A little exercise that pays big returns

I’m always looking for practical ways to improve relationships, and I came across a powerful one recently in a new book by Marty Seligman, the grand old man of psychology and one of the masterminds behind the burgeoning field of positive psychology.

A decade ago, Seligman wrote a book called Authentic Happiness. Despite its unfortunate title, it was a great treatise on what he considered the key elements of happiness: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

In April, he published Flourish. It pushes beyond happiness into  new territory: the science of well-being. And it has five key elements: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning [the elements of happiness that he identified ten years ago] plus positive relationships and accomplishment. Think of the acronym PERMA. We flourish when we’re doing well with most or all of those 5 elements.

The good news is that these elements are teachable and learnable, at work as well as at home.

For instance, Shelly Gable, a UC Santa Barbara psychology professor, says that when something positive happens to someone we care about, we have four ways of responding. Only one—which she calls “active constructive”—builds strong relationships. The other three either add nothing or can actually erode our relationships.

Gable’s work is grounded in personal relationships. But the operating principle applies to work relationships as well, which is what Seligman did. He adapted Shelly’s work to help soldiers in the U.S. Army become more resilient and stress tolerant.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say your spouse or a work colleague shares a good event with you: “Hey, I just got a promotion and a raise!”

You can offer an active constructive response, which conveys your excitement—“That’s terrific! You’ve worked really hard for this. I’m proud of you!”—and a desire to hear more: “When did you find out? What did your boss say? How’d you react?” You also pair your response with  non-verbal behavior that reinforces your enthusiasm and curiosity, like smiling, making eye contact, and offering your full attention.

The second option is to offer what Shelly calls a passive constructive response, which is like, “Good; you earned it” with no questions or curiosity and little or no active expression of emotion.

Your third choice is a passive, destructive response, which ignores the other person’s message both verbally and non-verbally. For instance, you might say, “I won’t be in the office tomorrow,” make no eye contact, and even walk away.

The last choice—an active destructive response—goes further both verbally and non-verbally by pairing an actively negative response like, “So this probably means you’ll be even less available than you are now” with a frown and perhaps a tinge of anger or resentment in your voice.

As Seligman points out, active and constructive responding doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I’ve noticed that it requires mindfulness and the willingness to slow down. So in the next few weeks, just pay attention to how often someone shares something positive with you about his life and how you respond.

Better yet, do the full-blown exercise. Make a point of responding fully, asking questions, and enjoying the good event together. If you don’t know what to say, write down some possible responses and  open-ended questions in advance. Then go find some good things happening to people you care about and practice responding actively and constructively.

The beauty of this practice is that the more you do it, the better you’ll feel, the more people will want to seek you out, and the stronger your relationships will become.


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