- Researchers tested the idea a person's ability to grasp their partner's inner world is related to how clearly their partner conveys it.
- Partners often make errors in reading each other and misjudge how easy they are to read.
- The study's results supported the value of clearer, more perceptible communication in cultivating greater understanding.
Have you ever had a time when your partner just didn’t seem to get how you were feeling or what was on your mind? We’re all human and no one perceives their partner (or anyone else, for that matter) accurately all of the time, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that your answer is almost certainly "yes." But what about a moment when you were really convinced that you were sending clear signals and messages, only to feel baffled that your partner wasn’t decoding them? Arguably, if you’re like most folks, you’ve experienced that, too.
So is there a way for someone to increase the odds that their partner will understand them a bit better? In a paper that recently came out, a team of researchers addressed this question. More specifically, they noted that they decided to test an idea that seems pretty basic and forms part of the basis of multiple therapy approaches for couples, yet has mostly been ignored by relationship science. The idea is this: Our partner’s ability to pick up on what we’re feeling and thinking is related to how plainly we’re communicating those ideas and feelings to them.
Perhaps, right about now you’re thinking, “Are you serious? For my partner to understand me better, I need to share my perspectives and feelings more? I’m doing that already!” And if that is what’s floating through your mind right now, I certainly don’t blame you. After all, maybe you really are being as distinct as a person can be, and your partner, for whatever reason, either can’t realize where you’re coming from or isn’t willing to do so. What's more, this just seems like a pretty obvious, simple idea, so why are we even talking about it? However, what appears to be rather basic and elementary is anything but, and I think the paper's authors provide two important reasons why. First, they cited research indicating that the task of reading another person is not straightforward: Partners correctly pick up on each other’s ideas and emotions only about one-fifth to one-third of the time. Second, they cited a paper highlighting how the process of conveying what’s in one’s mind and heart also isn’t as uncomplicated as it might seem; we know what’s going on inside of us, and this leads us to mistakenly project that knowledge onto others and conclude that we’re clearer and easier to read than we are in reality.
To test this idea, they recorded couples talking about an area they differed on, and then partners watched the recording without the other present. At certain moments in the video, the researchers asked each partner to share what they were thinking and feeling at that moment, to gauge how plainly they conveyed their ideas and feelings to their partner, and what they thought their partner was thinking and feeling. This allowed the research team to see how much partners believed they were conveying their inner world and how correctly partners were at reading one another. The researchers also asked a separate panel of reviewers to watch each video and decide how hard it was to decipher each partner’s thoughts and feelings.
The results of the study showed that the more people communicated what they were thinking and feeling, the more their partner comprehended them. They also found evidence that the more the independent panel of reviewers could grasp what a person was feeling and thinking, the more likely that person’s partner could discern their inner world as well. Moreover, the research team found that the degree to which the panel of reviewers could read a person explained how well their partner could read them, above how much each person thought they were conveying their own inner experience to their partner. As the researchers highlighted, this might indicate that clearer, more noticeable, and more perceptible communication signals may help heighten understanding.
At the same time, they also wisely noted that there’s more work to be done on this topic. They listed examples such as testing this idea across diverse populations, illuminating exceptions to the value of partners communicating more clearly and comprehending one another better, and identifying how partners can encourage greater openness with each other.
So what can you do with this knowledge? Here are a few tips:
- Consider the possibility that your communication to your partner may not be quite as clear or as evident as you think it is.
- Try giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Operate from an assumption that your partner means well, and just doesn’t have the information that you believe they have.
- Remind yourself that you don’t have the whole story on your partner because you aren’t in their mind, and consider the possibility that your conclusions about what your partner is thinking and feeling may be incorrect, even if you really think you’re sure.
- Allow yourself to slow down and take an inquisitive, interested approach that allows you both to check in with each other. If your partner doesn’t seem to understand what you’re feeling or thinking, try kindly asking them what they’re taking in from the interaction. For instance, how do they think you’re feeling, or what do they think you’re trying to say? Likewise, allow yourself to pause at times and share what you think your partner might be trying to say, or what you believe they're feeling. For example, you might try framing your interpretation tentatively and asking if you’ve got it right.
- Be patient with yourself and your partner in the process. Remember that you both really want to understand each other.
Cameron, J.J., & Vorauer, J. D. (2008). Feeling transparent: On metaperceptions and miscommunications. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1093–1108.
Hinnekens, C., Vanhee, G., De Schryver, M., Ickes, W., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2016). Empathic accuracy and observed demand behavior in couples. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1370.
Sels, Ickes, W., Hinnekens, C., Ceulemans, E., & Verhofstadt, L. (2021). Expressing thoughts and feelings leads to greater empathic accuracy during relationship conflict. Journal of Family Psychology, 35, 1199–1205.