By Paula Davis-Laack • June 20, 2011•Writers in Residence
How many of you received good news recently? Did you share it with someone? What was their reaction? These seem like odd questions, but your ability to build stronger relationships of all kinds depends on how you answered.
When it comes to analyzing the quality of relationships, the focus is often on how you react or respond in times of distress or when things go wrong; however, research by Dr. Shelly Gable at UCLA shows that how you respond when things go right is as vital in terms of creating and maintaining good relationships (both at work and at home) as how you respond in times of distress.
Dr. Gable’s research shows that there are four response styles when someone tells you good news. They are as follows:
Active constructive. You show enthusiastic support and help the good news bearer to savor the good news.
Passive constructive. You offer quiet, understated support, essentially stopping the conversation before it gets started.
Active destructive. You rain on the person’s parade by pointing out all of the potential downside in the news (this is an easy response style for lawyers as we’re trained to think this way).
Passive destructive. You hijack the conversation by shifting the focus to your own good news or a memory that was triggered by the sharer’s news.
To illustrate each style, here is an example. Julie, an associate in a law firm, gets home from work and excitedly tells her husband, Steve, that a senior partner called her into his office today to tell her that she has been assigned as the lead lawyer in an important matter involving the firm’s most important client. Here are Steve’s responses:
1. “Wow, that’s amazing. I’m so proud of you. How long was the meeting with the senior partner? He must really be impressed by how hard you’ve been working lately. Let’s go to dinner to celebrate!” (Active constructive)
2. “That’s great hon.” (Passive constructive)
3. “Geez, that’s great, but won’t that mean you’ll be working longer hours than you already are? We don’t spend much time together, and now it’s going to be even less. Will all this extra work even help you make partner?” (Active destructive).
4. “Cool – that reminds me, my boss pulled me aside today and told me that I did a great job on the last sales call I made. He thinks I might be up for a promotion sooner than I expected!” (Passive destructive).
Even though you might think that you’re responding in a way that promotes joy, I’ll bet each one of you can think of a time when you used a response style other than “active constructive.” I know that if I haven’t gotten enough sleep, am preoccupied with a deadline, or in a bad mood, my response probably won’t be an active constructive one. Dr. Gable’s research demonstrates that using a response style other than active constructive erodes relationships. Think about it this way – the person sharing good news picked YOU to share their good news with, so they must value your relationship on some level. When you kill the conversation, rain on their parade, or shift the attention to yourself, what are the odds that this person will continue to come back to you with good news? And if your spouse, friend, colleague, or child stops sharing good news, what is the likelihood that he or she will be inclined to tell you when things go wrong?
While it’s not reasonable to expect that you’ll be perfect, it’s important to practice active constructive responding as often as possible. In order to help you identify your response patterns, try the following activity:
1. Make a list of the key people in your life.
2. Think about which response style is typical of you with that person.
3. Identify the factors that cause you to be in a category other than active constructive.
4. List the ways that you can actively get back into the active constructive style.
The next time somebody shares good news with you, practice being an active constructive responder and watch your relationships grow!
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.