Effort and the Eye of the Beholder

June 19, 2019
Two people holding hands.

“It’s the effort that counts.”

It’s a line you’ve likely heard from the time you were young – whether from a parent or coach, teacher or friend. It often can be relayed to comfort someone, in the absence of a positive result. And yet it’s that effort, in some cases, that is far more important. Particularly in times of conflict, the effort to understand others can yield better long-term results than actually reading someone else’s thoughts or feelings accurately. At home. At work. Anywhere that success depends upon teamwork and partnerships.

It’s one of the areas where research conducted by me and Marc Schulz, two leaders of the Harvard Study on Adult Development and the Lifespan Research Foundation, is particularly insightful. In looking at 156 couples in committed relationships, our paper, Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction, reports the finding that “the perception of empathic effort by one’s partner was more strongly linked with both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction than empathic accuracy.” In other words, seeing that the other person is trying to understand you is more important for the relationship than whether the other person actually gets the right answer about what you’re feeling.

And there even are distinct differences in gender patterns. Consistent with other research, men tend to disengage when negatively aroused whereas women prefer to engage with others and talk about their distress more directly, a pattern thought to reflect women’s stronger desire for affiliation when experiencing negative affect or stress. Moreover, research suggests that women may need to feel that their partners remain close and attentive to them even when they are feeling angry or upset.

While the research focused exclusively in marital relationships, we believe the findings are applicable in situations where relationship quality is central to success. And nowhere may that be more important than the workplace, where the average worker spends 1/3 of their lives. Successful work relationships are the lifeblood of good businesses, and conflict is an inevitability as people and teams work together to solve problems, identify solutions, break new ground.

All of this is much more challenging to manage in today’s environment. The reduction in face-to-face interaction places a lot of pressure on communications channels like email, conference call or Slack – none of which show the leaning in or non-verbal cues that we associate with effort.

That means it’s critical that organizations implement frameworks to foster this, because it may not happen naturally. The Lifespan Research Foundation has been working on ways to develop active ways of listening and engaging in relationships. Presence, repetition, removal of all distractions are all part of the solution set we’re implementing.

If you’d like to read more about the research, click here: Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction

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