When we think of being a good partner, parent, or friend one of the first things that spring to mind is being supportive when things go wrong or when times are tough. We pride ourselves on how well we help our loved ones through the sh*t that life slings at us, which is of course hugely important, but did you know that how you respond to good news could actually be damaging your relationships?
We rarely think about how we show up for other people when things go well and life is good but recent research shows that how we respond to life´s joys and triumphs, especially when others share theirs, can be just as important as how we show up for life´s struggles.
Dr Shelly Gable a professor of Psychology at the University of California whose research focuses on motivation, close relationships and positive emotions has discovered how we respond to our loved ones when they share the good stuff has a huge impact on our relationships, often to their detriment. She identified 4 response styles, 3 of which negatively affect our interpersonal relationships and only one that strengthens them. So, if you would like to build more closeness, intimacy, and trust in your relationships it might be time to pay attention to how you respond to good news when it´s shared with you.
Dr Gable describes 4 different ways of responding in her research, Active Constructive, Passive Constructive, Active Destructive and Passive Destructive, but don´t let the academic terms put you off, it´s easy to recognise when you´re responding in any one of these, let´s take a look at them.
The Four Response Styles
1. Active Constructive- JOY MULTIPLIER
As the name suggests, this way of responding increases the joy of the person sharing the positive information, and it increases our joy too. This is the style of responding that we can aspire to and practice. When we respond this way, we stop what we are doing, and give our loved one our undivided attention. We are fully present and engaged and enthusiastic in our acknowledgement of the good news; we ask questions to show our interest and to encourage further sharing- hence the name joy multiplier. By reacting this way, we allow the person who is sharing with us feel valued, respected, and cherished. The next time someone you care about offers you an invitation to deepen your connection with them, will you accept?
2. Passive Constructive- CONVERSATION KILLER
While this second style is still considered constructive it´s a bit of a damp squid, and probably the one we´re all most guilty of in the age of distraction. It´s the ¨Uh huh¨ response we give as we carry on with whatever we were already doing- scrolling through social media, making dinner, paying the bills- you get the idea. It´s supportive but lacking in engagement, interest or presence and as it´s common name suggests, is a total conversation killer, but really who would want to carry on talking when the listener makes it obvious that their interest is being held elsewhere?
The next two styles are described as destructive (again we have active and passive versions) and these definitely have a greater negative impact on closeness and connection.
3. Active Destructive- JOY THIEF
This is when we skip over the good news and dive, headfirst, straight into the absolute worst-case scenario. Someone says they are going for a swim you say they´ll die of pneumonia, they say they´re going backpacking around south America you say they´ll end up raped or murdered or both.
While I appreciate that we live in challenging times, not every silver lining is filled with lead that´s going to poison us but meeting someone else’s happiness and excitement in this way on a regular basis might poison the relationship. The negative Nancy, worst-case scenario* approach deflates the speaker, steals their joy and sends the conversation on a downward spiral of no return, and if you´ve experienced this yourself you know you think twice before sharing good news again with a naysayer.
*If this seems to be a way you respond to go news often you might actually be caught in a thinking trap known as Catastrophising which can be turned around by challenging those thoughts, I´ll write more about that in another post.
4. Passive Destructive-CONVERSATION HIJACKER
And the final beauty in our foursome is conversation hijacker, again we have all done this and been at the receiving end of it, when you are sharing something and the other person jumps in with their ´Me too only mine was bigger, better or more exciting´ -it steals the spotlight and dampens the spirit. When I was growing up we used to call the people who did this often ´toppers´ because no matter what story you had they would inevitably have one that topped it- you know the type!
Conversation hijacking is often accidental, hearing someone else´s excitement can remind us of our own and we jump in without thinking, but the effect is always detrimental. You are essentially cutting down the other person and as the name suggests hijacking the conversations, making it all about you. Most of us do this a one point or another, and by bringing awareness to it we can learn to catch it and shift the attention back to the speaker. The more awareness we create the higher the chances are of breaking this habit once and for all.
I do all three of the unhelpful responses, now what?
If you recognise your ways of responding in these descriptions, you are not alone and when making any change, awareness if the key (and far more beneficial than beating yourself up for something you did when you didn´t know better). The more we notice and understand our behaviour the easier it is to make changes. If you want to break out of a default pattern that´s eroding your relationships ask yourself the following questions to jump start that awareness building.
How do I usually respond to good news?
Do I tend to respond in one of those styles in particular?
What causes me to respond in that way?
How would I prefer to respond?
What can I do to be able to respond more effectively the next time I have the opportunity?
It´s important to remember that no-one ever only operates in one way, we have different ways of showing up for other people depending on our energy levels, what else is going on in our lives and a number of other variables. And as imperfect beings, even with a deeper understanding of our response patterns, we can´t expect to get it right 100% of the time, but we can aim to communicate better and to get it right more often than not.
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Social Support for Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 904-917.