A closeup of two people's hands, clasping each other, as seen between their two heads.

Relationships 2.0: What Makes Relationships Thrive

Everyone wants to be loved and appreciated. In the final episode of our Relationships 2.0 series, psychologist Harry Reis says there’s another ingredient to successful relationships that’s every bit as important as love.

For more of our Relationships 2.0 series, check out one of our most popular episodes ever – about why marriages are so hard.

Additional Resources


Interpersonal Chemistry: What Is It, How Does It Emerge, and How Does it Operate? by Harry T. Reis, Annie Regan, and Sonja Lyubomirsky, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2021.

How to Foster Perceived Partner Responsiveness: High-Quality LIstening is Key, by Guy Itzchakov, Harry Reis, and Netta Weinstein, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2021.

Perceived Partner Responsiveness Scale (PPRS), by Harry T. Reis et. al (Eds.), The Sourcebook of Listening Research: Methodology and Measures, 2018.

Toward Understanding Understanding:The Importance of Feeling Understood in Relationships, by Harry Reis, Edward P. Lemay Jr, and Catrin Finkenauer, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2017.

Perceived Responses to Capitalization Attempts are Influenced by Self-Esteem and Relationship Threat, by Shannon M. Smith & Harry  Reis, Personal Relationships, 2012.

Perceived Partner Responsiveness Minimizes Defensive Reactions to Failure, by Peter A. Caprariello and Harry T. Reis, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2011.

Assessing the Seeds of Relationship Decay: Using Implicit Evaluations to Detect the Early Stages of Disillusionment, by Soonhee Lee, Ronald D. Rogge, and Harry T. Reis, Psychological Science, 2010.

It Takes Two: The Interpersonal Nature of Empathic Accuracy, by Jamil Zaki, Niall Bolger, Kevin Ochsner, Psychological Science, 2008.

What Do You Do When Things Go Right?: The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events,  Shelly. L. Gable, et. al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004.

Perceived Partner Responsiveness as an Organizing Construct in the Study of Intimacy and Closeness, by Harry T. Reis, et. al (Eds.), Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy, 2004.


“Why researchers should think ‘real-world’: A conceptual rationale,” by Harry T. Reis, in Handbook of Research Methods for Studying Daily Life, 2012.

“Perspectives on the Situation” by Harry T. Reis, and John G. Holmes, in The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012.

“A brief history of relationship research in social psychology,” by Harry T. Reis, in Handbook of the History of Social Psychology, 2011.


Opening scene of Lady Bird

Flight attendant Steven Slater slides from a plane after quitting

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Harry Reis was in middle school, he cared what his classmates thought of him. Now, all middle schoolers want to fit in with their peers, but Harry, he was next level.

Harry Reis: I was somewhat insecure as an adolescent, very unsure of my standing within the social group that I lived in, and I would keep daily charts of how I was doing and who I connected with and who I did not connect with.

Shankar Vedantam: Harry's charts did more than track who sat next to him at lunch or who joked around with him in the hallway.

Harry Reis: No, this is actually more embarrassing than that. These were actually graphs where I would rate on a 10 point scale how I had done with various people on that day. So if I thought that a certain person had really liked me on that day, they would get a nine. And if I thought I really come across as an idiot with another person, that might be a two or a three. And I would have these charts over time where the lines would go up and down.

Shankar Vedantam: It was a painful way to go through middle school, but it did come with an upside. Years later, Harry learned there were people who kept such charts professionally.

Harry Reis: I discovered, "oh my God, there are people who actually make a life of studying this stuff." And it just instantly grabbed me because it was something that I'd always been doing.

Shankar Vedantam: Harry went on to become a social psychologist. And he discovered that if you keep meticulous charts, if you track the ups and downs of relationships like an insecure middle schooler, you can actually discover really interesting things about the ebb and flow of human relationships. This week on Hidden Brain, the secret ingredient that makes some relationships thrive and others falter.

Shankar Vedantam: Many of us know what it's like to meet a soulmate or kindred spirit at work. We know what it feels like to be inspired by a politician or a business leader, but what exactly prompts us to feel this deep connection with some people but not with others? Is it having a shared goal, the intangibles of chemistry, or does it have to do with temperament and personality? It turns out that beneath the feeling of being close to someone is a powerful psychological mechanism. At the University of Rochester, psychologist Harry Reis has studied this core ingredient of successful relationships. Harry Reis, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Harry Reis: Glad to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start by spending some time talking about a relationship in your own life, Harry. I think it speaks to some of the research insights you've developed over the years. I understand you grew up in a very tight knit community. You got married very young to a woman who was also from that same community. What was that relationship like when you first got married?

Harry Reis: We grew up in a German Jewish community in the upper parts of Manhattan, and the community was very insular. It was very warm and connected, but there was also a sense that you would stay in that community when you got older, when you got married and began to raise children on your own. And so I had the expectation that I would find a partner in that group. And in fact, I did. I met my first wife when I was 19. She came from the same social community that I came from. And we started dating largely because it was expected that you would start dating at that age. All of my friends were doing it. All of my cousins were doing it. And so I did it. And at the age of 21, we decided to get married. It was literally the exact day I graduated from college.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Harry Reis: That was the age in which all of our parents had gotten married in the old country. So that was what was expected.

Shankar Vedantam: At a certain point in your early adulthood, I think this was around the time you were in graduate school, you got involved in what were known at the time as encounter groups or encounter sessions. For people who aren't familiar with that term today, can you describe what they were, Harry?

Harry Reis: Yes. Encounter groups were very popular in the late 1960s and 1970s. They were laboratories in which people could be completely open and honest, talk about what they authentically felt, what their goals and needs were and get honest feedback from other people about how they were coming across to them because there's so much of our natural social interaction that involves being polite, not really talking about what you're thinking and feeling, and the ground rules of these encounter groups were to be open and honest in everything that you said and did.

Shankar Vedantam: And did you say things in this group that you hadn't said before? Did you reveal parts of yourself that you hadn't revealed to other people in your family growing up or to your wife?

Harry Reis: Yes. I began to talk about how I saw my life, how I saw the community I came from, but also where I wanted to go with my life. What I wanted to accomplish professionally, but also personally. And because I was in graduate school at NYU at the time, which was in Greenwich Village, which of course was a very lively, contemporary culture at the time, and was beginning to experience the idea that the world I grew up in was not the world that I wanted to live my life in. But this was not something that I felt that I could talk about with my family or for that matter with my wife, and I began to talk about it in the context of the group and literally was blown away by the feedback that I got from other people.

Shankar Vedantam: So you were having these sessions in these encounter into groups and learning perhaps parts of yourself, learning things about yourself that you hadn't known before. Were you able to bring this back to your marriage? Were you able to talk with your wife about what was going on? Did you have conversations about it? And I'm wondering if so, what they were like?

Harry Reis: Well, that was the problem. When I would begin to talk about these things, there was no recognition by my wife at all about what I was talking about. This was very contrary to what she knew about what she had experienced and there was just no connection there at all. And so our relationship really became a very distant relationship. It was not hostile. She was not mean about it in any way. She simply couldn't connect with it. And in a very real sense, I was moving in a different direction and that was a direction that she couldn't come along.

Shankar Vedantam: So there's obviously some tension here between the kind of person you were at the encounter groups. You felt like in some ways, this was the authentic Harry. In some ways you couldn't be that authentic person in your marriage. What effect did this have on your marriage, Harry?

Harry Reis: Well, it basically ended it. Of course it took a year or year and a half for that to actually happen, but essentially, I began to experience my outside life as far more rewarding and far more meaningful than the life that I had with my wife. And so we began to spend less time together. Our time together would be more structured on formalities rather than the kind of intimacies that should go on in a marriage.

Shankar Vedantam: The story that you're telling about your marriage is I think really revealing because it also matches what your research has been finding over the last several years. What is the relationship between the experience of being understood in an intimate relationship and the likelihood of success or failure of that relationship?

Harry Reis: Understanding is one of the most important things that we want in our close relationships. This is actually true beyond the realm of close relationships, but especially in our most intimate relationships, our marriages, our friendships, our connections with our siblings and the rest of our family. One of the most powerful things that we want is for there to be real understanding in those relationships. That the people on the other side know who we are and are caring and validating and accepting of that person.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting I think when most people think of intimate relationships, they think about things like love or appreciation or stability, but of course, the moment you say this, it makes intuitive sense to me that one thing to be understood is absolutely core to intimate relationships.

Harry Reis: Well, I think the important point is that things like love and trust and caring simply don't work if there isn't understanding. If your understanding of me is different than how I understand myself, then when you tell me how much you love me, you're telling me that you love somebody different than me.

Shankar Vedantam: And if I tell you how much I appreciate you, but in fact, I'm appreciating you for the things that you are not, you don't think are the most important things about yourself, some of my feedback will now start to sound inauthentic to you.

Harry Reis: And in fact, we have done research where we did exactly that and a very interesting thing happens. People smile, they say they're happy to get the feedback, and then they want to get out of there as fast as possible in case the other person finds out how false the impression was. So it feels inauthentic and very unrewarding. Suppose you got a nice big raise at work from your boss and they said they're giving you the raise because of something that isn't true about you. Think about how uncomfortable that would feel.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, it makes you feel like an imposter almost.

Harry Reis: Exactly.

Shankar Vedantam: The moment I heard about Harry's work, I started to see its applications everywhere. Think about the perennial conflict between parents and children. So much of it can be traced to the feeling many kids have that their parents just don't get them. Take the opening scene of the movie Lady Bird. A teenager and her mom are driving back from a college tour and they start to squabble.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: I wish I could live through something.

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: Aren't you?

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: Nope. The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it's a palindrome.

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: Okay. Fine. Well, yours is the worst life of all. So you win.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: Oh, so now you're mad because I wanted to listen to music?

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: No, it's just that you're being ridiculous because you have a great life.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: I'm sorry I'm not perfect.

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: No one's asking you to be perfect. Just considerate would do.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: I don't even want to go to school in this state anyway. I hate California.

Shankar Vedantam: Obviously this is a comedy, but the teenager's fury at being misunderstood is palpable.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: I want to go where culture is, like New York.

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: How in the world did I raise such a snob?

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: You couldn't get into those schools anyway.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: Mom!

Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson: You can't even pass your driver's test.

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird: Because you wouldn't let-

Harry Reis: It's a very common feeling for adolescents and for that matter, adults, to feel like their parents don't understand them. And sometimes that comes from the fact that we grow. We change. Often we move away from our families and become things that our families don't necessarily have an appreciation of.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk a little bit about the implications of your work, not in the context of intimate relationships, but in the context of professional relationships. You said a second ago that wanting to be understood is core to intimate relationships, but I have the sense that it also plays a role in professional relationships. Can you talk about that? Can you talk about the importance, for example, as an academic for your fellow peers not just to think that you are a good researcher or a smart person, but to truly understand the insights that you have developed over the years?

Harry Reis: Well, sure. In the academy, it's very important that our colleagues, the people who we're working with toward the common goal of doing research and educating students and each other, it's very important that they understand what we are trying to do in our work. That they get the message, not only the superficial content of it, but also the meta-message that is underneath that. It's true in medicine. There's much research that shows that medical care works better when patients feel like their doctors are listening and really understand what their symptoms are, what their needs are, what they want done. It's common in the classroom also. Students do better when they feel like their teachers understand who they are and what their priorities are.

Shankar Vedantam: It may be helpful to think about what happens when we don't receive that kind of understanding in professional settings. Students who think that professors don't understand them are more likely to end up feeling lackadaisical about their studies. A patient who thinks her doctor can't be bothered to listen to her might disregard otherwise excellent medical guidance. Over time, if we feel our colleagues and clients and customers don't understand what we go through every day, we become much more likely to snap. That's what happened to JetBlue flight attendant, Steven Slater. Like many flight attendants, he had trouble getting passengers to sit down while the plane was still taxiing. As he argued with one woman, a piece of luggage got loose and hit him in the head. Here's what happened next according to a Boston TV station.

Speaker 5: That's when witnesses say Slater lost it, telling off the entire plane cursing at passengers from the intercom. His profanity laced tirade ended with a, "I've been in this business for 28 years. I've had it. That's it." Slater swung open the plane side door and rode the evacuation shot down to the tarmac.

Shankar Vedantam: I asked Harry to talk about how a lack of understanding from colleagues and customers can produce burnout.

Harry Reis: People feeling misunderstood is something that is growing by leaps and bounds in the world we live in now. With all these stresses and tensions that we have, there's more and more of a need to get connected with other people and part of that connection involves the sense of really understanding where people are coming from. In the old world, most of the people that you dealt with were people from your community. People who had lives that were relatively similar to yours, who lived with the same context as you lived with, and it was easy enough to understand them because everything that they were facing was the same as what you were facing. But now we are so much more mobile and we're so much more connected, we're coming across people who have different backgrounds, different goals, different priorities. Indeed, they may be living on opposite sides of the planet. And so the context is so much different and it's so much harder to establish that core base of understanding.

Shankar Vedantam: Why do you think it is that being understood is so important to human beings, Harry? What is happening at a psychological level that makes this so important?

Harry Reis: Well, I think that's a very interesting question, Shankar. I think one of the reasons for that is that when you feel understood, it's much easier to connect with another person. It means you don't need to explain yourself repeatedly. It gives you a greater sense of coherence that the world is predictable and sensible and that you can move in it freely without having to worry about how you're coming across. Am I being likable? Am I being smart? Am I being effective in that situation?

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if part of this also is that if I feel like you like me for who I am, I feel a greater liberty to actually be myself, to be authentic.

Harry Reis: Well, I feel a greater liberty to be authentic, but I also don't need to worry about rejection. We're primed by evolution to be very concerned about being accepted by our group and we all have a very strong need to belong. And if I'm understood, then I don't have to worry about my true self coming out and getting kicked out by the group, whereas if I feel like the group really doesn't know me, then I'm constantly having to monitor and protect my status.

Shankar Vedantam: Harry Reis and a number of researchers have tried to understand a paradox. If wanting to be understood is so important to our relationships and our wellbeing, why do so many of us regularly keep our true selves hidden? That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A desire to be understood, to be seen for who we are, is a powerful driver of successful relationships between parents and children, between romantic partners, and between colleagues. Knowing that is the easy part. Unfortunately, there are barriers that get in the way of actually reaching such understanding. Paradoxically, one major barrier can be our own desire to be understood. After Harry's first marriage ended, he remarried. He and his wife, Ellen, are both psychologists and they've been married for more than 30 years. Despite the longevity of their relationship, there are still moments when things can suddenly unravel over a trivial issue, like buying a new couch for their TV room.

Harry Reis: We have a relatively small TV room and we had a couch in there that was comfortable for two people to sit on, but not comfortable for two people to recline on. And my wife wanted us to get a new couch that would allow us both to recline comfortably on it, whereas I wanted to keep this couch because it was perfectly comfortable for me. I'm a large person and this is one of the few couches that I've sat on that worked perfectly for me.

Shankar Vedantam: And so this seems like a very you both have reasonable positions of course. And so of course, what you did was you sat down reasonably and discussed the pros and cons of getting a new couch, right?

Harry Reis: Well, no, not exactly. There's a truism that psychologists like to talk about. So who are the worst patients for psychotherapy? And the answer is a couple of psychologists. And the reason for that is that each knows exactly what's wrong with the other person, and if the other person would only fix it, everything would be fine. And in a sense, that's how our initial conversations about the couch began. We would discuss what we liked or didn't like about the couch and each of us would complete the other person's sentences because we were absolutely certain that we understood what was going on in the other one's mind. The key part of that was so unhelpful is not allowing the perspectives to be talked about, to allow them to come out. In a marriage, and for that matter in any kind of relationship, to resolve a conflict involves putting aside one's presumptions about what the other person is thinking and feeling even if those presumptions might be right, and instead, really listening to what the other person is saying and then making it clear that one really is listening. And that became the solution to the couch problem. When we stopped interrupting each other and stopped talking over each other and very clearly stated what each of us wanted to happen, we actually came to a very good agreement about it, which was that we searched for a couch that had the length that my wife wanted and that had the support features that I wanted. And it took a little bit of doing, but we found one and it's coming next week.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, this is a trivial example. It obviously resolved in a perfectly happy manner, but you can see how the same dynamics play out in all kinds of other situations with far less agreeable outcomes where two parties are in conflict with one another. Each of them feels like the other is not, not only not understanding them, but not making any attempt to understand them. Each of them is trying to get that position out, unable to hear what the other person is saying, and this combination of wanting to be understood and not being able to offer understanding to the other person ends up being really toxic.

Harry Reis: Yes, that's absolutely correct. We are not perfectly articulate human beings. When we communicate, we don't necessarily measure every word perfectly. We use linguistic styles that may not be 100% compatible with the other person. We make assumptions in our heads about what we're thinking and feeling that don't always come across. And so the process of communication is a very imperfect one. And the more imperfect it is, the more difficult it is to develop a true sense of understanding.

Shankar Vedantam: So besides some of the conflicts that we've been talking about in the course of interpersonal relationships, you and others have also identified a host of psychological barriers that cause people in some ways to hide themselves from others, but also cause them not to see others clearly. And I want to look at some of these in detail. The research that Tom Gilovich once ran a study where volunteers were videotaped sampling a variety of beverages, and one of these contained a disgusting vinegar-brine solution. The volunteers were told to conceal their feelings of disgust and then asked to guess whether others would notice that they were disgusted. Can you tell me what happened and what bearing this has to our conversation about being understood?

Harry Reis: Well, we often assume that other people can see what we're feeling even when we don't actually express those feelings. So often I might be angry, but not do a terribly good job of explaining that and I would assume that everyone knows that I'm angry without necessarily that coming across.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, that's exactly what happened in the study. The volunteers in fact thought that their feelings of disgust would be obvious to other people, but they were not. And Tom Gilovich and his colleagues talked about the illusion of transparency. That we believe that what we feel on the inside is transparent to those on the outside.

Harry Reis: Right. And of course, there are big differences in this. Some of us are better at being transparent than others, but one of the biggest misconceptions people have about marriage, especially before they go into marriage, is that their partner will always know what they're thinking and feeling. And this is a very, very destructive expectation.

Shankar Vedantam: So sometimes of course the problem is not that we believe that we are transparent. Sometimes we're actively trying to hide elements of ourselves from others. When you're just getting to know someone, for example, it doesn't seem like a good time to show all of your cards.

Harry Reis: Yes. Well, and of course there are many situations in which it's appropriate not to show all of your cards, but more importantly, I think there are many situations in which people try not to show all their cards when that is actually problematic. In dating situations, for example, we're clearly putting our best foot forward in the early stages and even much later in the relationship. People often have what we call hidden selves. We have aspects of ourself that we are really quite afraid that other people will find out because it's embarrassing, because it will make us vulnerable, because we fear that it might make our partners second guess their interest in us.

Shankar Vedantam: So you and others have found that when people experience a sense of being understood, they are drawn closer to those people. So in other words, being understood prompts people to feel closer to the people who understand them, but in tenuous relationships, there's something of a vicious cycle. The more insecure we feel, the more hesitant we become about sharing elements of ourselves that might be judged harshly by others. And of course, the less we share, the less close we feel to others. So it seems to me that some of these dynamics can produce a vicious cycle.

Harry Reis: Yes. You're talking about the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. And the irony there is that in the very situation you described, people will often berate their partner for not understanding them and yet they've been deliberately hiding aspects of themselves.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've looked at several ways in which we might hide important parts of ourselves from others, but let's flip the script for a second. It turns out that we also regularly fail to take the time to extend understanding to others. And to go back to your story about the couch, part of the problem was that you were not slowing down enough to hear your wife's perspective because you were so anxious to get out your own.

Harry Reis: Yes. Well, many times, we are much more interested in expressing our point of view than in listening to the other person's point of view. This is one of the great conversation skills that people sometimes need to learn. Instead of listening, people will be thinking about what's the next thing I'm going to say? And when you do that, it's that much harder to understand what the other person is actually talking about. We really have to learn how to focus our attention on the other person rather than ourselves.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if gender dynamics play a role here as well. It seems to me at least from anecdotal experience that women are more forthcoming than men are, in sort of revealing elements of themselves and wanting to be understood and seeking to understand. Is that a stereotype or do you think there's some truth in it?

Harry Reis: Well, what there is truth in I think is the idea that women are better at doing the understanding. Women are better at paying attention to what the other person's saying and expressing that in a way that comes across to the other person. Women also do tend to be somewhat more emotionally open. We've done a lot of research on that gender difference, and what's interesting about it is that women tend to be relatively more open regardless of the gender of the person that they're talking to. But men tend to be open primarily with women. In other words, men when they're interacting with other men are less likely to be emotionally open. And that often interferes with men developing close friendships, particularly later in life.

Shankar Vedantam: You have an interesting story about something you overheard at the gym where a couple of men were having a heart to heart, or at least one of them was having a heart to heart.

Harry Reis: Yes. I was at my gym and there were two young men standing there. And one of them said how are you doing to the other and the other said, "Oh, it's just terrible. My wife left me, I lost my job, and I had an auto accident." And the other man said, "Wow, it's really important to get your feelings out. Why don't you tell me about it?" And my ears perked up. I thought, "Wow, this is exactly what we're talking about." And then he said, "And I've got a minute. So go ahead."

Shankar Vedantam: I feel there are also times, Harry, when we may actively not want to understand someone else. If you sense that a friend or a colleague or a romantic partner thinks poorly of you, it almost might be less painful if you engaged in some willful blindness. Can you talk about this as being one of the barriers to actually understanding other people?

Harry Reis: Yes. We talk about this as when the head protects the heart. And the simple idea here is that there are many things that other people might be thinking about us that we don't want to know about. For example, early in a dating relationship, we may not want to really know what the other person thinks of ourselves. It might be unpleasant. It might not be what we want to hear. In conversation with a teacher or a work supervisor, we may not want to really know what the other person thinks of what we're doing because it may not be entirely complimentary to ourselves. And so often we have blinders. Now, of course, when you take this to an extreme, it's quite dysfunctional, but at relatively low levels, this may be highly functional. We often do a getting acquainted exercise with students where we ask students what superpower they would like. And sooner or later, one student always says the ability to read other people's minds. And I think it's safe to say that the ability to read other people's minds is the worst thing that could happen to us.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers once asked a couple of hundred couples to write down every evening for a couple of weeks how considerate or selfish their partner had been or how supportive they'd been, and then had them predict how their partners would behave the next day. And the researchers generally found that people believed that the way that partners had behaved on day one was a good predictor of how they would behave on day two. So in other words, we assume that the people whom we're engaging with today, their behaviors are not going to change in the future. And of course, one of the reasons in some ways we fail to understand other people is that our impressions of who they are are rooted in the past.

Harry Reis: Well, we have a strong belief that character is a major determinant of behavior. And so we assume that people are going to be consistent from one situation to another, from one day to another indeed, even from one period of life to another period of life. And what we under consider is the idea that people grow, people change, that people's situations change, and that that leads them to behave in different ways as well. So often when we're dealing with partners, when we're dealing with students, when we're dealing with coworkers, we don't account for the fact that people develop, people change in priorities, people mature, and they behave differently over time.

Shankar Vedantam: This is especially I think acute when you're talking about parents and children. So the mom who thinks the adolescent son always needs help has trouble adapting to the fact that maybe the adolescent son now is 25 years old and perhaps doesn't need her help as much.

Harry Reis: One of the hardest things about parenting is that children develop and they often develop rather quickly and recognizing the skill changes or the need changes that a child goes through is often difficult for parents to keep up with.

Shankar Vedantam: Tell me about the time your mom came to visit you when you were first in Rochester. You were 25 years old I believe. Tell me that story, Harry.

Harry Reis: Yes, I was 25 years old. This was the first time I lived in a house of my own. My mother walked in the door and without taking her jacket off started to clean the sink. And it was not that dirty.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you have a conversation with her about this? I mean, you say, "I'm the psychologist. I know exactly what you're doing."

Harry Reis: No, I was happy to have my sink cleaned.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things I'm taking away from all this work, Harry, is that being understood requires significant effort from two parties. So understanding tends to happen when you have an excellent communicator paired with an excellent empath. And of course, when you put it that way, it becomes much less surprising that so many of us go through life without getting the understanding that we want or without extending understanding to others.

Harry Reis: Yes, that's correct. A failure on either end of that transaction can make it go bad.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk for a moment about the experience of getting this understanding given that it's rare, given that it doesn't happen always? I think many of us have a feeling of almost transcendence when we feel like we are paired with someone who truly gets us.

Harry Reis: Well, I would not quite want to go as far as you're going and saying that we don't have this kind of understanding. We certainly don't have this kind of complete understanding, but if we didn't have some level of understanding, we would all be deflecting and bouncing off each other in many ways. So there's some level of basic understanding that is quite common in our lives. And for that to happen, we have to be reasonably open in expressing what's important to us and reasonably good listeners in paying attention to what's being said to us.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, a curious twist. It turns out there is a big difference between being understood and feeling understood. Also, given the barriers we face to understanding, what skills can help us become more connected to others and allow us to understand them a little better? You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: -music break-

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The desire to feel understood appears to be a core psychological need. When we have it, we are happier colleagues, warmer partners, and more loyal friends. When we don't feel understood, it can corrode even our best relationships. Psychologist Harry Reis studies intimate relationships. He's found that being understood is a pillar of successful relationships, but there are all kinds of cognitive biases that keep us from being understood and keep us from understanding others.

Shankar Vedantam: Harry, one of the most interesting aspects of your research is that you found a difference between being understood and feeling understood. Can you explain this difference to me?

Harry Reis: Yes. Being understood refers to whether you really understand what another person is like, what their preferences are, what their character traits are, what their needs are, what their desires are. Feeling understood, it's entirely within the mind of the perceiver and it's the belief that another person really understands who you are and what's important to you.

Shankar Vedantam: And you are saying that there are sometimes cases where people may feel understood without actually being understood?

Harry Reis: Yes, there are. One of the things we've found in our work is that when people have successful relationships, they often imagine that other people understand them better than they actually do. And this is one thing that actually helps them maintain a sense of security and safety in that relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: And you've done studies to this effect. I understand where you show that in some ways, the belief that you are understood, the feeling that you have of being understood in fact is a strong predictor of the success of that relationship, not necessarily the fact that people actually are understood.

Harry Reis: Correct. Well, what we did in this work was look at the extent to which people felt understood by their close relationship partners in two different areas. One is in the area of sexual preferences and the other was in the area of humor preferences. And what we found was quite interesting and that's that when people feel very satisfied with their relationships and when they feel very similar to the people that they're relating to, they actually imagine that there's a greater level of understanding than there actually is. Now, this is a good thing because that greater level of feeling understood allows them to feel more confident, more safe, more happy in the relationship. So we talk about this as a maintenance mechanism. And by that we mean a way of thinking about your relationship that actually boosts the integrity and the coherence and the safety of the relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking about this also in the context of politics. Politicians like Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, they're loved by their supporters in part because people feel like they understand them. Is that stretching your research too far to extend it to the realm of politics?

Harry Reis: No, I think that that implication follows quite naturally. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were able to communicate to other people something that made it sound like he really understood what was important to those people. And that is a major determinant of people's identification with candidates, their willingness to go out and vote for those candidates, or perhaps to even donate to them.

Bill Clinton: In my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them. People that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance. What I want you to understand is...

Donald Trump: On the campaign I called it the forgotten man and the forgotten woman. Well, you're not forgotten anymore. That I can tell you. Not forgotten anymore.

Shankar Vedantam: And I think it might also be a measure of how much we are willing to forgive candidates, even if they fail to deliver on promises that they have made to us. When we feel like the candidates understand us, that this leader truly gets us, this leader is perhaps even one of us, you're willing to forgive all kinds of things even if the candidate doesn't actually deliver once he or she is in office.

Harry Reis: Yes, I think that's exactly right.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to turn to some of the techniques that we can use to better understand other people and to be better understood by others. Psychotherapists sometimes use a technique called speaker-listener technique to help couples overcome misunderstandings. Can you describe this technique to me, Harry?

Harry Reis: Sure. The speaker-listener technique is a very straightforward way of trying to both enforce the idea of needing to listen, but also to create the sense of being listened to. So in the speaker-listener technique, there will be a box on the table with two red lights, one in front of each partner. And the way the process works is only the partner who has the light is allowed to speak. So the light's on, you're allowed to speak and you can say whatever your concerns or issues are. Then the light switches and the partner's job is to repeat what you just said as they heard it. Then the first person's light comes back on and that person then has to comment on whether you got it right or how you got it wrong. And then the other person's light comes back on and they have to amend what they said to reflect the feedback that you just gave them.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, you're slowing people down to the point where each side says, not only have I had my say, I am now sure the other person has heard me in exactly the way that I want to be heard.

Harry Reis: Right. But it's more than just slowing down because lots of times, people know that they have to shut up while the other person is saying their point of view, but their mind will be closed. This technique forces them to open their minds and really listen to what's being said.

Shankar Vedantam: Uh-huh (affirmative). What are the solitary effects that greater understanding might bring both in terms of our personal psychology, but also in the way we treat other people?

Harry Reis: Yes, we've done a number of studies of this where we use an experimental manipulation that will temporarily allow people to feel more understood or alternatively, to feel more misunderstood. And what we find is that once we give people a sense that they've been understood, that they've been validated and responded to, they become more open-minded, they become more willing to consider opposite points of view. This is work that I did with an Israeli colleague named Guy Itzchakov, and we gave people a sense of being understood and then measured their prejudice toward some outgroup that they might have known. Perhaps it was an ethnic group, perhaps it was people with a different sexuality. Some groups that prior to the study, they had expressed some negativity toward. And we found that after feeling understood, they become less concerned with inflating their view of themselves, of thinking of themselves in a more ego-enhancing way, and most importantly and most interestingly, they become less prejudiced towards outgroups.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about some of the techniques that you employ yourself. Having done this work for many years, after seeing the importance of actual understanding as well as communicating understanding to other people, how has this changed the way you interact with others in terms of your students, your colleagues, your partners, your friends, your family? Do you do things differently today than you did in the past?

Harry Reis: Oh, absolutely. One of the things I do, particularly with students, is that students will often come to you with a request for this, that, or the other thing. And often it's not a request that we can grant. And rather than just say, no, sorry, I will sort of go out of my way to make it clear that I understood what they said. I think it's the perfectly reasonable thing for them to ask for, but I just can't do it. They may feel turned down, but at least they know that I paid attention and respected where they were coming from.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to stay with that insight for a moment because in some ways I think what you're hinting at at least is that sometimes the pain we feel in disagreements might be less about the disagreement and it might be more about how we feel the other person has heard us or listened to us or taken us seriously.

Harry Reis: Absolutely. There is research by one of my colleagues, Amy Gordon, where she has shown that conflicts, even when they don't get resolved, are less harmful to relationships when people feel like they've been heard and understood. One of the misconceptions that people have is that if you express understanding for what the other person's saying, that you're somehow agreeing with their point of view, and that needn't be the case. Understanding simply means making it clear that you get the message that they communicated and that you respect it as a reasonable point of view. That doesn't mean that you have to agree with it.

Shankar Vedantam: But it's worth flagging the reason that I think many of us fail to do this, fail to understand others or fail to have ourselves be understood is that actually it's hard. It does involve time, it involves effort, and it involves emotional effort.

Harry Reis: And it also involves vulnerability. It involves being open to hearing something that you might not like.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways the act of doing this involves an element of courage I suppose.

Harry Reis: It definitely involves courage. The courage to tell you who I really am and the courage to listen to who you really are.

Shankar Vedantam: Harry Reis is a psychologist at the University of Rochester. Harry, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Harry Reis: My pleasure.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. She was featured on our recent episode Where Happiness Hides. After we talked, Sonja told us about Harry Reis' research on the importance of feeling understood. Thank you, Sonja, for introducing us to Harry. We're working on a story about personality. Have you ever tried to change who you are in a fundamental way? We're looking for stories of people who have attempted to transform themselves in some important fashion. Perhaps this change was a result of an unexpected encounter or an epiphany, but the person you were afterwards was different than the one you were before. We're especially interested in stories of personal growth. If this strikes a chord and you're willing to share your story of your moment of epiphany and your transformation with the Hidden Brain audience, please find a quiet room and record a short voice memo on your phone. Email it to us at [email protected] Again, that's [email protected] Use the subject line transformation. If you like Hidden Brain, please check out our store at shop.hiddenbrain.org. We have T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, and more. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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