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UA Department of Communication
Old Dominion University
UA researcher Margaret Pitts and her colleagues contend that positive communication is an area where we could use more practice and attention in life.
Instead of being attentive to what is right, some people tend to overemphasize what is wrong: why relationships do not work out, why diets fail, why personal finances are out of order, why bad luck always seems to arrive.
Embedded in that negative tone, whether it be in outward communication or self-talk, is a pervasive insidiousness that, if unbridled, has the potential to cause emotional, mental and physical harm.
Psychologists have been saying it for years: Positive self-talk has important and tangible benefits, for our health, wellness and our relationships.
However, in the realm of communication – communication competencies, group communication, interpersonal dialogue, messaging, mass media and other forms of interaction – discussions around positive interpersonal communication have been largely absent.
But a shift is occurring.
University of Arizona researcher Margaret Pitts and Thomas J. Socha of Old Dominion University have organized and co-edited the first collections of scholarly works devoted to positive interpersonal communication in their discipline.
"We want to ensure that the field of communication participates equally in the health, wellness and quality-of-life conversations," said Pitts, an assistant professor in the UA communication department.
"Communication has a lot to offer to the positive movement because the field allows us to go beyond what is in our head to study the messages and behaviors we engage in with other people. Through communication, we enact psychology," Pitts said, adding that more readily connecting psychology and communication can result in improvements in health, wellness and relationships.
"Merging communication with psychology is the next step. We can create the bridge because we have to communicate," Pitts said. "That's the point – let's see things in action."
In that direction, "The Positive Side of Interpersonal Communication" was released in 2012 while "Positive Communication in Health and Wellness" was released just this year, both by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
In the volumes, scholars address ways to synchronize positive communication among individuals of different cultural backgrounds, the use of humor in health-care settings, positivity in end-of-life conversations, the role of balancing positive and challenging communication in mother-daughter relationships for cancer patients, the need for fun and play in romantic partnerships, and the importance of intimacy in communication among older adults, among other topics.
Collectively, the volumes make a powerful assertion that "positive communication is not defined as the absence of negative verbal and nonverbal communication, but rather the presence of positive, enhancing and facilitative talk and gestures," as Pitts and Socha wrote in the 2013 volume.
"It should be understood that positive communication is also not about naïvely attending to only good things (i.e., being overly optimistic or avoiding negativity), but rather it is about applying and studying communication that allows us to thrive in the full spectrum of life experiences," Pitts and Socha also noted.
It's about positive psychology and communication.
Martin Seligman, while president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, first described "positive psychology" in an attempt to usher in a new era of pathology research and maintenance.
Seligman contended that the field of psychology had focused too heavily on negative happenings, arguing that positive psychology would enable more attention to be paid on positive emotions and character traits, and even institutions and organizations.
"He decided to start a movement," said Socha, a communication professor at Old Dominion in Virginia. "Until then, psychology was focused on normality and deficits, so it was following a medical model so that when a patient left the psychologists' offices, what they could do was limited."
That dynamic happens often. Socha said to consider your prior interactions with therapists, mechanics, physicians and the like.
"In the way that medicine works, it's the same with cars. Notice that mechanisc don't immediately talk about how they can strengthen your car. We don't think that way," Socha said.
"In communication, we don't always focus on good outcomes of messages. In a similar kind of way, we fall into the trap of looking at problems, deficits and dark points," Socha said, noting the discipline's emphasis on deception, unwanted communication, anger, stalking and other negative tendencies.
Focusing on happiness and flourishing and not merely a person's challenging psychological state yielded better benefits, Socha and Pitts emphasized.
Both also affirmed that people need to focus on more positive aspects in their lives, finding better balance between the good and bad, ultimately resulting in more responsive, authentic and healthy individuals.
"Within the context of health and wellness we recognize that health extends well beyond encounters with health-care professionals," Socha said.
"It flows throughout our major life domains – relationships, work places, places of leisure and learning," Socha said, noting the vast promise positive psychology and communication hold.
"It's a very attractive idea," he said. "Why not study love, happiness, joy, bravery and courage?"
In fact, that is what is happening globally.
In 2008 Gallup and Healthways began partnering on a long-standing investigation, tracking happiness and enjoyment among the world's citizens.
Also, Bhutan has begun measuring national happiness, referenced as "gross national happiness," as an indication of wealth much in the same way a country's gross domestic product is calculated. Other countries, including the U.S., are considering the same.
"What can I say to inspire someone to be better? If we can get a fuller, better picture of what makes us feel good, positive and confident, we can provide feedback to encourage productive behaviors," Pitts said.
"We can manipulate our environment in very small ways to enhance an experience or our communication," she also said. "This goes back to the quality of life issue."
UA Department of Communication
Old Dominion University