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8.2: Confirming and Disconfirming Climates

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    Messages that Shape Communication Climate

    We all experience the realities of confirming and disconfirming responses in interpersonal interactions in our everyday lives. One of our authors shares this example:

    My daughter taught me an important lesson about disconfirming and confirming responses when she was a kindergartener. One Saturday afternoon, I was busy cooking in our apartment’s tiny kitchen when she came up to me and started a conversation about wanting to go outside to do something. I kept focusing on what I was cooking on the stove because I did not want the food to burn. I simply replied with “We’ll see” before she had even gotten to the end of her request. She tugged on my shirt, looked up at me, and said: “I need you to look at me so I know that you are listening to me. I know that you said, ‘We’ll see,’ but that really means ‘no.’” Well, that young girl really caught her mother, a professor of communication, in the midst of giving her different disconfirming responses. What was great about this incident was that she pointed out these disconfirming responses in such a clear, positive way! This is a story that I still share with my interpersonal communication students. Have you had a similar experience?

    Let’s start by looking at positive and negative climates created by confirming and disconfirming messages. Confirming climates occur when we receive messages that show we are valued by others. Conversely, we feel disconfirming climates when we receive messages that suggest we are devalued and unimportant. Next, we will examine confirming climates along the dimensions of attending, affirming, and accepting messages. After that, we will explore negative climates in terms of disregarding, disparaging, and denouncing messages. Finally, we look at at three types of messages that create confirming and disconfirming climates. Keep in mind that all three types of messages can be conveyed both verbally and nonverbally. Obviously, most of us like to be in confirming climates, because they foster emotional safety as well as personal and relational growth. However, it is likely that our relationships fall somewhere between the two extremes.

    Woman smiling at a laughing baby
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mom & Son By Saradhi Photography on Unsplash

    Confirming Climates

    Attending Messages

    An attending message indicates recognition and confirmation of another person’s existence. For example, when a family member arrives home and we greet them with, “Welcome home! I’m so glad to see you,” we are confirming their existence. Likewise, when we answer the phone, we say, “Hello” as a greeting to the person on the other end. Imagine the awkwardness of not being recognized if someone answers the phone in silence. In fact, sending attending messages are so important that Walmart hires "greeters" whose purpose is to make customers feel welcome as they enter. Many other retailers have followed suit, and you will often hear, "Hi! Welcome to [name of store]" upon entering a store. Attending messages are the most basic form of confirmation. A simple nod or wink of acknowledgment can go a long way to establishing a positive communication climate.

    Affirming Messages

    Affirming messages go beyond attending to also convey our interest and concern for the other party. Nodding our head while listening, or laughing appropriately at a funny story are nonverbal affirmations of interpersonal engagement. When your significant other tells you they had a really bad day at work and you respond with, “I’m sorry to hear you had a bad day. Do you want to have some coffee and cake and tell me about it?” you are acknowledging and responding to their feelings.

    Accepting Messages

    Accepting messages are the strongest of confirming messages. An accepting message acknowledges a person’s feelings as valid through agreement and/or showing support. Suppose a friend comes to you upset, after a fight with their partner. If you respond with, “Wow, I can understand why you are upset” you are endorsing their right to feel upset. When we let people own their emotions and do not tell them how to feel, we are creating supportive climates that provide a safe environment for them to work through their problems.

    Scrabble-like tiles spelling out confirming and disconfirming climates, as described in the figure caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Confirming-Disconfirming GameTiles by Kim Yee is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Moving from top to bottom, the tiles spell out "disparaging," "disregarding," "denouncing," "accepting," "attending," and "affirming."

    Disconfirming Climates

    While attending, affirming, and accepting have both confirming and disconfirming attributes, disconfirming messages can further be classified as disregarding, disparaging, and denouncing.

    Disregarding Messages

    Messages that disregard can be seen as the opposite of attending. Disregarding messages convey to the other person that they are unimportant or even nonexistent. In recent times, we have become so attached to our electronic devices that phubbing has become an easy and prolific way of disregarding people in face-to-face interactions. Phubbing (phone + snubbing) occurs when we snub, or ignore, others by giving our attention to our electronic devices. Typical phubbers fail to provide nonverbal cues to communicate recognition, like eye contact or a smile. Additionally, phubbing behaviors are seen as signs of disrespect. We have all experienced phubbing, either from the giving or receiving end, or maybe even both! Now that you’re aware of phubbing, you can be more consciously mindful of your intent (Kelly, et al., 2019).

    Disparaging Messages

    Disparaging messages range from passive-aggressive to downright aggressive, showing discord and disgust. Sometimes, a disparaging message can look like a compliment. For example, Ching-Heng received the comment, “You have such good penmanship [compliment] for a left-hander [implying somehow that all left-handers’ writing is messy].” Behaviors like name-calling, sarcasm, badgering, yelling, taunting, and put-downs attack the person you are communicating with (Bishop et al., 2012). The strategy here is that the disparaging party tries to establish superiority by tearing down the other person’s self-worth.

    Bullying is a form of aggressive, disparaging conduct that has gotten a lot of attention. According to, bullying involves “unwanted, aggressive behavior… that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time” (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2022). Physical, in-person bullying has always been a problem. Now, with increased use and reliance on electronic devices, cyberbullying has become almost an epidemic. “Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else” (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). It seems many cyberbullies experience the disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004). Hiding behind electronic devices, devoid of face-to-face interactions, appears to bring out a side of people that they would otherwise not have the courage to show. As a result, online name-calling, put-downs, etc. in comments and social media forums have spiked in recent years contributing to an uptick in social anxiety as well.

    Denouncing Messages

    Being denounced is the worst form of disconfirmation. When we are denounced, we are excluded, banished, or shunned on purpose. Most of us have probably experienced this (from either the giving or receiving end) at one time or another. According to Parramore (2014), being denounced hurts even more than being bullied. At least when we’re bullied, we’re receiving some kind of attention/feedback, albeit negative. When denounced, we are ostracized and made to feel nonexistent—not even worth the effort to be bullied. Experiences can range from getting the silent treatment from an angry parent to ghosting or getting ghosted by "friends," to being outright stonewalled by your significant other. The person denouncing is exercising almost abusive power over the other person by purposely excluding them and making them feel diminished.

    When too many disconfirming messages are being sent and received, people generally become defensive. When we are defensive, we are, first and foremost, protecting our own interests. The likely results tend not to be productive but rather escalate whatever conflict already exists.

    Man with face in hand surrounded by synonyms for worthless, as described in the caption
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Worthlessness by John Hain from Pixabay. The man's figure is made up of word such as "ignored," "undeserving," "devalued," "insigificant," and other synonyms for "worthless."
    Enhancing your Knowledge
    Woman with a child with Down syndrome, one man supporting another in a pool, a man and woman in wheelchairs
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): People first Collage on CDC is in the Public Domain

    According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) 1 in 4 adults in the United States experience some type of disability. In the past, people with disabilities were segregated into different classrooms and separate schools. We’ve come a long way from that to mainstream students with disabilities into the general education classrooms. As a result, we’re teaching children from a young age to be inclusive and accept people of all abilities. Even still, people sometimes unintentionally use words and phrases that are insensitive and do not promote dignity, respect, or understanding for folks with disabilities. Unintentional or not, it sends disconfirming messages of disrespect all the same.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): CDC Recommendations for “People-First" Language
    Tips Use Do not Use

    Emphasize abilities, not limitations

    Person who uses a wheelchair

    Person who uses a device to speak

    Confined or restricted to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound

    Can't talk, mute

    Do not use language that suggests the lack of something

    Person with a disability

    Person of short stature

    Person with cerebral palsy

    Person with epilepsy or seizure disorder

    Person with multiple sclerosis

    Disabled, handicapped


    Cerebral palsy victim


    Afflicted by multiple sclerosis

    Emphasize the need for accessibility, not the disability

    Accessible parking or bathroom

    Handicapped parking or bathroom

    Do not use offensive language

    Person with a physical disability

    Person with an intellectual, cognitive, developmental disability

    Person with an emotional or behavioral disability, a mental health impairment, or a psychiatric disability

    Crippled, lame, deformed, invalid, spastic

    Slow, simple, moronic, defective, afflicted, special person

    Insane, crazy, psycho, maniac, nuts

    Avoid language that implies negative stereotypes

    Person without a disability

    Normal person, healthy person

    Do not portray people with disabilities as inspirational only because of their disability

    Person who is successful, productive

    Has overcome their disability, is courageous

    Discussion Questions/ Journal Prompts
    1. Drawing on your past experiences, what have you learned from working with people of all abilities, whether in the classroom, workplace, or another context?
    2. Disabilities are not always “visible.” One of our authors shares a personal example: "My mom was a cancer patient who was weakened by her chemo treatment. As a result, she was able to get a disabled parking placard. Upon first glance, some people thought she was cheating the system and would say unkind things to her." What can we do to create a safe space/confirming climate in situations where we are not aware or privy to this information?
    3. Describe a situation where you had unintentionally created a disconfirming situation involving a person who has a disability. Reflect on your verbal and nonverbal messages and discuss what you think went wrong.

    Confirming and Disconfirming Responses: Well, It Depends!

    It is important to note that many behaviors may be interpreted differently—as disconfirming at one end of the continuum or as confirming at the other end of the continuum. Sometimes cultural norms play a role in the confirmation–disconfirmation continuum. There are many ways to say “no” without using the word “no” in some cultures. For example, a master’s thesis published in November 2020 investigated “50 ways to say ‘No’ in Japanese: A study in refusals among Japanese people” (Maciejewski, 2020). As the author stated in the abstract of his thesis: “indirectness as a polite refusal strategy in Japanese can often lead to misunderstandings since indirectness is not always regarded as polite in other languages.” Such indirectness could be interpreted as an ambiguous or irrelevant disconfirming response on the part of someone outside of Japanese culture.

    You might be familiar with a response that sometimes comes up in interpersonal interactions known as a tangential response. This occurs when the speaker briefly acknowledges a person’s contribution to a conversation, but then immediately changes the direction of the discussion. Why is this a potentially a disconfirming response? After all, the person is acknowledged. The conversation partner may feel disconfirmed because the gist of what they said was not addressed in any way. The speaker changed the topic and basically ignored the individual’s contribution. The speaker’s comment was irrelevant to the topic that had been brought up by the conversation partner. In our Communication classroom discussions, we have sometimes used a tangential type of response in facilitating classroom discussions. We use a tangential response because we want to acknowledge a student’s question or comment, but we may need to move the discussion on because of time. We will typically affirm a student’s question or comment by thanking them by name and telling them that we appreciated their contribution, but that we must move on to the next topic due to time. We do our best to make sure that a student is heard and acknowledged even if we must move the discussion along. (By the way, our Interpersonal Communication students usually smile and acknowledge my affirming tangential”response after we have covered the chapter on communication climate!) Our students understand that we use tangential responses as a way to keep the class discussion going.

    So, it is important to note that different communication behaviors may have more than one intended message and, in turn, have more than one possible interpretation. The continuum shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) is a visual representation of how we can slide back and forth from disconfirming responses to confirming responses in our interpretation of messages. Confirming and disconfirming messages are not “absolute.” They can vary in degree of positivity and negativity, moving from invalidating and denying to acknowledging and validating.

    This continuum from disconfirming to confirming responses was described in the previous paragraph.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Disconfirming Responses and Confirming Response Continuum by Armeda C. Reitzel CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
    Person showing a frustrated, disconfirming
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Frustrated by Robin Higgins from Pixabay
    Person showing an appreciative, confirming response.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\):U

    A person might perceive a response by a conversation partner as either disconfirming or confirming. The interpretation may depend on several factors, including culture, context, status, and relationship. It is important to be somewhat flexible in interpreting what a person might mean because there could be some differences in communication style and strategies.

    Here are some examples of communication behaviors that could be regarded as disconfirming at times, but they could also be seen as confirming in other communication interactions. As stated earlier, “Well, it just depends!”

    • One conversation partner gives no overt response to the other. That person is not acknowledged verbally or nonverbally.
      • Disconfirming interpretations of this behavior might be interpreted by the receiver as:
        • “I feel totally ignored.”
        • “I am a ‘nonentity.’”
        • “I am not worth recognizing.”
        • “I do not even warrant a negative response.”
      • On the other hand, that same behavior could have a confirming interpretation attached to it:
        • “What I said or did was best left without acknowledgement.”
        • “Maybe this was a ‘face-saving’ strategy on the part of my conversation partner(s).”
    • A conversation partner jumps right into what the other partner is saying.
      • The interrupted partner might view this behavior as a way to silence their voice and viewpoint, a disconfirming type of communication.
        • “What I have to say is insignificant.”
        • “My conversation partner’s ideas are more important than mine.”
        • “I am not worth listening to.”
        • “My conversation partner jumps right into what I am saying to take “center stage” and all of the attention and dismiss my contributions.”
      • That same “interrupting behavior” could also be interpreted in a confirming way.
        • “Wow, we are both on the same page! We are thinking alike!”
        • “My conversation partner is in sync with what I have to say and how I am saying it.”
        • “I have piqued the interest and enthusiasm of my conversation partner so much that they want to jump into the conversation.”
    • One conversation partner gives the other mixed verbal and nonverbal signals or is ambiguous in their message to them.
      • When meanings are vague or when the verbal and nonverbal cues contradict each other, disconfirming interpretations might include:
        • “My conversation partner is lying to me. They say one thing verbally but another thing nonverbally.”
        • “My conversation partner is not being transparent or truthful with me.”
        • “My conversation partner is purposely trying to confuse me so I lose my focus.”
      • Sometimes this same vague or ambiguous message could be seen as affirming behavior, such as:
        • “I know that my conversation partner needs time to think about what is being said.”
        • “My conversation partner needs time to figure out what their viewpoint or answer is.”
        • “My conversation partner may be engaging in some face-saving behavior at the moment.”
        • “I know that the answer is really ‘no’ even though that is not what my conversation partner is saying with their words. They are trying to lighten the ‘no’ by using the word ‘maybe’ or the phrase ‘We’ll see.’”
    • One conversation partner changes the topic.
      • This last example can leave a person feeling disconfirmed. Possible interpretations may include:
        • “I feel totally ignored.”
        • “I am a ‘nonentity.’”
        • “I am not worth recognizing.”
        • “I do not even warrant a negative response.”
      • Yet there could be other ways to interpret this communicative behavior that actually can be seen as confirming.
        • “What I said or did was best left without acknowledgement.”
        • “Maybe this was a ‘face-saving’ strategy on the part of my conversation partners.”

    What does all of this mean? It suggests that there may be different ways to perceive and interpret communication that may leave one conversation partner thinking that they are being disconfirmed while another might see that same behavior as a positive, supportive behavior. Culture is a key factor in determining these differing perceptions of the same verbal and nonverbal cues. The concepts of high-context communication and low-context communication play a critical role here. Having a clear understanding of context can help you become a more effective communicator by lowering the chances of miscommunication and misunderstandings.

    Person checking a box for a happy, neutral, or sad response.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Feedback by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

    This page titled 8.2: Confirming and Disconfirming Climates is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kim Yee & Armeda Reitzel (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .