Human Relations: Conversations and Interviews

Last update: 21 August 2002

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People has remained a best seller since it was originally published in 1936, and thousands of people have been through Dale Carnegie training seminars to improve their human relations skills. For years people have recognized that effective human relations are essential for success in business—and in life. This section covers a variety of topics associated with human relations in the work place, from interpersonal communication to conflict resolution.

Management is essentially working with and through people. Communication makes that possible. Effective interpersonal communication skills are as important to success in business as are effective written messages. Although all communication between and among humans is interpersonal in some ways, the term, interpersonal communication, typically refers to communication in which the relationship is more important than the specific business purpose of the message.

Most interpersonal communication is face-to-face and takes place in dyads (two persons) or small, informal groups. Although it is not face-to-face, a lot of telephone communication—and, more recently, email—is interpersonal in nature. For communication to be interpersonal, it must involve exploration and discovery of the psychology of the communicators. Using what is already known about a person’s psychology to motivate him or her is not interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication builds or maintains the relationship rather than directs behavior.

Interpersonal Communication in Business

Interpersonal communication is, in fact, the foundation of all human relationships. Because it usually takes place on a face-to-face basis, its success depends on our ability at establishing rapport, listening, speaking, and sending and receiving nonverbal messages. At this point, you may wish to review the material in Communication and Behavior and Relationships and Rapport.

In addition to the way we listen, speak, and handle nonverbal messages, our interpersonal communication is influenced by the assumptions we make about ourselves and other people. Clearly the more we know about them, including their behavioral type and their metaprograms (see the material on metaprograms in Relationships and Rapport), the more effective we can be communicating with them. Human behavior is, of course, complex, and fortunately, we do not have to fully understand either our own behavior or that of others to be successful in communicating with them. In fact, if we were to understand others—or ourselves—fully, we would have no need to communicate. Our differences and our lack of knowledge about one another make communication necessary.

This lack of knowledge also makes the behavior of others often appear irrational and mysterious. We may fail to understand both the reason someone has acted in a particular way and the person’s explanation of the action. You will be more successful in your interpersonal communication when you help compensate for that lack of knowledge by making the following five assumptions about human behavior:

  1. The actions and the communications of others have meaning to them, even if we do not know what that meaning is. In some cases, the psychoanalysts are right—the “meaning” of a behavior or statement is an unconscious, inarticulate feeling that is displaced from one time and place to another. A frequently cited example is that of the person who has had a hard day at the office who vents his anger and frustration on his or her spouse and children after going home. The behavior is meaningful although misdirected.

    A person’s behavior is always meaningful in the sense that the person expects to receive some kind of pleasure—or relief from pain—as a result. The gratification may not be fully conscious. In the foregoing example, the person probably knows that he or she is angry and that the anger was caused by events at the office. The person may not be aware, however, that the expression of anger toward the spouse and children is an inappropriate displacement.

  2. We communicate to increase the control we have over our own behavior and the behavior of others. We communicate to find out why someone—either ourselves or someone else—does something so that in the future we can control, influence, predict, cause, or avoid that behavior. We are all more comfortable in an environment we can understand and make predictions about. We feel better when we know what is likely to happen next and when we think we understand the relationships between causes and their effects.

  3. Regardless of the content of a message, all acts of communication are significant in that they have either a positive or a negative influence on the self-images of the sender and the receiver. Whenever we communicate, we make our receivers feel either better or worse about themselves. No communication is neutral. A simple “Good morning” may make your receiver feel better or worse, depending on your tone of voice and the accompanying nonverbal message. In general, the sender’s self-image will change in the same direction and to about the same degree as that of the receiver. When you attempt to make others feel good about themselves, you will feel good about yourself as well. When you attempt to make them feel bad, you will tend to feel worse as well.

  4. All people have the same basic biological and psychological needs (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in Understanding Persuasion), but their perception of what constitutes satisfaction of those needs varies for cultural and individual reasons.

  5. For any of us to satisfy many of our needs for any length of time, we must cooperate—and communicate—with others. Because most people are not mind readers, we must begin by (a) asking questions to discover what the needs of others are and doing what we can to help them fulfill those needs and (b) letting others know what our needs are and specifying ways they can help us achieve them.

The Dyadic Life Cycle

The major variables in a dyad are how well the people know each other and whether they perceive each other as equals. A great deal of our communication, both in and outside of organizations, takes place in dyads, so you already have a great deal of experience with this type of communication. Even if you are already very good at it, however, you can enhance the skills you already have—and perhaps eliminate some bad habits that may be detracting from your interpersonal success.

Any dyad, whether inside or outside an organization, has a life cycle that begins when two people first meet and ends when the two no longer engage in interpersonal communication. The life cycle is composed of four general stages: initial, formative, mature, and severance.

  1. The initial stage is very short, lasting at most 10 minutes. The character of the dyad is usually fully established by the end of this stage. First impressions do count, and because you can never know how important a new relationship will be for you, it's important to begin by establishing rapport by matching and mirroring the other’s verbal and nonverbal behavior.

    The initial stage of interpersonal communication generally includes exchanges of demographic information, such as where and when the people were born, grew up, and went to school. The exchange of this information helps the participants make inferences about differences of opinion, other matters of potential conflict, and common interests and beliefs. Some self-disclosure at this stage helps ensure the continuation of the relationship, but excessive self-disclosure discourages a lasting relationship.

  2. The formative stage may last for an indefinite period, beginning after the initial stage is over and continuing until the equilibrium of the mature stage is established. In the formative period, the participants discuss attitudes and opinions and establish the emotional tone of the relationship. This stage typically includes an exploration of values and beliefs in an effort to find more substantial commonalities than those required for the initial sense of rapport.

    Several types of conflict may arise at this stage. One person, for example, may wish to be more intimate than the other; one may wish to control the other more than the other wishes to be controlled; or one may respond to situations in ways the other finds inappropriate. Differences in closely held beliefs and values may also create conflict.

  3. The mature stage also lasts an indefinite period. At this point, the participants have “defined” each other and their relationship. They have reached a perceived equilibrium: they think they agree about how intimate they will be, about who will control whom, about how decisions affecting both of them will be made, about important values and beliefs, and, typically, even about what jokes are funny.

    Some relationships never reach true equilibrium. The participants behave as though they agree about matters of importance to the relationship, but in actuality they disagree. This happens when at least one of the participants does not engage in honest self-disclosure. The amount of self-disclosure can vary greatly in ongoing relationships, but the information must be accurate if the relationship is to continue. A relationship based on inaccurate information cannot last. This is true of any dyad, from a purely professional relationship in which a bare minimum of personal information is disclosed to the fully intimate relationship of lovers.

    In mature dyadic relationships, each participant can judge with a reasonable degree of accuracy how the other will respond in any exchange between them. It is possible, however, for one participant to upset the equilibrium by altering an established conception of the relationship. Suppose, for example, that after 15 years of marriage and raising three children, a wife tells her husband that she wants to return to school and become a microbiologist. The husband liked things the way they were. When this sort of conflict occurs, the dyad returns to the formative stage, and the participants must work to reestablish equilibrium if the relationship is to continue.

    If the dyad is important or valued, it’s generally worthwhile to change the equilibrium slowly rather than dramatically. (It’s easier to climb stairs than to leap tall buildings in a single bound.) In the foregoing example, the wife could achieve her objective by letting her husband adjust first to her taking a few courses, then to her working toward a degree, and then to her completion of a graduate program. That way, her husband would have opportunity to adjust by increments rather than all at once.

  4. The severance stage is the final stage and marks the end of the relationship. Some relationships end with a bang, while others end with a whimper. Some relationships end with a major conflict (such as divorce), and others simply fade away over time. Ours is a mobile society: people not only change their residences fairly often, but also change their values, beliefs, and expectations with regularity.

    This rate of change greatly increases the complexity of interpersonal communication. Some people respond to the uncertainty in the future of relationships by avoiding intimacy; others respond by trying to effect intimacy in all relationships. Any interpersonal relationship involves some risk, of course, and the more intimate the relationship, the greater the risk that ending the relationship will be painful.

The Mature Organizational Dyad

Dyads in organizational settings follow the same life cycle as other dyads. Mature dyads with good interpersonal relationships greatly boost the efficiency and morale of the organization. An organization’s success is, in fact, often determined by who communicates with whom and how well they communicate. The dyadic communication in organizations is influenced primarily by the communication climate and the formality of the dyad.

The Communication Climate

Dyads tend to have either an open or closed communication climate. Some variation will occur from day to day, but most dyads are fairly consistent with respect to the amount and kind of communication that takes place. The people in a dyad usually reach an agreement about the way they will treat one another, though the agreement may not necessarily please both people.

When one person in an organizational dyad outranks the other, the person in the superior position usually has the greater influence on the communication climate. Those in higher ranks, from first-line supervisors to an organization’s executives have the authority—both real and perceived—to establish the communication climate. High social status functions the same way.

In an open communication climate, people perceive communication more accurately and are more willing to communicate honestly. People in such a climate are willing to listen as well as talk and attempt to see the other person’s point of view. Open communication climates encourage participants to feel as though they are part of a problem-solving team.

Closed communication climates, on the other hand, discourage communication. They give people the feeling that they are being judged and criticized. In such climates, power—rather than communication—is used to control the relationship. In this type of communication climate, even the most innocuous piece of constructive criticism will probably be perceived as a threat. Further, people who habitually manipulate others in this way tend to assume that everyone does the same, and, in fact, manipulation fosters countermanipulation. When this goes on, everyone in the organization suffers.

The characteristics of open and closed communication climates are as follows:

Clear objectivesHidden agenda

Harmonious, cooperative relationships are marked by open communication, whereas much of the communication in adversarial and hostile relationships is closed and contains hidden agenda. Because an organization requires the cooperation of its members for long-term survival, it is management’s responsibility to encourage open communication. Long-term organizational success requires that all employees believe that they can express their observations and criticisms to others in the organization, regardless of rank.

In an open communication climate, employees believe that

  1. They will receive credit for their ideas and contributions.

  2. Their complaints will be taken seriously, investigated, and either resolved or explained in a satisfactory manner.

  3. Those higher in the organizational hierarchy are not manipulating communication flow to control them.

  4. Those higher in the organizational hierarchy value them as human beings whose needs and aspirations go beyond their organizational functions.


A mature dyad has a fairly consistent degree of formality, which is established almost entirely by the participant who is higher in the organizational hierarchy or who has the higher social status. The main difference between formal and informal dyads is that the former discourages self-disclosure while the latter encourages it. Other aspects of communication are not necessarily influenced by the degree of formality. Generally speaking, however, long-lasting, valued relationships are less formal than relationships that the participants believe will be temporary or unimportant.

Dress and outward appearance do not indicate degrees of formality. Two executives in dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties may be much less formal with each other than two construction workers wearing overalls, flannel shirts, and hard hats. The conventions of the executive dyad differ from those of construction-worker dyad, but formality is measured not by the conventions of behavior themselves but rather by which—or how many—conventions the participants ignore in their dealings with one another.

Although inappropriate informality in the initial or formative stages of a dyad might lead to an imbalanced relationship, informality in a mature relationship is a sign of trust. The participants in such a relationship have agreed that the absence of certain conventional forms of behavior does not endanger the relationship. Excessive formality, on the other hand, is a distancing element that may indicate a closed communication climate. For example, if one participant in the dyad tends to use written channels of communication rather than an oral channel for routine communication, he or she may be sending the message, “Keep your distance.”

The appropriate degree of formality can be established only by the two people in the dyad, but for the dyad to be successful, the participants must agree about how much formality is required.

Speaking and Listening

All conversations consist of speaking and listening. We engage in these activities so often that for most of us they have become a little like breathing—we do them without giving much conscious thought to how we do them. And, like breathing, we never really question whether we are doing either of them very well.


In its simplest form, speaking is putting ideas into words, but speaking very rarely occurs in its simplest form. It is almost always accompanied by nonverbal behavior that supplements, contradicts, or reinforces the verbal message. You will recall from the section on nonverbal communication in Communication and Behavior, that when the nonverbal contradicts the verbal, we are more inclined to believe the nonverbal, which is more difficult to control consciously.

Nevertheless, talking effectively in a typical organizational setting requires well-developed language skills. People tend to judge one another’s abilities by the way they talk. When you hear someone described as “having a good mind,” what is almost always meant is that the person is good at talking, that he or she has a good vocabulary and knows how to use it.

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary and confidence in using Standard English, being good at talking, whether in informal hallway conversations or in more formal settings, requires sensitivity to the pace, tone, and pitch of oral delivery as well as to the nonverbal behavior of the listener or listeners. Matching the vocal qualities and sense-based vocabulary of others will help you establish rapport with them.


Listening, too, is a critical skill. Listening is paid a lot of lip service—everyone recognizes that it is important, but very few people actually work to improve their skills. Over the years, we have learned to afford greater respect to written messages than to speech. We pay closer attention to material that’s been put into writing, and we certainly give it greater credibility.

The Importance of Listening. Throughout school you receive special instruction in and learn more about reading every year, but you are generally expected to know everything you need to know about listening when you begin school. Yet studies of listening activity have shown that of the 70 percent of the waking day that most of us spend in communication activity, we spend more time listening—about 45 percent—than reading, writing, or speaking. Studies have also shown that most of us listen with about 25 percent efficiency; that is, we remember only about 25 percent of what we hear, forgetting 75 percent almost immediately after hearing it.

Listening and Hearing. Listening is much more than hearing. Hearing is a physical, passive process; listening is an active mental communication process. We hear words, but we listen for meaning. We hear with our ears; we listen not only with our ears but also with our eyes and minds as well. As we listen, we also search for nonverbal signs of communication.

Although listening situations range from extremely informal to formal, listening tasks fall into two broad categories, public and interpersonal. Public listening situations are those in which listeners are attempting to learn what they can from a formal presentation or lecture whether delivered in person or by radio or television. In public listening situations, the opportunities for questions and other forms of feedback are limited. Interpersonal listening situations are those that encourage exchange—questions, answers, or discussion—among speakers and listeners.

Formal Dyads: The Interview

Most of what has been said about dyads in general applies to the interview process, but interviews differ from other dyads in that they have a more definite, formal structure. Although interviews vary in their degree of formality and are conducted for various purposes, their similarities are more notable than their differences. For information specifically about employment interviews, see Negotiating for What You Want in the section on Communication about Employment.

Interview Purposes

In arranging an interview, at least one of the participants has a specific purpose in mind. The specific purposes of interviews usually fall into one of the following six categories:

  1. Employment.  The employment interview is probably the best-known of all interview types. The hiring process usually includes some kind of interview, so most people have had at least limited experience with an employment interview. From the employer's standpoint, an employment interview has three specific purposes. First, the interviewer should determine whether the applicant is the right person for the job. Second, the interviewer should give the applicant enough information about the job and the organization so that the applicant can make an informed decision about the job on the basis of career and personal goals. And third, the employment interview should create goodwill for the organization.

  2. Orientation.  The orientation interview functions to supply or obtain organizational facts, policies, or other job-related information. Orientation interviews are routinely used to introduce new employees to the work situation and to acquaint employees with pertinent, new information, such as might be required with a change in policies, work flow, or the equipment used to perform certain work.

  3. Performance-appraisal.  The performance-appraisal interview is used to help evaluate job performance. It is also used to discuss job, personal, and performance goals and to define job-related problems and expectations. Performance-appraisals are often used to help determine increases in compensation, so such interviews are often important to career success. Most organizations conduct formal performance-appraisal interviews on a regular basis, such as every six months or once a year. At the end of the interview, both employer and employee should have a clear understanding of the other’s expectations and perception of the quality of work being performed. Such interviews afford employers the opportunity to reinforce good work and to correct problems, and they afford the employee the opportunity to improve work performance and job understanding.

  4. Problem-solving.  In problem-solving interviews, the interviewer and interviewee discuss a job-related problem and explore possible solutions. This type of interview is also used when either the employer or the employee needs to acquaint the other with a particular problem when less formal means of communicating (email, memo, or telephone message) would be inappropriate because of the nature of the problem.

  5. Counseling/grievance.  When the employer or the employee has a particular problem that the other can solve, a counseling/grievance interview can be helpful. Counseling includes advice not only about correcting identifiable job performance problems, but also about personal problems that may influence job performance. Grievance interviews reflect the employee’s “right to petition” the employer to change a particular behavior. Most organizations have a formal policy governing grievances.

  6. Exit.  The main purpose of an exit interview is to help the employer understand the reasons for employee turnover. Exit interviews also serve to express appreciation for the employee’s work and to help ensure that the employee leaves with a positive attitude toward the organization.

Types of Questions

Because all interviews consist of a series of questions and answers, the success of an interview depends primarily on the kinds and quality of the questions asked. The serious nature of many interviews creates a potential threatening atmosphere for many people, so the interviewer must be especially careful to maintain an open communication climate if he or she wishes to elicit clear, accurate information. Certain kinds of questions help establish an open climate; other kinds of questions tend to cut communication off.

Open-climate questions include leading questions, direct questions, open questions, probes, mirror questions, and hypothetical questions.

  1. Leading questions guide the interviewee to a specific response. The interviewer should avoid leading questions except when he or she is certain that a socially approved answer will result. When used to confirm known information, leading questions help the interviewer and interviewee relax with one another. “You’ve been working here six months now, is that correct?” “You majored in marketing, didn’t you?” Leading questions that presuppose some form of wrong doing on the part of the interviewee are closed-climate questions.

  2. Direct questions call for a limited response, often a yes or no. “Have you completed NT certification?” “When did you complete NT certification?” “Did that experience influence your decision to apply for a job with us?” When the likely response to a direct question would threaten the interviewee in some way, it is a closed-climate question.

  3. Open questions require the interviewee to develop an extended answer. For this reason, they are the interviewer’s main tool for obtaining the desired information. “What are your ideas on improving the workflow in the Circumlocution Office?” “What are your job objectives for the coming year, and what are your plans for achieving them?” “What would you consider your major accomplishments during the past year?”

  4. Probes are direct or open questions that pursue some aspect of a previous response. “Why would you like to be a district manager?” “What do you think should be done to solve that problem?” “How can we improve the communication among our major divisions?”

  5. Mirror questions, like probes, serve to elicit more information about a certain aspect of a previous response. The question mirrors some part of the response.

    Interviewee:...and then I discovered the problem with the Unix server...
    Interviewer:The problem with the Unix server?
    Interviewee:Yes, I discovered that it wasn’t responding correctly to certain command sequences....

  6. Hypothetical questions are used most frequently in employment, problem-solving, and performance-appraisal interviews. They permit the interviewee to develop an extended response exploring a particular possibility. “What changes would you make if you were district manager?” “Let’s assume that we could find the money for new equipment. What would you like to see installed?” “If you could change our daily operations, what changes would you like to see, and why?”

Closed-climate questions include leading questions, direct questions, loaded questions, double-bind questions, forced-choice questions, and why-did/didn’t-you questions.

  1. Leading questions are closed-climate questions when they lead the interviewee to incriminate him- or herself in some way. “Why were you fired from your previous job?” “You’ve had three jobs in the last three years, and I’m wondering why you found it necessary to change jobs so often.” “Why did you quit going to college before completing your degree?” “What makes you think that you could do a better job of running this department?”

  2. Direct questions are closed-climate questions when the answer requires the interviewee to incriminate him- or herself in some way. “You’ve been in jail this past year, is that correct?” “Have you been taking office supplies for your personal use?” “Have you been using your organizational Internet account to send and receive pornographic images?”

  3. Loaded questions are a special form of leading question that presuppose an acceptable response. “What do you think about Melvin Crane’s stupid behavior?” “I'm your supervisor, and you should support me whether you agree with me or not. Isn’t that right?” An untrained or unprepared interviewer may ask loaded questions inadvertently, as when a person with only a high school education is asked where she or he went to college.

  4. Double-bind questions tend to force the interviewee to choose between two unacceptable answers. The classic double-bind question is, “Do you still beat your wife?” Whether the question is answered yes or no, it’s an admission of wife beating. A similar question would be, “Do you prefer to get drunk or get high?” Other questions that seem innocuous at first may contain a hidden double-bind: “Do you drink alcoholic beverages?” If you say yes, you may be considered a lush; whereas if you say no, you may be considered antisocial.

  5. Forced-choice questions are like double-bind questions in that they tend to force the interviewee to choose a response and defend it. The difference between double-bind and forced-choice questions is one of complexity. The double-bind question has no right answer, whereas either answer to a forced-choice question may be correct if adequately explained. “Which is more important to you, serving humanity or making money?” “We have to reduce our staff by one. Whom should we let go, Susan or Henry?” “Would you rather read BusinessWeek or The Wall Street Journal?”

  6. Why did/didn’t-you questions accuse the interviewee of some shortcoming, often a failure to do or not do something. “Why didn’t you tell me about your arrest record?” “Why did you fail your business statistics course?” “Why didn’t you turn off the stamping press before going on break?” “Why didn’t you finish the report on time?”

Control of Interviews

The interviewer controls the direction and duration of the interview by asking questions, providing support, and responding to the interviewee’s questions and answers. Interviews may be tightly controlled, moderately controlled, or open.

Being Interviewed

Most of the information in the foregoing discussion was from the interviewer’s perspective. While the interviewer has the principal responsibility for ensuring the success of the interview, the interviewee is also responsible for making a positive contribution to the outcome. Because you may not know in advance what your interviewer will be like, when you are the interviewee, prepare by doing the following:

  1. Understand the purpose. When you can, discover the purpose of the interview before it takes place. Sometimes, such as with employment interviews, that will be clear from the context in which the interview occurs. Other times, you may be called in unexpectedly. In such cases, find out early in the interview whether it has a specific purpose, and do your part to help keep the interview focused on that objective.

  2. Present the right image. When you have the opportunity to prepare in advance, dress appropriately for the interview, and be sure that you have done your homework. If it is an employment interview, for example, learn all you can about the organization before going to the interview. If it is a performance-appraisal interview, make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses. If it is a problem-solving interview, do your best to research the problem and its possible solutions.

  3. Convey the information. As the interviewee, your main role is to provide answers to the questions you are asked. Make sure that you understand the questions before responding, and then answer them as clearly and specifically as possible. If appropriate, ask questions when they occur or at the end of the interview.

  4. Handle the difficult questions. If you are asked closed-climate questions, deal with them as best you can. Avoid getting angry or defending yourself. If possible, delay your response by asking for a clarification (see the material on the Metamodel in the section on “Advanced Language Patterns” in Language Skills). When the question is so clear that asking for clarification would be ridiculous, qualify your answer.

    Interviewer:Why didn’t you tell me that John was taking computer supplies for use at home?
    Interviewee:John had told me that he was working on a special project and had been authorized to complete the work at home.