Components of integrative communication during arguing: implications for stress symptoms.

Author:Reznik, Rachel M.

Sometimes relational partners are unable to resolve their arguments in a single episode and reengage in future episodes. In such cases, they are enacting a pattern of serial arguing (Trapp & Hoff, 1985). Researchers have investigated the goals associated with serial arguing (e.g., Bevan, Hale, & Williams, 2004) and the tactics (e.g., Johnson & Roloff, 1998) enacted during episodes, often examining their association with relational well-being. Recent research has expanded the focus to personal well-being. Dysfunctional communication patterns such as demand/withdraw (Malis & Roloff, 2006a) and coping strategies (Malis & Roloff, 2006b) are predictive of post-episodic stress problems. In a recent study, Reznik, Roloff, & Miller (2010) reported that even constructive forms of communication such as integrative tactics are positively related to post-episodic stress such as thought avoidance and health problems. This result is troubling because integrative tactics are typically viewed as competent and satisfying (Spitzberg, Canary, & Cupach, 1994) and may protect relational well-being from the negative consequences of ongoing arguing. Hence, a practice that might be beneficial for one's relationship might be used at the cost of personal health. This study attempts to add insight into this dilemma by examining whether various forms of constructive communication are stressful and if so, why they are. We hope to parcel out the effects of the multiple components of integrative communication in arguments and highlight the interplay between relational communication processes and one's relational and physical well-being.


Integrative actions in the form of cooperation and collaboration are viewed as effective ways to manage conflict (Zacchilli, Hendrick, & Hendrick, 2009). They allow two parties to better meet their goals, create consensus, and strengthen their relationship relative to silently avoiding the conflict or engaging in intense verbal exchanges. Thus, Reznik et al. (2010) hypothesized that integrative communication would be beneficial for individuals' health largely by diminishing stress. However, across two different samples, they found a positive relationship between self-reported integrative communication (in the form of soliciting disclosure, providing information, and attempts at mutual problem-solving), and post-episodic stress and health problems.

As noted earlier, this counterintuitive pattern is provocative and unsettling. It suggests that effective ways of managing serial arguments may be stressful to enact. We believe that a useful starting point for understanding this pattern is to deconstruct integrative tactics into a subset of actions and then examine how each might be related to stress. Integrative tactics have their origins in negotiation research and are broadly conceived as actions that attempt to combine the interests of two conflicting parties into an agreement that will be mutually beneficial (e.g., Fisher & Ury, 1991; Pruitt, 1981). Negotiation researchers identified a wide variety of tactics that are associated with reaching integrative agreement (e.g., Pruitt, 1981).

Interpersonal communication scholars also incorporated integrative tactics into their thinking but focused on somewhat different behavioral forms. Instead of focusing on bargaining strategies, they examined three central behaviors including the degree to which relational partners disclosed concerns, listened to each other's perspectives, and engaged in problem-solving (e.g., Sillars, Pike, Jones, & Redmon, 1983; Witteman, 1988). Although such behaviors are often combined into a single integrative tactics scale, Klein and Lamm (1996) treated them as separate forms of constructive communication that might have different effects and are thus distinct. We believe that by separately examining the three forms, we may better understand why integrative actions can be stressful. Next, we explore how these components of integrative communication relate to well-being.


Our framework for understanding the relationships among forms of integrative communication and health emerges from the literature on cognitive depletion. This theory contends that an individual's ability to self-regulate by overriding his or her usual responses expends limited cognitive resources (Baumeister, 2003). Thus, an individual's resources become depleted when making difficult decisions that require considerable cognitive effort to control distracting and dysfunctional responses (Baumeister, 2003). While engaged in self-regulation, individuals feel stress arising from the extra effort required to focus their attention and control their responses. Various studies have demonstrated that tasks involving cognitive vigilance require individuals to expend mental effort and as a result their stress increases (e.g., Warm, Parasuraman, & Matthews, 2008).

We believe that interpersonal arguing is an activity that can require cognitive effort and self-regulation. Serial arguments often result from a partner engaging in a provocative action. When encountering a provocation, one's initial reaction is to act in a self-protective fashion and reciprocate destructive behavior (Rusbult, Verette, Whitney, Slovik, & Lipkus, 1991). However, to protect the relationship from conflict escalation, some individuals respond in a constructive fashion by stifling initial destructive responses and instead responding constructively to their partners (Rusbult et al., 1991). Importantly, individuals who have substantial self-control are best able to accommodate (Finkel & Campbell, 2001). Thus, individuals who engage in integrative tactics may be engaging in self-regulation. Although this process suggests that being integrative is always stressful, we believe that the amount of stress will vary with the particular integrative behavior enacted. Klein and Lamm (1996) identified three different forms of constructive communication: self-expression, problem-solving and active listening. It is possible that the three forms require different levels of cognitive effort.

We believe that disclosure of one's own concerns may not be as cognitively taxing as other integrative behaviors. Certainly, self-expression involves the expenditure of cognitive effort. Individuals must recall information about how to communicate in such situations and combine these elements into a coherent message (e.g., Greene, 1984). However, serial arguing may decrease energy demands associated with self-expression. While engaging in serial arguments, individuals often repeat their earlier statements rather than composing new ones (Johnson & Roloff, 1998). Although this repetitive behavior can have negative effects on the conflict (e.g., it makes the argument appear irresolvable), it requires minimal cognitive effort to enact because previous statements are scripted and automatically produced. Indeed, recent experiences in a given communication context may make message construction more efficient and less cognitively demanding (e.g., Greene, 1995). Furthermore, self-expression may constitute goal accomplishment, which creates a sense of relief and closure. Research indicates that individuals often engage in serial arguing with the goal of expressing their negativity or positivity about the issue (Bevan et al., 2007). After expressing their views, they have met their goals, which may be satisfying and reduce their need to focus on their feelings. For example, individuals who engaged in expressive writing experienced lower levels of rumination (Gortner, Rude, & Pennebaker, 2006) and individuals who engaged in self-expression reported fewer intrusive thoughts and less stress (Lepore, Ragan, & Jones, 2000). Hence, self-expression during serial arguments may be enacted in a relatively automatic way and may actually produce a "venting effect" whereby stress is reduced.

However, problem-solving and active listening require much more effort than simply expressing one's own views. Problem-solving entails actively trying to develop a solution that will be satisfying for both parties (Klein & Lamm, 1996). When both parties are committed to their goals, creating a mutually acceptable solution may require considerable expenditure of cognitive energy (Pruitt, 1981). Individuals must avoid advocating self-interested or obvious solutions (e.g., compromise) and invent a creative solution that will meet the needs of both parties. This process may be even more effortful during serial arguments. Individuals must suppress their negative responses, devise solutions, express them clearly to the other person, and devise arguments about their benefits. Such processes may involve achieving multiple incompatible goals, which makes communication more difficult and requires more energy than when trying to achieve a single goal (e.g., Greene, 1995).

Similarly, listening is a transactional process where listeners must receive the message and respond (Janusik, 2007). Active listening involves trying to take the other person's perspective as well as showing that one is interested in the other's point of view (Christensen, 1988). Advocates of active listening acknowledge that it can be exhausting (e.g., Hargie, 2011). Research indicates that active listening can increase physical reactions such as heart rate (e.g., Hargie, 2011) and actively listening to negative events can be fatiguing...

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