What Couples Who Communicate Well Do Differently

Countless books and articles have been written on the importance of communicating in romantic relationships, but a recent study suggests that there’s one aspect of communication that stands out above the rest: empathy.

 

The study, published last month in Psychological Science, found that feeling empathy mattered more than simply listening to what partners had to say. 

 

 

Is Empathic Accuracy Enough to Facilitate Responsive Behavior in Dyadic Interaction? Distinguishing Ability From Motivation
Lauren A. Winczewski
Jeffrey D. Bowen
Nancy L. Collins

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences,

University of California, Santa Barbara
 
Growing evidence suggests that interpersonal responsiveness—feeling understood, validated, and cared for by other people—plays a key role in shaping the quality of one’s social interactions and relationships. But what enables people to be interpersonally responsive to others?
 
In the current study, we argued that responsiveness requires not only accurate understanding but also compassionate motivation. Specifically, we hypothesized that understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings (empathic accuracy) would foster responsive behavior only when paired with benevolent motivation (empathic concern).
 
To test this idea, we asked couples (N= 91) to discuss a personal or relationship stressor; we then assessed empathic accuracy, empathic concern, and responsive behavior. As predicted, when listeners’ empathic concern was high, empathic accuracy facilitated responsiveness; but when empathic concern was low, empathic accuracy was unhelpful (and possibly harmful) for responsiveness.
 
These findings provide the first evidence that cognitive and affective forms of empathy work together to facilitate responsive behavior.