Building and Managing Professional Relationships

Welcome to Episode 10 of Our Student Voice.

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As you progress through your educational journey you will benefit from building and maintaining strong relationships with fellow students, lecturers, support staff, academics leaders, Students' Union and others. These relationships are central to your role as a Class Representative.

Strong relationships are characterized by mutual trust, respect and communication which is both clear and open.

Relationship management skills developed by students during their time at University will also be vital in other aspects of their lives and specifically as they progress in their careers.

As a class representative, or as a student in TU Dublin, it is important that you remember the following when you are trying to build professional relationships:

Build Trust and Empathy: Trust and empathy are at the core of effective relationships. People will work with you if they feel they can trust you and you genuinely understand their perspective.

Behave Professionally: Behaving in a professional manner generally leads to you also being treated in a professional manner.

Understand how to Deal with Different Levels of Authority: Often the perceived power differential between students and lecturers causes a difficulty for students in building professional relationships. As a Class Representative, you need to overcome this perception to build effective professional relationships with people at different levels of authority.

Building Trust

Trust can be considered an attitude or psychological state and is defined as a willingness to be vulnerable to another person based on positive expectations of the other person (Mayer et al., 1995).

When an individual trusts another they are happy to show this vulnerability by engaging in Trusting Behaviour such as:

  1. Relying on them to do an important task which is important to them (e.g. representing the University in a competition, recommending them for a job, handling a problem on their behalf etc) and
  2. Speaking openly with them, sharing sensitive information which may be quite personal (e.g. telling someone a secret, revealing personal information). If someone asks you to do important tasks or shares sensitive information with you this is a good sign that they trust you!

What influences trust? 

Firstly, and most importantly, people’s trust in you will be based on how trustworthy they perceive you to be, based on perceptions of your ability, your care and concern towards that other person, your honesty and openness, your ethics and values and whether you keep your promises.

People’s views of your trustworthiness will be influenced directly by your behaviour over time (such as your work ethic in teams, the quality of your work) but also indirectly by what third parties say about you i.e. your reputation. Therefore, past relationships can impact upon future relationships – something to keep in mind!

Clarity plays a key role in this regard, for example it may be hard to meet someone’s expectations regarding quality of work or other behaviours if these are not well understood. Therefore, you should always ensure that people are clear on what is expected of them.

Secondly, people differ in terms of their general willingness to trust others (i.e. their trusting disposition). Some people are simply slower/quicker to trust others as they may have had bad/good experiences in the past. If someone does not trust you immediately it might just mean that they need more time to get to know you and see how trustworthy you are. Sometimes you need to be patient.

When a person feels trusted, they are likely to

  1. trust the other person in return, and
  2. work hard to honour the trust placed in them.

Therefore, taking the first step in signalling your trust in another can be the starting point or foundation for a strong relationship. 

Using Empathy to Build Rapport

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts and feeling of others – often referred to as the ability to walk in someone else's shoes. It is the foundation of strong relationships. Empathy can assist you in understanding and influencing other people.

The following are some tips for you to use to help empathise with others:

  • Rapport building: Adopt an open relaxed body posture, at an angle to the other person. Be careful not to invade the other person’s space.
  • Small talk: Don't be afraid of small talk - weather; sport; the news.
  • Actively Listen: Don’t interrupt, disagree, or evaluate. Use verbal and nonverbal signals to show you are listening – nod head; good eye contact; comments like ‘yes’. Restate key phrases used – the speaker will then generally elaborate more. 
  • Summarise: Give a brief summary of your understanding. Comment on points of common interest. Ask questions to get more clarity.
  • Questions: Use closed questions to get simple clarity. Did you? Is it? Use open questions to get more clarity – How? when? where? what? what if?
  • Viewpoint: Respond to the points raised. Offer your take/views on them with reasons. Focus on facts, impact, benefits, solutions.

When interacting in a professional setting your communication style is required to be more formal than normal day to day language use. Formal communication requires you to consider the following:

  • Language: Do not use slang or colloquial language. Language commonly used in texting to friends is not appropriate – e.g. I woz; c u there; omg! Colin buddy!!
  • Contractions: Use cannot vs can’t; use do not vs don’t.
  • Subject specific language: Use language relevant to the area about which you are communicating, e.g. Quality assurance; Teaching and Learning; Learning Resources (see Episode 1 – Being a Class Representative).
  • Be courteous and respectful at all times, especially when you are in disagreement with the person’s point of view.
  • Express gratitude and appreciation.
  • Objectivity: Focus on the key issues in an unbiased way. How they are impacting? Provide details of proposed solutions or requirements. Try to avoid personalising the issues or using emotional language.
  • Spell and Grammar check: It is also a good idea to ask a friend or colleague to read your communication before sending.
  • Medium: What is the communication medium you are required to use – In person, report, letter, email or presentation.  Each medium has its own particular requirements.

As a Class Representative, you will need to interact with people at different levels of authority and experience throughout TU Dublin.

When we interact with those who hold positions of authority, this can create a power differential. 

It can sometimes seem challenging or intimidating to interact with others who have more experience or more authority than we do.

However, it is important to remember that staff at TU Dublin want to support students. We welcome feedback from students and we are committed to developing positive and healthy working relationships with our students. 

Simply put, a healthy relationship is a two-way ​process and involves give and take. 

Research highlights two very ​important factors which determine our relationship styles,

  • Demandingness
  • Responsiveness

The extent to which we display each of these factors in ​our relationships helps to determine how healthy they are.​

In any relationship each individual involved will have certain demands that they would like to be met.

For example, in professional contexts simple demands would be that our viewpoints are listened to, or that we are treated with respect.

However, it is also important that we consider how we respond to others.

For example, if we would like to be treated with respect, we need to also show respect to others, if we would like our voice to be heard, we need to also listen to others and so on.

In authoritarian relationships, lots of demands are made of others but because responsiveness is low, there is a lack of respect.

This style is often described as being the ‘My way or the highway’ approach and is clearly unhealthy.

The opposite happens in indulgent relationships which are also one-sided and where accountability is low because no demands are made of others.

Neglectful relationships are those where communication simply doesn’t occur at all.

Finally, the most healthy relationships are those were both demandingness and responsiveness are high because when this happens relationships are balanced and both parties involved are being respectful towards each other.

These learning activities are designed to help you develop the knowledge and skills required for this episode. These learning activities are also a requirement for the Active Class Representative, Curriculum Co-Designer, and Quality Assurance Expert Digital Badges.

Learning Activity 10.1. Reflection on Relationships

Think about the professional relationships that you have in TU Dublin and how you approach each of these relationships.  What is the balance of demandingness and responsiveness in each relationship and what can you do to ensure, as best you can, that each relationship is authoritative?

If you are applying for a Digital Badge, copy this (or a link to this) into your E-Portfolio.

Learning Activity 10.2. Class Representatives Relationship Exercise

Pick one important Class Relationship relationship. Rate the level of trust that the other person has in you using the table below and reflect on how you could improve trust in the relationship. 

If you are applying for a Digital Badge, copy this (or a link to this) into your E-Portfolio.

Basis of Trust How would you be rated [1-5]

What stops you achieving a higher number?

What will you do to improve this?
CARE AND CONCERN (do you consider the impact of your actions on them or show interest in their needs/concerns? e.g. delivering work on time to the right standard so that they are not left to do additional work at the last minute/supporting them during difficult times.        
OPENNESS (do you speak openly, sharing information and your thoughts/feelings?)      
KEEPING PROMISES (re deadlines etc)       
WORK ETHIC/ EFFORT (are you attending classes and team meetings, knowledgeable about assignment expectations etc?)      


Conduct your own online research to find out more about Building Professional Relationships.

The following references were used for this section:

  • Stephen MR Covey, The Speed of Trust, Free Press (2006)
  • Paul Zak, Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, AMACOM (2018)