“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” The cruel Captain in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke” utters this famous line after whipping Luke, a prisoner on his chain gang who refuses to meet the Captain’s expectations for obedience. The movie scene illustrates an extreme breakdown in communication, but this type of failure is hardly unique. Human beings are social, and our lives are filled with interactions that can go well or badly, depending upon the expectations we have and the communication skills we bring to our social exchanges.
Associate Professor Tim Cole focuses his research and pedagogy on relational communication, specifically close relationships and deceptive communication. “If I had to summarize it, what I teach is how to manage interdependence,” Cole says. “It’s one of the most difficult and complex things you’re going to do. So we look at this process, how this process works and the benefits and constraints of being in a close, intimate relationship.”
Relational communication is a far cry from the more traditional subjects taught at colleges and universities, but as automation and artificial intelligence increasingly displace the person-to-person interactions that used to be the norm, the value of what Cole calls the “empathy economy” becomes all the more important. “This is what people who talk about the future of jobs talk about—the importance of empathy, constructive communication, setting clear goals and objectives, giving constructive feedback and managing conflict,” says Cole.
Research shows that nationwide, students are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression than ever before. Cole’s course on mindfulness helps students understand, regulate and constructively work through their emotions. “I love teaching this,” Cole says, “because the research shows that in about six to eight weeks, you can significantly improve their ability to cope with stressful events and emotions. I can see students actually improve their lives.”
Cole also focuses on having students assess their expectations. “It’s not realistic to expect a partner to always understand you or agree with you,” he says. “So you have to be able to ask, ‘Is this something that an average person could do or is this even a realistic expectation to have?’ The other thing I spend a lot of time on is understanding that your partner is a human being and is going to violate your expectations from time to time. Relationships are nothing but a series of dealing with issues. Can we deal with them with compassion, love, support and understanding versus hostility, competition and confrontation?”
"If I had to summarize it, what I teach is how to manage interdependence."
Relational communication is a burgeoning, multidisciplinary academic field. The International Association of Relational Research welcomes scholars from communication, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and even neuroscience. Interpersonal relationships form the crucible for understanding a variety of complex issues, and the research and practical instruction are transferable to a variety of career tracks.
Cole affirms that what works in personal relationships also makes for successful managers and leaders in the workplace. “There is really interesting research out recently on the most effective leaders,” Cole says. “They are the most humble people, the people who are the best listeners, and the people who are the most empathetic. They bring out the best in others. They know how to motivate others, and again, they know how to make other people feel understood, cared for, valued. They build a lot of trust.”
Originally published in Conversations (Spring 2019).