Uncertainty can influence how people communicate with one another in all walks of life. If you are unsure how a person will react when you convey a message, aren’t you more likely to censor yourself or at least speak more carefully around that person? That thought is what sparked our curiosity in pursuing this project.
I first learned about Uncertainty Reduction Theory in my Communication Theory class and thought about how the phenomenon of uncertainty played into my own daily life. I noticed that a large part of the uncertainty that I felt would occur when I was preforming my duties as a Resident Advisor (RA) at Wayne State University. I took this thought to Dr. Stephanie Tong, and together we launched a study to explore what actually creates uncertainty as RAs interact with the residents.
RAs are fellow students and peers of regular residents, but they have a duty to supervise other residents, provide residents with resources as needed, mediate conflicts between residents, and document policy violations when necessary. As a result, RAs must learn to cultivate mentorship and camaraderie with residents while still maintaining a sense of authority and control. This relational dynamic could produce uncertainty in interactions between RAs and residents, particularly in stressful situations. We went on to label this type of interaction as a Stressful Interpersonal Interaction (SII).
We explored the ways in which RAs’ communication affected their level of uncertainty. The two main variables that we looked at were prior relational knowledge between the RA and the resident and communication directness. We looked at how the two variables affected different types of uncertainty: namely, issue and relational uncertainty. Issue uncertainty is defined by how uncertain the RA felt about the issue they had to address during the SII. Relational uncertainty is defined by how uncertain the RA felt about their relationship with the resident involved in the SII after the fact (Shout out Uncertainty leaders, Dr. Leanne Knobloch and Dr. Denise Solomon!).
We did a lot of background research beforehand on uncertainty and on the field of higher education. After I won a grant from Wayne State’s undergraduate research opportunities program, I was able to conduct our research as a funded researcher for the first time. This was exciting for me because I had never launched my own research project on this scale before. As an undergraduate student, I felt unprepared and under-qualified, but with the support of Dr. Tong and the university, I was reassured that this could be successful.
From the existing literature, we were able to design a survey and we encouraged RAs from three residence halls at the university to fill it out every time they had a SII with a resident. We received 26 survey responses during the data collection phase. The results of our study indicated that higher levels of prior relational knowledge lead to a decrease in issue uncertainty. In other words, if an RA knew more about the resident before they had a SII with them, they were more likely to feel certain about what was happening in the conversation—like, what is the problem and is it getting handled correctly. The results also indicated that higher levels of communication directness lead to decreased levels of relational uncertainty. So, the more direct an RA is when talking with a resident during an SII, the more certain they feel about their relationship with that resident afterwards.
We are collecting more data in the future to potentially draw other connections between communication and uncertainty. Regardless, the results from this study were intriguing to me and changed my outlook as an RA. I graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts in Communication Studies in May 2017 and regardless of what I go on to next, this research project was an amazing experience that really helped shape my critical thinking ability and theoretical application skills. I can’t wait to see what’s next!