How Partners Can Get Better at Reading Each Other
A new study highlights the link between clarity and empathic accuracy.
Posted July 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- The ability to correctly gauge what a partner is thinking and feeling is known as "empathic accuracy."
- The idea that more plainly displaying one's inner world could foster empathic accuracy was presumed but not well-researched.
- A team of researchers found that when a person is more demonstrative, their partner is more capable of correctly reading them.
- Current research on empathic accuracy needs to be replicated with same-sex couples and individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Disclaimer: Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships.
Has your partner misconstrued where you were coming from? Maybe they misread your intentions, or incorrectly guessed at your emotions or beliefs? Likewise, have you ever felt pretty sure that you had an accurate gauge of what was going on inside your partner, only to find out that you were mistaken? If you said yes to both of these situations, you stand hand in hand with most people. Research on “empathic accuracy,” a term that refers to a person’s ability to correctly infer what their partner is thinking and feeling, suggests that people miss the mark of what’s happening inside their partner between 65% and 80% of the time. So is there anything that might help?
Research on empathic accuracy
In a new study released in July 2021, a team of researchers investigated this question. More specifically, they reported setting out to examine an idea that’s been presumed for a long time, yet rarely tested: If partners show more of what they’re feeling and thinking, will their partner also be better at reading them?
They recorded couples talking for 11 minutes about an issue they’ve been squabbling over. Afterward, each partner watched the recording separately and told the researchers what they were feeling and thinking at various moments. Then, each member of the couple watched the video again and tried to glean what their partner was thinking and feeling in that moment; they also classified how alarming or serious they believed their partner’s thoughts and feelings were (e.g., how dangerous did they seem to be to their bond). The team also asked both partners how transparent they believed they were in conveying their ideas and emotions. Moreover, a panel of four independent judges evaluated how demonstrative each partner was and how challenging it was to determine what they were feeling and thinking.
The research team found that when partners more directly signal what they’re thinking and feeling, their partner is also able to more precisely comprehend them. And it didn’t matter how intimidated they were by what they believed their partner was thinking and feeling; this didn’t undermine correctness.
As the research team rightly pointed out, their study wasn’t perfect (no study is). For example, they noted that their panel of independent judges reached an average level of consensus in their evaluations of each partner (rather than a high level), they only looked at opposite-sex couples, and they didn’t make sure that the study participants came from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. These are valuable areas of improvement for follow-up research.
Even so, this study corroborates a meaningful idea. Signaling thoughts and feelings is related to grasping them. In other words, no one can guarantee that their partner will correctly gauge what's inside their heart and mind. However, by trying to show some of their emotions and thoughts in a more distinct way rather than obscuring them, they give their partners the opportunity to view a picture they can better understand.
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Hinnekens, C., Sillars, A., Verhofstadt, L.L., & Ickes, W. (2020). Empathic accuracy and cognitions during conflict: An in-depth analysis of understanding scores. Personal Relationships, 27, 102-131.
Sels, L., Ickes, W., Hinnekens, C., Ceulemans, E., & Verhofstadt, L. (2021, July 1). Expressing thoughts and feelings leads to greater empathic accuracy during relationship conflict. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000871