How we communicate on a daily basis with the significant people in our lives is more predictive of a strong relationship than anything other single factor. We likely underestimate the potential our daily interactions hold for helping us create great relationships with the people we care most about. When others tell us about positive happenings in their lives, our response can either be a step in building our relationship with them, or a step in undermining it. Although we may not see immediate differences, the impact small interactions makes is immense over time. Our typical responses create not only our reputation but the expectations others have of us, which in turn create a desire to connect with us, or not.
Maya Angelo, the beloved American poet, stated “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. How we react to others over time creates deep and lasting feelings that are remembered indefinitely.
Martin Seligman describes four different types of reactions we give to others in conversation which engender strong feelings towards us. These reactions can be “Active or Passive, as well as Constructive or Destructive” (2011).
Let’s look at the relationship between Tom and Sally. Married 6 years, they are generally supportive of each other and each other’s interests. Tom recently came home and informed Sally that he had been accepted into a training program that his work was sponsoring in his area of technology. Sally’s response was “That’s fantastic! I’m so proud of you. I know how much you had been hoping for that opportunity! Tell me all about it – how did you find out? Did you tell your colleagues? We should go out and celebrate!” Not only were her verbal responses enthusiastic and caring but her nonverbal responses demonstrated this too – with genuine smiling, hugs, touching and laughing. In this way, Sally’s response was both Active and Constructive. Tom felt wholeheartedly supported which further increased his enthusiasm for the upcoming challenge, and engendered loving feelings towards his wife.
Had Sally’s response been Passive and Constructive, she might have said “That is good news, you deserve it” – with little to no active nonverbal expression. Tom’s feelings in response may have been confused, and hesitant about sharing more.
Had Sally’s response been Active and Destructive, she might have said “That sounds like a lot of extra work. Are you going to spend even more evenings away now? You always put your work before me”. Her nonverbal expressions would have been displays of negative emotion, such as frowning, or slamming a cupboard door. Typically this type of response would create hurt feelings and resentment, and Tom would most likely build defensive walls over time.
Had Sally’s response been Passive and Destructive, she would not even have acknowledged Tom’s news at all, and instead might have said “Burgers for dinner” with minimal nonverbal expression. She most likely would have given little to no eye contact, and turned away, or left the room. Here Tom would learn over time not to share things of importance with Sally, but instead find other avenues of interest and support.
As we connect with significant people in our lives, there is another interesting phenomenon in communication. The “Losada ratio”is named after Marcel Losada, a researcher who discovered that the ratio of positive statements to negative statements could predict whether or not certain companies would “flourish” economically. Companies with a rating greater than 2.9: 1 for positive to negative statements had high performance ratings. John Gottman also found that the same principle holds true with his research on marriage and family relationships, but the “magic number” which creates optimistic and emotional connectedness in couple and family relationships is 5: 1. That is, five positive statements are needed for every critical statement to keep a relationship in optimum health. Generally the reaction I get when I talk about this with people in relationship counselling is one of genuine surprise, as most people find this ratio a challenge to maintain.
If you have read this far, I would ask you to consider a personal challenge this next week: Each time someone you care about tells you about a positive happening in their life, go out of your way to respond actively and constructively. Ask the other to tell you about the event. Spend lots of time responding. Use nonverbal communication too. And if you really like a challenge, attempt the 5:1 Losada ratio for at least one of the days in your week. Will it make a difference? You won’t know until you try.
Gottman, John & Silver, Nan. (1999). The seven principles for Making Marriage work. Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, NY.
Seligman, Martin. (2011). Flourish. Free Press. New York, NY.