When most of my clients want to improve their communication skills at home or at work, they focus on how to better handle conflict. They want to have more empathy, to avoid being critical, or to make sure they don't shut down when hearing uncomfortable information from loved ones or co-workers. They want to "fight fair," to get all the issues out on the table without getting defensive, and to listen attentively in the process.
And let's face it: all of these behaviors are truly important for navigating our interactions with others. After all, when two people, with two distinct life histories, engage with one another, differences in opinion arise. Handling these difficulties well could be the difference between a successful resolution and a knock down, dragged-out fight.
However, while arguments and conflict tend to get a lot of airplay because of how dramatic and emotionally-laden they can be, research suggests that you are making a mistake if you don't also pay attention to how you respond to your partner's good news.
In fact, psychologist Dr. Shelly Gable argues that how we respond to each other in good times can serve as a barometer of the health of the relationship, and that it can better predict the quality of the relationship than our reactions to bad news.
So, how should you respond to your partner's good news? Gable suggests there are four possible ways to react. See if you see yourself in any of the responses to the scenario below...
Your partner comes home from work, beaming with pride, saying, "Guess what? I just landed a new client!"
Here are some possible responses:
1. Active Constructive
"That's awesome, honey! You've been working hard to close that account for so long. What happened in the meeting? Tell me all about it!"
In this case, you are actively conveying positive emotions through smiling and eye contact, providing positive feedback, and showing interest by asking follow up questions. When you speak with confidence, your partner will feel more confident, too.
2. Passive Constructive
"Good for you." Then, you change the subject.
Here, you may be providing positive feedback, but you are not actively engaging your partner. Your non-verbal behavior shows a lack of interest.
3. Active Destructive
"Seriously? So does this mean you'll be traveling even more than you are now? Now I'll never see you!"
Saying this kind of thing is actively destructive, as the term name suggests. In other words, you are actively showing negative emotions such as worry, disdain, or anger, and have found a way to find something negative in your partner's good news.
4. Passive Destructive
"Really? Well my day was great too. Let me tell you all about it." or "What are we going to watch on t.v. tonight?"
While you are not actively showing negative emotions here, you are not engaged in what your partner is saying, and are either ignoring what has been said, or making it all about you. This will not make your partner feel supported.
Relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman points out that in our relationships, we are frequently making bids for connection. Whether it is a touch, a smile, or sharing something that happened to us that day, we are seeking to be noticed and validated by our partner.
That is why the "Active Constructive" response is the only one that contributes to ongoing relationship health. It helps to create greater trust, intimacy, and bonding. It lets your partner know that he or she matters. It boosts your partner's positive emotions and increases relationship satisfaction.
All of the other responses can be deflating, as they are either ignoring our partner's bid, or punishing him or her for sharing.
So pay attention the next time your partner (or anyone else in your life) shares good news with you. I like to think of the visual of your partner as a little kid coming home, proudly showing off an art project he or she created at school. I don't think we ever outgrow the desire for others to validate for us that we are special and worthy of love and attention.
So, how will you respond to good news? Your relationship could depend on it.