Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How do you react to someone else's good news?

Perhaps you’ve heard the now-famous quote, “Will you be there for me when things go right?”

Shelly_gable This powerful question stems from Dr. Gable’s research into the positive psychology of love and marriage. She does not focus on troubled marriages. She studies how to make good marriages great. She's been interested in how one partner responds to the other’s good news.

It sounds absurdly simple but it’s not: your response to good news affects your relationships. More specifically, the way you respond when someone in your life (loved one, acquaintance, friend, even a colleague) shares a positive event shapes the quality of your relationship with that person.

According to Shelly, how you respond to another person’s good fortune can be divided into these four categories:

Active/Constructive: enthusiastically, showing genuine concern about the good event

Passive/Constructive: silently supportive, displaying subdued happiness

Active/Destructive: critically, pointing out negative aspects and possibilities

Passive/Destructive: indifferently, failing to show any interest

For example, a close friend calls to tell you she’s been asked to teach a course at the University of Chicago. You can respond:

“Wow, congratulations!! You’ve so earned this! You’ll be great!” (Active/Constructive)

“That’s nice.” (Passive/Constructive)

“But that’s in a really bad neighborhood?” Or much worse, “Honey, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to be able to handle it.” (Active/Destructive)

“Did you hear who got voted off American Idol last night?” (Passive/Destructive)

To read Marty (Seligman’s) discussion of this construct, click here.

As he writes in the article, Shelly calls the first category "Capitalizing," amplifying the pleasure of the good situation and contributing to an upward spiral of positive emotion.

Capitalizing turns out to be a key to strong relationships.

Even though we understand its importance, many of us find it’s very easy not to remember to capitalize with our children or spouses when we’re distracted. And it is particularly likely to happen with colleagues.

Since I learned about her work, I’ve realized that I often unknowingly fail to respond in an active constructive manner.

Here’s what I do to get back on track when I realize I’ve gotten derailed.

Notice the Cues

When you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to the energy in their voice, the speed and richness of their speech, the way their eyes look: all signals for whether or not you’re responding in an active/constructive manner. A rise in energy almost inevitably follows when I respond actively and constructively. When I respond with a passive constructive or a negative, the other person’s voice loses energy.

Create Opportunities to Practice

Practice active/constructive responding by starting conversations with invitations like, “What’s new & exciting?” This invites them to tell you their good news. And it then gives you practice in responding.

Balance Safety vs. Savoring

When you want to support someone, but you’re legitimately concerned there may be a dangerous side to their good news, show your support first: let them savor the good for a while --- and tell them your concerns later. For example, Susan tells me about a wonderful opportunity she’s just received but I know that she may be missing a dangerous possibility. My first response is still, “What great news! You deserve this. Tell me about it.”

Avoid The Hero Trap

I notice that sometimes I find myself offering unsolicited advice or trying to come up with things they haven’t thought about before. This is a particular trap I can fall into. When I ask myself why, I discover it is almost always for my benefit more than theirs.

There is one friend whom I’ve supported for 20 years. When she tells me great news, I sometimes start to throw in my advice, and her voice’s loss in energy alerts me. I think I do it because I do not want to lose my privileged place as a key supporter. My advice says, “I’m still here. I can still help you.” In other words, it’s become about me, not her. And I quickly try to fix the situation.

Put Them First

If their triumph involves a conflict with an opposing person, don’t show empathy for the other person. (Possibly save it for later.) By definition, this is not affirming for them and will kill their energy every time.

Avoid Subtle Put Downs

Notice the difference between “I can see how this could be exciting for you,” and legitimately being excited about it. Not participating in the excitement is a subtle way of sabotage when you’re feeling threatened. I once had a friend who would respond to my good news with an “I can see this matters a lot to you.” Arrgh.

In general, by paying attention to cues, you can tell when you’re being a deflator (me first) instead of a supporter (relationship first).

Active/constructive responding seems obvious, yet it is so worth paying attention to: I promise you, this is a simple change that will pay big dividends.

Want to hear a perfect example?

In the movie Yours, Mine, and Ours, Helen North (Rene Russo) and Frank Beardsley (Dennis Quaid) fall in love (many complications with kids and differing outlooks shortly follow). Then they have a huge fight. While on the outs and unbeknownst to Frank, Helen wins a huge contract with Saks Fifth Avenue, something she'd been pursuing for months.

Later that evening, Frank asks how her day has been. In a monotone, she lists four or five things, ending in the same dull voice with, "and I got the deal with Saks.”

"You did not!” Frank yells. He hugs her, asks her all about it. Then he asks: “And how can I help?”

You cannot have a better example of an active-constructive response than Frank’s. We don’t need to know about Hollywood endings to guess how their relationship turns out.

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