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Turning Complaints into Opportunities

Ever felt like you knew someone that complained too much? Perhaps you have even considered cutting ties with this person because they always talked about their problems? New research by close relationships researchers Kori Krueger and Amanda Forest at the University of Pittsburgh propose that an individual expressing negativity is an opportunity for the listener to practice instrumentality in the relationship—a practice that in turn has benefits for the relationship.

The personality trait of instrumentality is defined as someone who facilitates, supports, or enables a partner’s goal pursuit in some way. In relationships, when individuals are expressing negative thoughts or concerns, that is an indication to their partner, the listener, that their needs and goals are not being met. In other words, it is a sign that there is something that they could do to help their distressed partner—all in an attempt to alleviate the issues that could be inhibiting that individual from having positive experiences.

Krueger described that depending on the situation, instrumental people help their partners by taking on affectionate actions to cheer them up, find a way to help solve their partner’s problem, or to provide emotional support.

In their research, Krueger and Forest conducted four studies in which they Whether negative disclosures provided an opportunity for listening partners to practice instrumentality more than it does with positive or neutral disclosures. They also looked at whether negativity is less aversive and interpersonally costly when listeners are able to be instrumental compared to when they are not.

The results of their study revealed that negative disclosures posed as an opportunity for partners to practice instrumentality—which consequently has an effect on relationship quality. Data suggested that being instrumental increased the strength of the relationship between the individual disclosing and the listener. However, the key to whether the negative disclosure is beneficial or not—is determined if their listener can actually be instrumental in that process. In other words, the likeliness of the listener being able to take action in response to their partner’s negative disclosure dictates whether or not listening to that was actually beneficial.

When negative disclosures present itself, consider it not as a negative effect on the relationship but as a positive opportunity to strengthen your relationship with the other individual with instrumentality. The answer to their problem isn’t brushing them off or invalidating the issue’s capacity to affect them, but it starts with a simple question, “What can I do to help?”


Written By: Katie Linh Pham, MA Candidate at Loyola Marymount University

Session: "Listening to Negativity Can Be Beneficial: The Role of Feeling Instrumental” was part of the symposium Turning Negatives into Positives: Negatively-Valenced Interactions Can Benefit Relationships held Saturday, February 29, 2020.

Speaker: Kori Krueger, University of Pittsburgh

Co-Author: Amanda Forest, University of Pittsburgh

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