February 2017 Research Roundup: Compassion, Conflict, and Connection

When we think about health, some perennial pieces of wisdom likely come to mind: don’t smoke, don’t drink too much alcohol, eat more vegetables, exercise. Yet, there are a few important components missing from this conventional health wisdom. Did you know, for example, that having less than three people in your social circle that you feel emotionally close to is risk factor for numerous psychological and physical maladies? Or, that feeling socially isolated is as great of a health risk as smoking or obesity? If you did, congratulations, you wise chap, you. If you didn’t, you’re in good company.

In this month’s Research Roundup, we’ll be taking a closer look at the important health variables of social support and social connection. Of course, we’ll be putting a compassionate swing on things, and will discuss research on how compassion and social connection relate to one another.


Self-Compassionate Men Also Need to be Conscientious

How people treat themselves after making mistakes in a relationship may impact their ability to effectively maintain that relationship. In a series of studies, Baker and McNulty explored how self-compassion and conscientiousness affect peoples’ motivation to maintain positive relationships. The researchers video recorded newlywed couples discussing an area of relationship conflict. Women who constructively resolved conflict tended to be conscientiousness (i.e. scrupulous and reliable). Men who constructively resolved conflict tended to be conscientious and self-compassionate. Men who were conscientious and self-critical, on the other hand, resolved conflicts poorly. Next, the researchers randomly asked couples to imagine responding to a relationship mistake in either a self-compassionate, or a self-critical way. Women who imagined responding to their mistake self-compassionately felt motivated to make amends. Men who imagined responding to their mistake self-compassionately felt motivated to make amends only if they had high levels of conscientiousness. In a final study, the researchers tested how enduring these effects were, and found that self-compassion, alone, predicted wives’ relationship satisfaction over the course of 3 years. Self-compassion predicted husbands’ relationship satisfaction only if they were also conscientious. If husbands were self-compassionate yet lacked conscientiousness, they had less relationship satisfaction over 3 years. In summary, conscientiousness and self-compassion appear to independently influence women’s motivation to maintain positive relationships. On the other hand, self-compassion appears to improve men’s motivation when paired with conscientiousness, yet appears to harm men’s motivation when conscientiousness is lacking.

Take away: When helping a client with a relationship conflict, it may be important to consider their gender, as well as their tendency towards conscientiousness. The above research suggests that helping women and conscientious men respond to relationship blunders with self-compassion may improve their motivation to correct mistakes. To help men low in conscientiousness find the motivation to correct their relationship mistakes, it may prove important to tap into alternative sources of motivation – self-compassion, alone, might not be a sufficient source of motivation for certain people.

Read more: Baker, L., Mcnulty, J. K., & Marx, K. (2011). Self-compassion and relationship maintenance: Moderating roles of conscientiousness and gender. Journal of Personality and Social, 100(5), 853–873.


Self-Compassion may help people deal with relationship conflicts

In a study exploring the relationship between self-compassion and interpersonal conflict resolution, college students provided an example of a time in which their needs conflicted with the needs of a loved one (i.e. their mother, father, best friend, or romantic partner), and then wrote about how they resolved this conflict. Their responses were later coded for conflict resolution techniques. People higher in self-compassion were more likely to resolve conflicts via compromise (i.e. balance their own needs with the needs of their loved one), feel authentic when resolving the conflict, and experience fewer negative emotions when deciding upon how to manage the conflict. Self-compassionate people’s tendency to compromise, in turn, led them to experience increased relational wellbeing.

Take-away: This research suggests teaching clients to be more self-compassionate when in a conflict with a loved one may help them be more effective at dealing with and learning from conflict and able to walk away with less resentment.

Read more: Yarnell, L. M., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being. Self and Identity, 12, 146–159.


Lovingkindness Meditation Results in More Connection to Strangers

Seppala and colleagues investigated whether a brief (7 minute) Loving-kindness Meditation (LKM) could increase peoples’ feelings of social connectedness with strangers. After participants indicated how they felt towards photographs of strangers, themselves, a close other, and an object, they were randomly assigned to complete either a guided LKM or an imagery (control) task. In the LKM, participants were invited to wish health, happiness and wellbeing for a loved one, and then for one of the (“target”) neutral strangers. In the imagery task, participants were asked to first visualize the appearance of two neutral acquaintances, and then to focus on the physical features of one of the neutral (“target”) strangers. The researchers found that, following the LKM/imagery task, participants in both groups reported more positive feelings towards the target stranger, and experienced unchanged feelings towards themselves and the close other. Only people in the LKM group additionally reported more positive feelings towards the non-target stranger and the object, as well as a more positive/less negative mood. A more positive/less negative mood helped explain why the LKM led people feel more positively towards all strangers. Together, this research suggests that even a few minutes of LKM can increase feelings of connectedness and positivity towards strangers, even if those strangers are not directly included in the LKM.

Take-away: Encouraging clients try brief Loving-kindness Meditations directed at a stranger (we have one in directed toward a stranger in our favourite audio recordings here) could help improve their mood and increase feelings of social connection and positivity. We recommend that clients who are socially anxious or who tend to be negative or critical of others in social interactions do a brief LKM directed toward a stranger before social events. This tends to make the event go better.

Read more: Seppala, E., Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-Kindness Meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720–724.

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