one-to-one, such as talking with another student after class. Start with what you have in common—“What did you think of that test?”—and let the conversation grow from there. Avoid the emotional trap of thinking everyone but you is making new friends and start some conversations with others who look interesting to you. You’ll soon find other “shy” or quiet people eager to interact with you as well and get to know you.

Communication Skills

Communication is at the core of almost all social interactions, including those involved in friendships and relationships with your instructors. Communication with others has a huge effect on our lives, what we think and feel, and what and how we learn.

Oral communication involves not only speech and listening, of course, but also nonverbal communication: facial expressions, tone of voice, and many other body language signals that affect the messages sent and received. Many experts think that people pay more attention, often unconsciously, to how people say something than to what they are saying. When the nonverbal message is inconsistent with the verbal (spoken) message, just as when the verbal message itself is unclear because of poorly chosen words or vague explanations, then miscommunication may occur.

Miscommunication is at the root of many misunderstandings among people and makes it difficult to build relationships.

Figure 2-3: Miscommunication is at the root of many misunderstandings. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/smilekerry/3224201623/
Permission: CC BY-NC 2.0

Remember that communication is a two-way process. Listening skills are critical for most university students simply because many of us may not have learned how to really listen to another person. Here are some guidelines for how to listen effectively:

  • Talk less to listen more. Most people naturally like to share their thoughts and feelings, and some people almost seem unable to stop talking long enough to ever listen to another person. Try this: next time you’re in a conversation with another student, deliberately try not to speak very much but give the other person a chance to speak fully. You may notice a big difference in how much you gain from the conversation. Don’t be afraid of the odd “awkward pause”; some people require a bit more time to formulate answers or questions in conversation.
  • Ask questions. To keep the conversational ball rolling, show your interest in the other person by asking them open-ended questions about things they are saying. This helps the other person feel that you are interested in them and helps build the relationship.
  • Watch and respond to the other person’s body language. You’ll learn much more about their feelings for what they’re saying than if you listen only to their words.
  • Show the other person that you’re really listening and that you care. Make eye contact and respond appropriately with nods and brief comments like “That’s interesting!” or “I know what you mean” or “Really?” Be friendly, smile when appropriate, and encourage the person to keep speaking.
  • Give the other person feedback. Show you understand by saying things like “So you’re saying that…” or asking a question that demonstrates you’ve been following what they’re saying and want to know more.

As you learn to improve your listening skills, think also about what you are saying yourself and how. Here are additional guidelines for effective speaking:

  • Be honest, but don’t be critical. Strongly disagreeing may only put the other person on the defensive—an emotion sure to disrupt the hope for good communication. You can disagree, but be respectful to keep the conversation from becoming emotional. Say “I don’t know, I think that maybe it’s…” instead of “That’s crazy! What’s really going on is.…”
  • Look for common ground. Make sure that your side of a conversation relates to what the other person is saying and that it focuses on what you have in common. There’s almost no better way to stop a conversation dead in its tracks than to ignore everything the other person has just said and launch into an unrelated story or idea of your own.
  • Avoid sarcasm and irony unless you know the person well. Sarcasm is easily misunderstood and may be interpreted as an attack on the other person’s ideas or statements.
  • Remember that assertive communication is better than passive or aggressive communication. “Assertive” in this context means you are honest and direct in stating your ideas and thoughts; you are confident and clear and willing to discuss your ideas while still respecting the thoughts and ideas of others. A passive communicator is reluctant to speak up, seems to agree with everything others say, hesitates to say anything that others might disagree with, and therefore seldom communicates much at all. Passive communication simply is not a real exchange in communication. Aggressive communication, at the other extreme, is often highly critical of the thoughts and ideas of others. This communication style may be sarcastic, emotional, and even insulting. Real communication is not occurring because others are not prompted to respond honestly and openly.

Some students may have difficulty in the opposite direction: their social lives may become so rich or so time-consuming that they have problems balancing their social lives with their schoolwork. Social media, for example, may eat up a lot of time.

Social Media

Most university students know all about Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites.  The media have often emphasized negative stories involving safety concerns, obsessive behavior, a perceived superficiality of social interaction online, and so on. But more recently, online social networking has been found to have several benefits. Many of those who once criticized social networking platforms are now regularly networking among themselves via LinkedIn and other “professional” networking sites.

Interestingly, there are benefits of Facebook use—some clear to those using it, others revealed only recently by research in the social sciences. Many of these benefits can apply to other social networking sites as well:

  • Facebook and other forms of online networking make it easy to stay in touch with friends and family at a geographical distance. University students who have moved away from former friends seem to make the transition more easily when they stay in touch. Maintaining past relationships does not prevent most people from making new friends at university.
  • Facebook provides users with increased “social capital,” which is a sum of resources gained through one’s relationships with people. Facebook users gain information; opportunities for participation in activities and groups; invitations to events; chances to exchange advice (e.g., “what’s a good place to get sushi in this city?”; greater knowledge about others; some interaction skills; and so forth. Social capital is also associated with self-esteem, success in some endeavors, and general happiness.
  • Facebook makes it easier for people who are shy or otherwise slow to initiate or respond to interactions with others to participate socially in a group. Online network sites also offer an outlet for self-expression and sharing.
  • For many university students, interactions on Facebook strengthen personal relationships rather than detracting from them.
  • Acknowledging that online social networking is a reality for most university students, many university administrators, clubs, groups, and instructors also use it to stay in better touch with students, to provide information and encouragement, and to help students experience the full richness of the university experience. The University of Saskatchewan has a Facebook page where you can learn about things happening around campus, and you may even receive information about important announcements.
Figure 2-4: University of Saskatchewan’s Facebook Page – August 3rd, 2016. Source: https://www.facebook.com/usask/ Permission: University of Saskatchewan.

Still, online social networking is not 100 percent beneficial for all university students. Someone who becomes obsessed with constantly updating their profile or attracting a huge number of friends can spend so much time at their computer that they miss out on other important aspects of university life.

Hopefully by now everyone knows why you should never post compromising or inappropriate photos or information about yourself anywhere online, even as a joke: many employers, university admissions offices, and others may find this compromising material in the future and deny you the job, internship, graduate program, or other position that you want. It’s important also to protect your identity and privacy on online sites.  Make sure you set it up so that only those who you trust can see your full profile, and make sure that people have to get approval to tag you in photographs.

In 2016, sixty percent of employers research prospective hires on social networking, which was an increase from 11 percent in 2006 ( Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder, 2016; 2,106 hiring managers and HR professionals and 3,031 private sector workers).  Nearly fifty percent found material that would prevent them from hiring an individual, including

  • Provocative or inappropriate photographs, videos or information (46 percent)
  • Information about candidate drinking or using drugs (43 percent)
  • Discriminatory comments related to race, religion, gender, etc. (33 percent)
  • Candidate bad-mouthed previous company or fellow employee (31 percent)
  • Poor communication skills (29 percent)   — Source: CareerBuilder, 2016

Overall, online networking in moderation can help enrich one’s life. When used to build relationships, gain information, and stay in touch with a larger community, it can contribute to success in university. Most university students use Facebook ten to thirty minutes a day. If you’re spending more than that, you might ask yourself if you’re missing out on something else.

Balancing Schoolwork and Social Life

If there’s one thing true of virtually all university students, it’s that you don’t have enough time to do everything you want. Once you’ve developed friendships within the university community and have an active social life, you may feel you don’t have enough time for your studies and other activities such as work. For many students, the numerous social opportunities of university become a distraction, and with less attention to one’s studies, academic performance can drop. Here are some tips for balancing your social life with your studies:

  • Keep working on your time management skills. You can’t just “go with the flow” and hope that, after spending time with friends, you have enough time (and energy) left over for studying. Make a study schedule that provides enough time for what you need to do. Study first; socialize after.
  • Keep working on your study skills. When you have only a limited amount of time for studying, be sure you’re using that time as effectively as possible as you read assignments and prepare for class, organize your notes after class, and prepare for tests.  Reflect on successes and failures to do better next time.
  • If you can’t resist temptations, reduce them. If you are easily distracted by the opportunity to talk with your roommate, spouse, or family members because you study where you live, then go to the library to study.
  • Make studying a social experience. If your studying keeps you so busy that you feel like you don’t have much of a social life, form a study group. You will learn more than you would alone by gaining from the thoughts of others, and you can enjoy interacting with others without falling behind.
  • Keep your social life from affecting your studying. Simply scheduling study time doesn’t mean you’ll use it well. If you stayed up late the night before, you may not today be able to concentrate well as you study for that big test. This is another reason for good time management and scheduling your time well, looking ahead.
  • Get help if you need it. If you’re still having difficulty balancing your study time with other activities, talk with your academic advisor or a counselor. Maybe something else is keeping you from doing your best. Maybe you need some additional study skills or you need to get some extra help from a tutor or campus learning centre or library. Remember, your university wants you to succeed and will try to help those who seek help.

Overcoming Difficulties and Resolving Conflicts

Conflicts among people who are interacting are natural. People have many differences in opinions, ideas, emotions, and behaviors, and these differences sometimes cause conflicts. Here are just a few examples of conflicts that may occur among university students:

  • Your roommate is playing loud music in your room, and you need some quiet to study for a test.
  • You want to have a nice dinner out, but your partner wants to save the money to buy a new game.
  • Your instructor gave you a 68% on a paper because it lacks some of the required elements, but you feel it deserves a better grade because you think it accomplished more important goals.

So how can such conflicts be resolved? Two things are necessary for conflict resolution that does not leave one or more of the people involved feeling negative about the outcome: attitude and communication.

A conflict cannot be resolved satisfactorily unless all people involved have the right attitude:

  • Respect the options and behaviors of others. Accept that people are not all alike and learn to celebrate your differences. Most situations do not involve a single right or wrong answer.
  • Be open minded. Just because at first you are sure that that you are right, do not close the door to other possibilities. Look at the other’s point of view. Be open to change—even when that means accepting constructive criticism.
  • Calm down. You can’t work together to resolve a conflict while you’re still feeling strong emotions. Agree with the other to wait until you’re both able to discuss it without strong emotions.
  • Recognize the value of compromise. Even if you disagree after calmly talking over an issue, accept that as a human reality and understand that a compromise may be necessary in order to get along with others.

With the right attitude, you can then work together to resolve the issue. This process depends on good communication:

  • Listen. Don’t simply argue for your position, but listen carefully to what the other says. Pay attention to their body language as you try to understand their point of view and ask questions to ensure that you do. Paraphrase what you think you hear to give the other a chance to correct any misunderstanding.
  • Use “I statements” rather than “you statements,” and avoid the words “always” or “never.” Explain your point of view about the situation in a way that does not put the other person on the defensive and evoke emotions that make a resolution more difficult. Don’t say, “You’re always playing loud music when I’m trying to study.” Instead, say, “It’s hard to study when you play loud music.” Don’t blame the other for the problem—that would just get emotions flowing again.
  • Brainstorm together to find a solution that satisfies both of you. Some compromise is usually needed, but that is usually not difficult to reach when you’re calm and have the right attitude about working together on a solution. In some cases, you may simply have to accept a result that you still do not agree with, simply in order to move on.

In most cases, when the people involved have a good attitude, listen and feel heard, choose their words carefully, and are open to compromise, conflicts can be resolved successfully.

Yet sometimes there seems to be no resolution. Sometimes the other person may simply be difficult and refuse to even try to work out a solution. With some interpersonal conflicts, especially if there’s abuse involved (verbal, emotional, or physical), choose not to interact with that person anymore.  Check out the University of Saskatchewan’s Guide to Healthy Relationships for more information on what a healthy relationship is and identifying when you’re in an abusive relationship.

Roommate Issues

At many universities students just out of high school must live in a campus residence hall. Other students may live in a shared apartment with new roommates. This is the first time many students have had to share a room, suite, or apartment with others who were not family members, and this situation may lead to conflicts and strong feelings that can even affect academic success.

As in other interactions, the keys to forming a good relationship with a roommate are communication and attitude. From the beginning, you should talk about everyone’s expectations of the other(s) and what matters most to you about where you live. Don’t wait until problems happen before talking. It’s often good to begin with the key practical issues: agreeing on quiet hours for study (limiting not only loud music but also visits from others), time for lights out, neatness and cleaning up, things shared and private things not to touch.

Show respect for the other’s ideas and possessions, respect their privacy, and try to listen more than you talk. Even if your roommate does not become a close friend, you can have a harmonious, successful relationship that makes your residence a good home for both of you. Millions of university students before you have learned to work this out, and if both (or all) of you respect each other and keep communication open and nonconfrontational, you will easily get through the small bumps in the road ahead, too. Follow these guidelines to help ensure you get along well:

  • Anticipate problems before they happen. Think about things that you consider essential in your living environment and talk with a new roommate about these essentials now.
  • Deal with any problem promptly. Don’t wait until a behavior is well established before speaking up, as if the other person will somehow catch on that it aggravates you. It may be as simple as a roommate using your coffee cup or borrowing your toothpaste without asking, but if you say nothing, trying to be polite, the habit may expand to other things.
  • Be patient, flexible, and willing to compromise. It may take a while for each of you to get used to each other and to establish a communication pattern of openness so that you can be honest with each other about what really matters.
  • Be warm, use humor, and be sensitive. Telling someone that they’re doing something bothersome can be very difficult for many people. Think before speaking, looking for the best way to communicate what you feel. Remember, you’ll be spending a lot of time around this person, so do you really want them to think of you as bossy or obsessive-compulsive?
  • Get out more. Sometimes it helps to spend more time elsewhere on campus, studying in the library or another quiet place. You just might need a certain amount of time a day alone. That’s fine, but don’t expect your roommate to have to leave just to give you that time alone!

But What If You Really Have a Roommate Problem?

In some situations and with some people who will not compromise and do not respect you and your needs, a roommate can be a serious problem. In some circumstances, you may able to move to a different room. Room changes usually are not granted simply because you “don’t get along,” but certain circumstances may justify a change. The following are some examples:

  • Your roommate smokes in the room.
  • Your roommate uses illegal drugs, drinks alcohol underage, or conducts other illegal activities in the room.
  • Your roommate repeatedly refuses to limit activities at any hour to allow you to sleep.
  • Your roommate does anything that threatens your physical well-being or safety.
  • Your roommate is abusive.
  • Your roommate denies you your rights to practice your religion or other basic rights.

If you have a problem like this, first talk with your resident advisor (RA) or other residence hall authority. They will explain the process for a room change, if warranted, or other ways for managing the problem.

Dealing with Harassment

Although university campuses are for the most part safe, secure, and friendly places where social and intellectual interaction is generally mature and responsible, harassment can occur in any setting. Harassment is a general term referring to behavior that is intended to disturb or threaten another person in some way, often psychologically. Typically the person or people doing the harassment may target their victim because of a difference in race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

Acts of harassment may be verbal, physical, psychological, or any other behavior intended to disturb another person. Bullying behavior, name-calling, belittling, gesturing obscenely, stalking, mobbing—any action intended to torment or deliberately make another person uncomfortable or feel humiliated is harassment. Harassment may also be intended to manipulate a targeted person to act in some specific way.

Sexual harassment is a special term referring to persistent, unwanted sexual behaviors or advances. Sexual harassment may begin with words but progress to unwanted touching and potentially even rape.

Many types of harassment are illegal. In the workplace, a supervisor who tells off-color sexual jokes around an employee of the opposite gender may be guilty of sexual harassment. Students who deliberately malign members of another race may be guilty of committing a hate crime. Physically tormenting another student in a hazing may be judged assault and battery. On a university campus, any harassment of a student by a faculty member or university employee is expressly forbidden, unethical, and also possibly illegal. Read up on your university’s code of misconduct.

Harassment of any type, at any time, of any person, is wrong and unacceptable. You will know it if you are harassed, and you should know also that it is your basic right to be free of harassment and that your university has strict policies and procedures around harassment and discrimination. 

Changing Family Relationships

The university years are a time of many changes, including one’s relationships with parents, siblings, and one’s own children and partners. Any time there is change, issues may arise.

Figure 2-5: A video communication program like Skype makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family. 
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/10557450@N04/4439315507/ Permission: CC BY-NC 2.0

As in other relationships, try to understand the other’s perspective. Honesty is particularly important—but with tact and understanding. Here are some tips for getting along:

  • Understand that your parents may not change their attitudes toward you as quickly as you yourself may be changing. They may still think of you as a younger person in need of their continued guidance. They will worry about you and fear that you might fall in with the wrong crowd or engage in risky behavior. Be patient. Take the time to communicate, and don’t close yourself off. Let them gradually accept you as a more mature person who can make your own decisions wisely.
  • Stay in touch. You may be busier than ever and feel you haven’t time for a phone call or e-mail, but communication is important for parents—especially if they are now empty nesters without other children at home. Even if they seem to want too much involvement in your life and to make decisions for you, realize that this at least in part is simply a desire to stay in touch with you—and to feel they still matter in your life.
  • Use your best listening skills. Understanding what they’re really feeling, which is often simply a concern for you born of their love for you, will usually help you know best to respond.
  • Be assured that over time your parents and other family members will get used to your being on your own and will accept your ability to make your own decisions. Time itself often solves issues.
  • With your own family, now that you are busier than ever with classes and work, you may need to pay special attention to ensuring you stay active in family relationships. Schedule times for family outings and make room in your days for casual interactions. But remember, it’s not how much time you spend together but the quality of that time, so give your family your full attention when you are together.


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Strategies for Academic Success Copyright © 2017 by University of Saskatchewan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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