Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
In the Positive Psychology Masterclasses that my colleague Miriam Akhtar and I co-facilitate, one of the important topics we cover is how to develop positive relationships. Many people who attend want to know what positive psychology can tell them about making their relationships more successful, more enjoyable and more enduring.
Our group activities include practicing a technique called Active Constructive Responding by psychologist Shelly Gable and colleagues. Watch Martin Seligman describe Active Constructive Responding in a video. in other words, it involves responding to other people’s good news with enthusiasm, energy, and engagement. Gable’s research suggests that this style of communication helps others capitalize on their good news, conveys understanding, validation and caring, and leads to greater well-being.
The “Number One Rule of Friendship”
Before we try the technique in the Masterclass, many delegates think it’s their natural style of communicating. This isn’t really surprising is it, because it makes intuitive sense that we’d be enthusiastic and upbeat when we hear some good news, especially from those we know and love. It’s what psychologists Argyle and Henderson have dubbed the number one rule of friendship.
The four types of response to good news are
- Active constructive: expressing enthusiastic, positive support
- Active destructive: expressing a derogatory or critical response
- Passive constructive: showing benign disinterest
- Passive destructive: distancing and otherwise failing to respond
Practicing all 4 really brings it home that oftentimes we are simply too busy and/or too wrapped up in our own thoughts in the moment to respond in an energetic and interested way. If you’ve got kids, how many times have they bounced through the door at the end of the school day eager to tell you about the Gold Star they got in class, only for you to respond: ‘not now!’, ‘I’m too busy!’ or ‘in a minute!’? Sometimes giving enthusiastic feedback requires more effort and energy than we feel able or willing to exert.
In the plenary which followed the activity in yesterday’s Masterclass, delegates noted how when they shared their genuine good news, getting enthusiastic and attentive feedback from the listener (even from someone they had only met the day before) made them feel instantly uplifted and able to savor their good news all over again. It was the icing on the cake. And, on the other hand, having someone ignore their good news or respond unenthusiastically, with quiet criticism or downright hostility felt like a party balloon being punctured–instant deflation of positive emotion, followed by feelings of confusion, disappointment and even anger.
Research published just last month from Harry Reis and colleagues at the University of Rochester and the National University of Singapore sheds a great deal of light on why giving enthusiastic and attentive feedback is so important in building positive relationships, both for the giver and the receiver. It describes a series of studies in the laboratory and natural social interactions designed to test whether:
- sharing your good news makes the news more personally meaningful to you (it does);
- the increased significance of your good news is due to the effects of receiving enthusiastic feedback from someone rather than the act of retelling your good news (it is);
- getting enthusiastic feedback when you share your good news leads to you evaluating your partner more highly (it does);
- you can get the benefits of an upbeat response to your good news even in minimal-involved social interactions, such as with a stranger you meet in the street (you can);
- recounting your good news leads to you rating those positive events more highly in the future (it does);
- getting enthusiastic and supportive feedback from your partner brings you closer (it does).
In short this new research supports the suggestion that responding to others’ good news with genuine enthusiasm, positive energy, and interest is a sure-fire way to increase the well-being of your existing friends, as well as to make new friends and to encourage closer, more trusting relationships with them.
At the end of our Masterclasses, we urge our delegates to look out for opportunities to try some active constructive responding on the journey home, and then with friends, family and work colleagues; why not give it a go yourself? We think you’ll be amazed by the results!
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228–245.
Argyle, M., & Henderson, M. (1984). The rules of friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1, 211–237.
Reis, H., Smith, S., Carmichael, C., Caprariello, P., Tsai, F., Rodrigues, A., et al. (2010). Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 311-329.