Dec 17, 2020 - Science

How we talk to each other about the tough stuff

Illustration of two brains overlapping to form a Venn diagram

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

2020 brought unprecedented challenges for millions of people, but how we talk about our distress, pain and problems can help us cope.

Why it matters: Conversation "partners help, collaborate and validate us as we try to put into words what in some ways are unspeakable difficulties," says Denise Solomon, who studies interpersonal communication at Penn State University.

  • "It’s really critical in these extreme non-normative situations we are in."

The big picture: Some researchers are calling for neuroscientists and communication scientists to collaborate in studying our conversations to more precisely understand what happens in our brains when we interact and try to support one another.

How it works: Supportive conversations can relieve stress and improve our emotions.

But the content of a conversation is key.

  • In a study earlier this year, Solomon and her colleagues presented married adults who had a disagreement with hypothetical messages from a confidant.
  • The messages varied from ones that recognized and validated the person's feelings to others that criticized or minimized them.
  • Messages that minimized someone's feelings in some cases led people to report feeling angry and to display reactance, which can occur when someone feels their ownership or control of the situation is threatened
  • The validating messages helped people, while the "low person-centered" messages in some cases led people to report feeling angry and to display reactance, which can occur when someone feels their ownership or control of the situation is threatened.

How a conversation unfolds is important, too.

  1. The first part should involve a lot of questions, says Solomon, and not trying to interpret or share one’s own experience. One of the most beneficial things is to “give people the opportunity to tell their story in their own words,” says Solomon.
  2. "As we get further into the conversation — in some ways when the discloser stops saying new things — then we move from reflective to interpretive," says Solomon. Here, she says, the goal is to guide someone to a new appraisal of their stressful experience. For an exhausted health care worker, it may be saying, "I’m glad you can talk to the families because you can do so with compassion," Solomon offers.
  3. The last phase is where one can most effectively offer advice or talk about their own experience, she says.

But it's important to listen because advice often isn't what people are looking for, says Amanda Holmstrom, who studies interpersonal communication at Michigan State University.

  • And you should make sure you have the capacity to listen and the environment is appropriate, she adds.

The flip side: There's a lot of pressure on the listener, but the teller plays an important role. "Disclosers have to be willing to tell their story and be receptive to the help even recognizing their experience may be so specific and extreme that no one else has ever experienced it," says Solomon.

  • The catch: “We’re not very good at it. Part of it is that there isn’t a simple set of messages,” says Solomon.

One potential pitfall: Conversations can devolve into rumination and co-rumination. We can get stuck in these "cul-de-sacs," as Solomon describes them, and "never get past this mutual telling of our distress to where it is reflective and ultimately put into a broader perspective."

  • "I believe in people's intention to be supportive, but in doing so, they project their own experience or what they would find supportive," she says. "Don’t presume they are experiencing it the way you are experiencing it."

Context: Neuroscientists have long studied our social brains — through the lens of empathy, morality and other processes — often by looking at one brain's neural activity during different interactions.

  • But one person's response will affect the other's, whether in nonverbal communication like seeing fear in someone's face or in conversations, says Chris Frith, a professor emeritus at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London who uses brain imaging to study social interaction.
  • "This is very interesting but extremely difficult to study because we need two people in scanners," he says, adding techniques like EEG are easier.

What to watch: Holmstrom and her colleagues propose in a new paper that interpersonal communication scientists could benefit from neuroscience tools to look at the simultaneous brain activity of two people engaged in conversation.

  • "It may allow us to tap into important things people can’t articulate," says Holmstrom.
  • For example: "It would be great to know what is going on in the brain that leads people to disclose their emotional pain and how they disclose it. Or how they decide who they are going to tell and how. And what is going on in the brain of the person listening."
  • And communication science could offer neuroscience some theories about brain interactions, they propose.

The bottom line: "Collaboration is critical," says Frith. "We have vast amounts of data but not enough theory to understand it."

Go deeper