Effective Communication

Having a positive working alliance with your Supervisor/s will be crucial to your studies and your experience as a PGR student. This can be aided by developing a constructive rapport between you. Good rapport relies on attention and commitment to effective communication.

The expectations we hold of other people and vice versa are sometimes assumed to be explicit. We think because we have a role this clarifies the way in which we will work together and when things become difficult we can sometimes begin to try to read each other’s minds based on past experiences, but we can’t. The easiest way of knowing what someone expects of us is to ask them and vice versa. 

Your Supervisor/s will be able to offer guidance and advice about the process and stages of your study and offer critical expertise in your subject area. They will also have a professional interest in your welfare, however, the expectation of any PGR student is to be reasonably self-sufficient. These expectations in both roles (yours and theirs) can seem ambiguous until they’re bought to life in practise. Setting the expectations within the relationship at the earliest opportunity can help the professional relationship run smoothly. 

Negotiation is a joint decision-making process where there is a shared interest in reaching agreement. It can be learned but requires preparation and the context matters greatly in determining the meaning of the interaction. It is important to note there is no universally effective approach, but this must fit the context and the relationship. How it is framed impacts on how it is likely to be responded to too.

Agreeing and negotiating the expectations through effective communication will help to develop a shared understanding and to develop the rapport  between you. If the expectations communicated and agreed are realistic, consistent, clear, and reliable this is more likely to lead to trust between you. Your Supervisor/s may have specific insights based on previous experience and knowledge as do you about you and your research.  These insights combined can be used to negotiate what you might need from your Supervisor/s and how to realistically meet these needs.  It’s worth getting these aligned through communication and could contribute to developing a Learning Contract between you. 

It is helpful to develop an awareness of communication skills that can be helpful in negotiating your work together. There are three core communication skills of confrontation, confirmation, and comprehension which are all interrelated and that ability in one skill area impacts ability in other skill areas. Confrontation is the ability draw attention to the issues and your needs. Confirmation is the demonstration of respect for the other person and yourself. Comprehension is communicating to be understood and to understand. These require a willingness and ability to use your opportunity to be both assertive and cooperative: being able to say what matters to you and have it understood and a willingness to listen in order to understand. 

Skills are behavioral and skill development is usually not immediate. It is worth assessing your own skill strengths and challenges and consider how you could develop skills through for example, conversation, written exercises, reading, role play, etc. and make the practice as close to reality as possible. It’s also helpful to note the cultural influences in communication. Cultures affect communication through our frames of reference. We are all multicultural, so simple stereotypes are not helpful. 

Putting these skills into practice through a five steps model in effective communication can give you a frame work to form the agreements [1]. These are: Contracting: Initial goal setting: Assessment: Implementation and action planning (which includes a  follow-up process): and Evaluation & Review the results.

Your agreements might include arrangements for your study and confirm the way in which you intend to communicate with each other. For example, the frequency and their purpose of formal pre scheduled meetings, not exclusive to the important stages of the PGR process and the stages of your development, as well as any informal non scheduled opportunities to discuss your development that may be necessary throughout your contact with each other. It is worth considering how and why these may be necessary so you can be clear of the expectations and clarify the method in which you intend to communicate with each other (when would face to face meetings be more helpful; skype arrangements; phone call; or email? etc) including realistic response expectations. 

With all the best intentions and plan in the world you are likely to encounter events that may change the nature of the way in which you work. It is important to stay in contact with your supervisor so that you feel familiar sharing any changes, concerns or developments and have developed experience of  being able to share these. Changes can often be an opportunity to revisit any agreements made between you and amend these according to any new needs identified. Remember revisions and re-negotiations aren’t a sign of failure but as with your research an opportunity to develop and progress.

Written by Rupinder Mahil (University of Derby) 



Valerio AM, Lee RJ. Executive coaching: A guide for the HR professional. John Wiley & Sons; 2005 Feb 8.