The One Communication Skill That Will Improve All Of Your Relationships

The Challenge: Communication makes or breaks a relationship.
The Science: It’s not just how you respond in the bad times but also in the good times.
The Solution: Here’s a science-based communication trick for awesome relationships!

We don’t always know how to connect with others in the most effective way.

Relationships are an important component of a thriving life. But which behaviors do the most to strengthen the relationships in our lives?  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we unknowingly weaken our relationships in an effort to do the opposite.

We often assume that the strength of our relationships is revealed most clearly during the tough times – that the support we feel from a partner or friend after something bad has happened is the most important indicator of how strong these relationships are.  Of course, the way we respond during tough times is important. Not surprisingly, high levels of support during difficult times are closely related to having more highly functioning relationships.

Good news: How we respond to good news is important.

However, what we do during the good times may be equally, if not more important, to the strength of our relationships. A 2006 study that examined the ways in which people reacted when their partners or spouses shared good news with them revealed that the way in which people responded to positive news shared by a partner or spouse was much more closely related to the well-being of that relationship than how they responded to negative news.

Four response styles: Choose active constructive.

The researchers outlined four main ways in which people typically respond when a partner shares good news with them:

1) Passive Constructive Response: Subdued or understated support.

Person A: “I just got a scholarship!”
Person B: “That’s nice.”

Passive Constructive response is positive in nature but very short and understated, not matching the enthusiasm of the person sharing the news.

2) Passive Destructive Response: Either hijacking the conversation or ignoring it

Person A: “I got a promotion at work today!”
Person B: “Guess what happened to me today – Let me tell you about it!”

Person A: “I got a promotion at work today!”
Person B: [no response] or  “Did you take out the trash already?”

Passive Destructive response is negative in nature and communicates a lack of interest in the other person and/or the news.

3) Active Destructive Response: Raining on the parade, letting the air out of the balloon

Person A: “I’m having a baby!”
Person B: “Well, say goodbye to sleep!”

Active Destructive response is deflating, can damage one’s sense of validation, and communicates a lack of understanding and/or care for the other person. [Note: Sometimes we share concerns or warnings with people with the best of intentions. However, saving these concerns to share at a later time is usually more effective].

4) Active Constructive Response: Enthusiastic support, genuine interest

Person A: “I had a great day today!”
Person B: “I’m so glad – tell me more!  What was the best part about it?”

An Active Constructive response validates the excitement of the person and offers her/him a chance to savor the good event for a little longer while serving to strengthen a sense of connection between both people.

People who receive active constructive responses when they share good news feel understood, validated, and cared for to a much higher degree than do people who receive any of the other types of responses.  The more often two people respond to one another’s shared good news in an active, constructive way, the higher their commitment to and satisfaction with their relationship is.

What you can do to nurture your relationships

  1. Build self-awareness. Notice how you respond when people share good news with you.  What type of response do you find yourself normally giving?
  2. Share your good news with people you love. Talking about the positive events in your life with people you love can contribute to your well-being. Don’t keep your excitement in – use it to build connections!
  3. Practice Active Constructive responding. When people share something with you about which they’re excited, help them savor that moment – even if only briefly and even if you don’t care about the event as much as they do. Cultivate a sense of genuine interest and curiosity. Some things you can say or ask:
    • I’m so happy for you!  I want to hear all the details.
    • Tell me more!
    • What is the most exciting part of this for you?

Bottom line

Having solid relationships in our lives increases our overall well-being, and paying attention to the ways in which we respond to one another during the good times can strengthen these ties. Start practicing today!

Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2000). A safe haven: An attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,78, 1053–1073.
Gable, S.L., Gonzaga, G.C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904-917.

Katie Conlon
Katie Conlon, M.A., MAPP is a Trainer, Coach, and Consultant. She works with the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Maryland and runs her own private practice, The Phoenix Nest. She is an Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the faculty of the Flourishing Center’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Katie also develops curriculum for George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She earned a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in counseling and personnel services from the University of Maryland.
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