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How to Win Friends and Influence People the Positive Psychology Way

By on September 28, 2010 – 8:13 am  20 Comments

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

  1. Active constructive: expressing enthusiastic, positive support
  2. Active destructive: expressing a derogatory or critical response
  3. Passive constructive: showing benign disinterest
  4. 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.

New Research

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:

  1. sharing your good news makes the news more personally meaningful to you (it does);
  2. 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);
  3. getting enthusiastic feedback when you share your good news leads to you evaluating your partner more highly (it does);
  4. 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);
  5. recounting your good news leads to you rating those positive events more highly in the future (it does);
  6. getting enthusiastic and supportive feedback from your partner brings you closer (it does).

When Can You Find Yourself Responding with Genuine Enthusiasm?

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!
 


References:

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.

Images:

Cheers courtesy of Håkan Dahlström
High-5 courtesy of run4unity
Good news courtesy of dcharny

20 Comments »

  • Steven H says:

    Very interesting, and surprisingly something that I have consciously tried to do over the past year or so. People like people who are interested in them and make them feel like a better person.

    Great article! And very instructive video with Seligman!

  • oz says:

    Bridget,

    How does gossip fit into this?

    Also I think their is a dimension that underlies AC – genuineness.

    I have seen some people routinely practice AC b’c they learnt it at management school. Yet it seems less effective b’c they aren’t genuine. So i suspect the emotional undertone is important.

  • Ali M says:

    “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.”

    That makes a lot of sense, humans feed emotions off one another and we tend to mirror the stronger emotion. Therefore, when we confide good news to another person, having them respond positively elongates the effects of the news.

    I was wondering for people that become out of practice / or are not the type to respond with active-constructive responses, how often do they have to practice the technique to improve their overall well-being (for an extended period of time) and create a habit of healthy responding? I know there are some experiments, such as counting your blessings at night for two weeks to a month that have aftereffects that result in more positive emotions over a few months than with a group that says a few blessings for one week and then stops. Are there any similar findings with active-constructive responses?

    In couple therapy, are couples instructed to say one positive thing and respond positively to one thing every night even when they are in a bad mood? How often should couples go about responding positively?

    I found your article very easy to read and well organized.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Steven

    Thanks for your comments. How did you get on with trying the active constructive approach – has it worked for you (and for the people you’re responding to)?

    In my experience, most people think they do active constructive (myself included) until they practice it in a workshop situation. Then they realise it takes a lot more positive energy than they usually use.

    Or maybe that’s just the typical British reserve…maybe active constructive comes naturally to Americans….

    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Oz

    Not sure about gossip. I did read some new research recently that negative talk binds people together more than positive talk…. I can’t remember where I read it though – perhaps someone else has come across that. Another of psychology’s paradoxes.

    Agree completely on the genuineness point although I don’t know what research has been done. We happened to talk about this at our workshop and someone pointed out that Tal Ben Shahar apparently advises people to ‘fake it till they make it’. Not sure if he meant in this context though, because you can spot insincerity a mile off, can’t you?

    Bridget

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Ali

    I think research into active constructive responding is still relatively new. That’s a good point about couples, and your question reminds me of the work that John Gottman has done which suggests that in long-lasting relationships, the balance of positive to negative is actually 5:1. There are quite a few good video clips of Gottman online in which he explains this magic ratio – here’s one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xw9SE315GtA&feature=channel

    Bridget

  • Coert Visser says:

    Dear Bridget, thanks, very interesting!
    Coert

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Coert

    You’re welcome!

    Bridget

  • Mark2 says:

    90% of people describe themselves as good listeners, however
    16% say being ignored in conversation is their biggest complaint about their partners, and
    27% feel lonely a lot of the time

    So says The Way We Are Now, a survey published yesterday by Relate (relationship charity) & Talk Talk (phone company), (pdf available here http://www.relate.org.uk/the-way-we-are-now/index.html ).

    And picking up on Oz’s point there’s also a cautionary note for people who would use AC inauthentically:
    Honesty is the quality people value most in a partner

    (especially if it’s active & constructive!)

  • Bridget,
    Thanks for the article and the new research by Reis and colleagues. Our experience with ACR is with leaders in corporate settings. Contrary to what we might think, they often discover that they are, at best, responding with a passive constructive response to good news, but often they respond with an active destructive response out of a sense of caution in case the employee overstepped his or her bounds. They are amazed when they realize the detriment they become to a flourishing environment. So your article works well for winning friends and influencing people in a corporate environment as well.
    Also, regarding your response to Oz, there is research that gossip binds people together, increasing the cohesiveness of the hive. I believe it was Jonathan Haidt who told us about it at MAPP. Not sure where the research is.
    Thanks again for your article.
    Scott

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for those statistics. I had a quick glance at the report and it just goes to show how difficult it is to interpret them sometimes, e.g 64% are happy with their work/life balance and at the same time 49% would like to have more time for their family – that doesn’t make sense to me.

    On a slightly different theme, I had to laugh at the things which men and women find unappealing about their partners (p12&13). For men the top complaint was their partner’s choice of TV programme (!), the 2nd thing was snoring and the third most annoying thing about their partner is that they say the same thing over and over again…I wonder why that is?

    Bridget

  • Ethan Grimmer says:

    Hello Bridget!

    I found your article both constructive and engaging!

    It is amazing to me how we (people as a whole) tend to neglect responding enthusiastically to the positive experiences and events in our friends or loved ones’s lives, and yet have the tendency to be overly sympathetic or “helpful” in negative situations. One might understand this to be a fairly simple phenomena because we all feel the need to be needed. In many cases we rejoice in considering ourselves in a position to be able to help others. A former mentor of mine always told me that “You cannot always not judge your true friends by how they react when something goes wrong, but you will always know when something goes right.” (Paraphrase)

    Do you agree that this is the case? Is it more important to see how our loved ones react when something goes right in our lives? Can we make more accurate inferences about their attitudes towards us and the relationships when positive things happen for us vs. negative things?

    Additionally, I am curious to know what neurological effects this may have? Which reward system is activated? What are the effects of positive memory sharing and AC response on cognition and memory? I will be doing some reading and research on my own, being that I am currently very uneducated on the topic. However, if you have the time to share any thoughts please do!

    I very much appreciate your time and the article. It has sparked my interest and I look forward your response, as well as to more of your articles!

    Ethan

  • alexandra says:

    Bridget,

    Thanks for the article! How do you suggest that we encourage our friends, family, etc. to use active constructive responding beyond demonstrating it in our own reactions?

    Thanks,

    Alexandra

  • Meg says:

    Hi Bridget,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and agree with everything you pointed out. I think it is very interesting how much we feed off of other people’s energy and think that sharing good news with others is a great way to stay in a positive state of mind about the event or the news.

    I have a few questions about one of the examples that you pointed out about telling your child that they should wait a minute before they share their good news or that you don’t have time to hear about it. Do you think that there is an immediate negative effect when someone disregards your positive news? Could there be a period of time in which you could bounce back and still be as excited to share your news after someone initially responded unenthusiastically but then later acted interested? If a child’s mother continues to disregard his good news or not be as enthusiastic as he would hope would that child eventually downplay his own happiness or instead simply avoid telling his mother instead of being repeatedly disappointed?

    I realize that these questions may be a little off topic but I wanted to see what your opinion was on this potential parenting fault.

    Thanks,
    Meg

  • alan says:

    Bridget

    If an AC response is not genuine it means what: that really one wants to be Active/passive Destructive. If so that seems to imply one really does not want to improve ones relationship with others. But thats the point of the lesson isn’t it?

  • Hi Scott

    Good point about using ACR in business. It makes sense that people want to ‘evaluate’ the news they’re presented with in workplace situations before they decide how to respond to it, which makes it more tricky to go all out with an instant AC response. Imagine responding enthusiastically to the news from one of your sales people that they’ve won a big new account, and then finding out that the means by which they achieved this were less than ethical. Hmmmm. Or maybe that wouldn’t bother some business people at all…!

    But it’s still useful to have the conversation about what your typical response is in the workplace. Even if you have to be more cautious over good work-related news, you can still use an AC response to good personal news that people bring in. And there must be a lot of that to celebrate, if only we make the time and space at work to talk about it.

    I’ll follow up the Jonathan Haidt lead, thanks.

    Bridget

  • Hi Ethan

    Thanks for your comments. I think your mentor is spot-on with their observation – at least, it’s consistent with the researchers’ suggestion that using an AC response to another’s good news is a more reliable way of developing your relationship than giving support when they share their bad news. It’s one of those interesting paradoxes: offering support to someone in the bad times could backfire on you (e.g. if you give the wrong advice) and is therefore a more risky strategy for building a relationship. Whereas what Gable et al suggest is that an AC response in the face of their good news is fool-proof. From my own personal experience I can still recall an instant of doing the former, from many years ago, and I think it did harm our relationship, temporarily at least. But as usual, it’s rarely black and white and I certainly wouldn’t say that one should never do the former and always do the latter.

    So the research agrees with your point about the importance of using an AC response to boost relationships. When we discuss it in the Masterclass , delegates usually say that ACR is their natural style, but I think it’s difficult to own up to having any of the other styles as your habitual response, although it’s easy to see it in others. I don’t think this research looks at the correlations between attitudes towards a relationship and response-style, although I can see why there might be a link. But it may be that the other party just simply isn’t aware of the impact of their presumably non-ACR response on the relationship. It would be an interesting avenue to explore further.

    I don’t know about neurological effects specifically. In terms of sharing positive memories, you might want to look into the research on savouring, as this is one of the strategies mentioned.

    Bridget

  • Hi Alexandra

    You raise an interesting question here and you’re right, modelling the AC response can be a very effective strategy, especially with children.I don’t recall researchers’ advocating any specifc approaches. Making people aware of the different response styles is also important – most people I’ve talked to knew nothing about response styles or the impact they have on others. Depending how good your relationship is, you can encourage others in a direct way (as in ‘when you respond in this way, I feel XYZ/ I prefer you to …’ and so on, explaining needs assertively), or indirectly, such as the group discussion approach in which you explore and practise different styles. As with all personal development, changing ones habitual style (if not naturally ACR) may take time, and has to come from a position of knowledge.

    I think the research is still limited e.g. personality types and it may be the case that adopting an ACR approach to good news may be more difficult/likely for some than for others. Also, could it be that simply recognising someone else’s response style means it has more or less influence on us? Again, interesting avenues to investigate.

    Bridget

  • Hi Meg

    Those are interesting questions you raise about the impact of responses styles in children, and I guess the answers may lie in the child’s personality and individual resilience. I can imagine a situation in which a child learns quickly to downplay, or not share, their good news if their parent’s reaction is usually critical. After all, who wants to be criticised? If you’ve ever had a passive destructive response to your good news, you’ll know how it can not only take the wind out of your sails, but also make you doubt your own judgement: ‘maybe that thing I was so pleased about isn’t such a good thing after all….’

    Equally, there will be other children (perhaps different personality types, or more resilient, with different strengths) who are less affected and who continue to be upbeat and willing to share good news despite their parent’s negative reaction. I don’t think there’s any research yet which looks at the impact specifically in families, or over a longer period of time.

    I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who works with children/parents/families.

    Bridget

  • Hi Alan

    I’m not sure that you can infer that if you typically use a certain response style it means that you want/don’t want to improve your relationship. I think the vast majority of people are simply unaware of the impact, and respond habitually.

    However, asking yourself whether your destructive response style does reflect an underlying problem in a relationship is certainly worth exploring.

    Bridget

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