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Direct Communication is Best, but the Benefits May Take Time

Imagine that in a recent discussion your partner said to you, “I get really frustrated when you interrupt me sometimes. I know you don’t do it on purpose, but it makes me feel like you’re not listening or that my feelings aren’t important. Maybe in the future you could wait to see if I’ve had my say before you share your thoughts?” How would this make you feel? Perhaps you might appreciate that your partner put his/her concerns fairly nicely (s/he could have, for example, said, “For crying out loud, stop interrupting me! Don’t you ever listen to me or care about my feelings? It makes me wonder why I even bother with you!”), but chances are it would still feel bad in the short-term to find out that your partner is upset about something you’re doing. But now imagine that you pay attention to what your partner said, and over time you make sure that you listen to and acknowledge your partner’s thoughts without interrupting. It’s likely that down the road, the two of you will be much more satisfied with your relationship, in part because of the direct way your partner communicated with you when s/he asked you to change your behavior.

In a recent post, I wrote about four main types of communication strategies, and suggested that voice (expressing your concerns in a direct and positive manner, like your partner did in the hypothetical example above) is the best way to communicate in your relationship. See below for a quick recap of the four main types of communication:

Voice-like strategies are thought to be so good because they clearly communicate your concerns while still being respectful of your partner’s feelings. An interesting thing to note about voice-like strategies, however, is that the benefits of this direct communication may not appear immediately. Illustrating this idea, in one study couples were videotaped while they discussed things they wanted each other to change (for instance, desiring a partner to express his/her emotions more), and trained coders later rated their behavior as (a) active versus passive and (b) positive versus negative. Right after the discussion, each partner in the couple reported how successful they felt the interaction was. Then, every three months for the next year, each partner indicated whether the desired changes they had talked about in the initial study session had occurred.1

In the short-term (i.e., immediately after the discussion), couple members viewed active, voice-like strategies as less successful. Instead, couples viewed less direct strategies (such as making jokes to avoid talking about the topic or keep from making one’s partner feel bad) as more successful in the short-term. Remarkably, however, this pattern completely flipped over the course of the next year. Over time, when couples engaged in voice-like strategies in the initial interaction, the desired changes in behavior were more likely to occur. Less direct strategies, like making jokes, did not produce any changes in behavior. Interestingly, couple members also initially saw direct and negative communication strategies (think the exit-like communication example above) as less successful, but, similar to voice-like communication, still led to the desired behavior change over time.

Before taking this as a green light to nag your partner, though, remember that exit-like strategies devalue your partner and take a toll on relationship satisfaction. Voice-like strategies, in contrast, are considerate and nourish relationship satisfaction, so stick with them.2 In sum, it seems that frank communication may be a slightly bitter pill to swallow in the short-term, but in the long-term it will yield the changes you and your partner desire.

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1Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). Regulating partners in intimate relationships: The costs and benefits of different communication strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 620-639. 

2Bradbury, T. N., & Fincham, F. D. (1991). A contextual model for advancing the study of marital interaction. In G. J. O. Fletcher & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Cognition in close relationships (pp. 127-147). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sarah Stanton, M.Sc. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Sarah is interested in how different types of people think, feel, and behave in relationships, the positive and negative relationship outcomes associated with low self-regulatory ability, and how relationship experiences influence goal pursuit, bodily stress responses, and mental and physical health outcomes. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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