How Communication Climates Develop

How Communication Climates Develop

As soon as two people start to communicate, a relational climate begins to develop. If their messages are confirming, then the climate is likely to be a positive one. If their messages are disconfirming, then the relationship is likely to be hostile, cold, or defensive.

Verbal messages certainly contribute to the climate of a relationship, but many climate-shaping messages are nonverbal. The very act of approaching others is confirming—and avoiding them can be disconfirming. Smiles or frowns, the presence or absence of eye contact, tone of voice, the use of personal space—all these and other cues send messages about how the parties feel toward one another.

After a climate is formed, it can take on a life of its own and grow in a self-perpetuating spiral: a reciprocating communication pattern in which each person’s message reinforces the other’s. In positive spirals, one partner’s confirming message leads to a similar message from the other person. This positive reaction leads the first person to be even more confirming. Negative spirals are just as powerful, although they leave the partners feeling worse about themselves and each other.

How Communication Climates DevelopEnlarge Image

Michael Crawford/The New Yorker Collection/ All rights reserved.

Research shows how spirals operate in relationships to reinforce the principle that “what goes around comes around.” In one study of married couples, each spouse’s response in conflict situations was similar to the other’s statement. Conciliatory statements (e.g., supporting, accepting responsibilities, agreeing) were likely to be followed by conciliatory responses. Confrontational acts (such as criticism, hostile questions, and fault finding) were likely to trigger equally confrontational responses. The same pattern held for other kinds of messages: Avoidance begets avoidance, analysis begets analysis, and so on. Table 11.2 illustrates reciprocal communication patterns that have the potential to create positive and negative spirals.

Table 11.2

Positive and Negative Reciprocal Communication Patterns

Negative Reciprocal Pattern
Pattern Example
  • A: I wish you weren’t so self-centered.
  • B: Well, I wish you weren’t so critical.
  • A: Why are you so hard on Marta? She’s a great boss.
  • B: Are you kidding? She’s the biggest phony I’ve ever seen.
  • A: You wouldn’t know a good boss if you saw one.
  • B: Neither would you.
Mutual indifference
  • A: I don’t care if you want to stay. I’m exhausted, and I’m getting out of here.
  • B: Go ahead if you want, but find your own way home.
Arguments involving punctuation
  • A: How can I talk when you won’t listen?
  • B: How can I listen when you won’t talk?
Positive Reciprocal Patterns
Pattern Example
Validation of other’s perspective
  • A: This assignment is really confusing. Nobody can figure out what we’re supposed to do.
  • B: I can understand how it might be unclear. Let me try to explain …
Recognizing similarities
  • A: I can’t believe you want to take an expensive vacation! We should be saving money, not spending more!
  • B: I agree we should be saving. But I think we can take this trip and still save some money. Let me show you what I’ve figured out …
  • A: I’m going crazy with this job. It was supposed to be temporary. I have to do something different, and soon.
  • B: I can see how much you hate it. Let’s figure out how we can get the project finished soon, so you can get back to your regular work.

Adapted from Competence and Interpersonal Conflict, by W. Cupach and D. Canary. Reproduced by permission of William Cupach and Daniel Canary.

Escalatory conflict spirals are the most visible way that disconfirming messages reinforce one another. One attack leads to another until a skirmish escalates into a full-fledged battle:


(Mildly irritated) Where were you? I thought we agreed to meet here a half-hour ago.


(Defensively) I’m sorry. I got hung up at the library. I don’t have as much free time as you do, you know.


I wasn’t blaming you, so don’t get so touchy. I do resent what you just said, though. I’m plenty busy. And I’ve got lots of better things to do than wait around for you!


Who’s getting touchy? I just made a simple comment. You’ve sure been defensive lately. What’s the matter with you?

Although they are less obvious, de-escalatory conflict spirals can also be destructive. Rather than fighting, the parties slowly lessen their dependence on each other, withdraw, and become less invested in the relationship. The good news is that spirals can also be positive. A word of praise can lead to a returned compliment that can lead to an act of kindness, which can result in an improved relational climate.

Spirals—whether positive or negative—rarely go on indefinitely. Most relationships pass through cycles of progression and regression. If the spiral is negative, partners may find the exchange growing so unpleasant that they switch from negative to positive messages without discussing the matter. In other cases, they may engage in metacommunication. “Hold on,” one might say. “This is getting us nowhere.” This ability to rebound from negative spirals and turn them in a positive direction is a hallmark of successful relationships. However, if the partners pass the “point of no return” and continue spiraling downward, their relationship may end.

Positive spirals also have their limit. Even the best relationships go through periods of conflict and withdrawal, although a combination of time and communication skills can eventually bring the partners back into greater harmony.

Pause and Reflect

Evaluating Communication Climates

You can probably recognize the communication climate in each of your relationships without much analysis. But taking the following steps will help explain why these climates exist. Taking these steps may also suggest ways in which to improve negative climates:

  1. Identify the communication climate of an important interpersonal relationship.AnswerYou might find that using weather metaphors (sunny, gloomy, calm) is helpful. And, like the weather, you might discover that the climate in this relationship is changeable. Perhaps you’ll discover that “partly sunny with a chance of rain” or “calm at the moment but could turn stormy without warning” is more accurate. Spend some time to identify the climate that best represents your experience of this relationship.
  2. List the confirming and/or disconfirming communications that created and now maintain this climate. Be sure to list both verbal and nonverbal messages.AnswerTo clearly identify how your communications create and maintain this communication climate, you might find it helpful to first create your list with descriptions of typical messages that are routinely exchanged as part of this relationship and then to apply that list to the types of messages found in Table 11.1, Levels of Message Confirmation and Disconfirmation. For example, if you say “Thank you” after your roommate cleans up the kitchen, you’re sending a confirming message of acknowledgement which contributes to a positive climate. But if you ignore your roommate’s effort and say nothing, you’re sending an unreceptive response which contributes to a disconfirming climate.
  3. Describe what you can do either to maintain and enhance the existing climate (if primarily positive) or to improve it (if primarily negative). Again, list both verbal and nonverbal messages.AnswerUsing the previous example, to maintain and enhance the positive climate in the relationship with your roommate, you might expand your statement of appreciation, verbally by using more description such as “Thank you for taking the time to clean the oven. We’ve both been avoiding that for a long time, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your effort,” and nonverbally by giving them a gift, such as cut flowers from the garden or a sweet treat. To improve a negative climate, again using the previous example, you might acknowledge your roommate’s effort verbally, using a sincere tone of voice and saying something like “I know I don’t tell you often enough, but I really do appreciate how you help out around here. Thank you for cleaning the kitchen.”