Taking Another Person's Perspective Can Improve Your Well-being
Human beings are storytellers. Few of us would claim to be storytellers in the vein of Mark Twain, but each of us creates stories in our heads to help us make sense of our challenging experiences, our everyday lives, and our identities. Haley Horstman, an assistant professor of communication, says this process of creating stories to make sense of our world is called individual narrative sense-making. When we tell those stories to others, the process is called communicated narrative sense-making. Horstman wanted to know if telling our stories to others changed the content of those individual stories over time and whether that change was positive or negative.
In order to test her hypothesis, Horstman enlisted 62 pairs of mothers and daughters.
“My goal is to try to understand how daughters make sense of difficulty in the context of talking to their mothers,” Horstman says. “I was interested to see how communication actually changed the way that daughters make sense of their experiences—the connection between interpersonal and intrapersonal communication.”
Horstman says she wanted mother–daughter pairs for her study because research shows women are more likely to tell stories compared to men, and that people can relate to the mother–daughter dynamic; however, she says the implications of her research apply to everyone, not just mothers and daughters.
The study was broken into three parts over three points in time. In the first part, the daughters were asked to write about a difficult experience in their lives and then answer questions about their mental health and well-being. In the second part, conducted two days later, the mothers accompanied their daughters and each pair sat and talked for 15 minutes about the experience the daughter had written about. Two days later, the daughters were asked to write about the same difficult experience, and then the same measures of mental health and well-being were taken again.
Horstman says one of the most interesting findings was in regard to perspective-taking—putting oneself in someone else’s shoes.
“Moms’ perspective-taking (of their daughters) had little effect, but the amount of daughter perspective-taking actually indicated how much more positive her story will get over time,” Horstman says. “So if I’m telling my mom a story, and I’m actually listening to her, that helps me. If it’s not just a monologue where I’m venting about some problem, but rather a give-and-take conversation, that conversation is more helpful to my well-being.”
Horstman says there is a lot of narrative research indicating that if you just write something down that’s bothering you, that process can be cathartic. But she says her research finds that having an actual conversation about the problem can be beneficial as well.
Horstman is the lead author of the study, “Unfolding Narrative Meaning over Time: The Contributions of Mother-daughter Conversations of Difficulty on Daughter Narrative Sense-making and Well-being.” The paper was presented at the National Communication Association Convention in November 2014.