The common reaction when someone does not emotionally open up to us is to try to talk them into opening up, complain that they are not opening up or yell at them to try to get them to open up. But ultimately this only makes them close up even more.
Many relationship experts urge us to use “attentive” listening skills, but according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, simply showing someone that you understand what they are going through is not enough, you’ve got to actually care that they’re going through a difficult time if you want your partner to open up and be responsive.
“People might assume that accurate understanding is all it takes to be responsive, but understanding a partner’s thoughts and feelings was helpful only when listeners were also feeling more compassionate and sympathetic toward their partner. When listeners had accurate knowledge but did not feel compassionate, they tended to be less supportive and responsive.”
Responsiveness has become an important line of study in social and health psychology because research evidence increasingly suggests that feeling understood, validated and cared for by other people is crucial to relationships and personal well-being.
“You can know very well what your partner is thinking and feeling — maybe you’ve heard this story 17 times, the fight with the boss and so on — but if you don’t care having accurate knowledge in the absence of compassionate feelings may even undermine responsiveness” said Lauren Winczewski, lead author working with UCSB psychology professor Nancy Collins who leads UCSB’s Close Relationships Lab.
“When people were empathically accurate — when they had an accurate understanding of their partner’s thoughts and feelings — they were more responsive only when they also felt more empathic concern, more compassion and motivation to attend to their partner’s needs” .
Researchers Winczewski and Jeff Bowen tested their theory by asking couples to discuss a previously identified personal or relationship stressor — jealousy, say, or, as in one case, one partner’s extreme fear of flying. By videotaping the conversations,¬ the researchers were able to gauge empathic accuracy and empathic concern, as well as responsiveness, both in real time and after the interaction had concluded.
When a listener’s concern for their partner was high, their accuracy bolstered responsiveness; but when compassion was scant, understanding did little to aid responsiveness.
“People use these kinds of interactions as diagnostic of their partner’s motivation and ability to respond to their needs,” said psychology professor Nancy Collins. “If that’s how you’re responding to me now, is that how you’ll respond to me again in the future? Over time, you may build trust in your partner’s responsiveness or you may start to wonder if your partner is even willing, let alone able, to respond to your needs.”