I think back to an earlier relationship. My girlfriend had arrived at my flat in Sydney one day and, wearing a Cheshire cat grin and bubbling with excitement, told me that she had been accepted into a doctoral program in Brisbane. My reaction was deadpan. All I could think about was how I would find a job in another city and whether I would like living there. My personal anxiety and lack of enthusiasm succeeded in throwing a wet towel over her celebration. An opportunity for rejoicing together was lost.
Since then I have learned the importance of capitalising on another person’s good fortune. Research has shown that how we respond to our partner’s good news is actually more important for the quality and longevity of our relationship than how we respond to their bad news. When partners celebrate each other’s triumphs and positive experiences, the relationship receives a boost in trust, intimacy, and closeness. Helping our partner savour their good news also demonstrates that we are more satisfied and committed to the relationship.
Psychologist Shelly Gable from the University of California has identified four different types of responses that people typically use to respond to good news, and only one of these contributes to the relationship in a positive way. Couples with strong relationships use responses which reflect enthusiasm for the good news, excitement for the bearer of the good news, genuine interest in the good news, and questions to help the bearer relive and savour the experience. These responses are called:
- Active constructive responses (“Congratulations on your job promotion. All of your hard work has finally paid off. Let’s grab a coffee and you can tell me all about it.”)
In contrast, the three other types of responses which promote less trusting and less close relationships are either:
- Passive constructive which are mildly supportive (“Well done darling. What’s for dinner?”);
- Active destructive which focus on the downsides of the news (“Well, that’s a surprise. I thought John would have been more suitable for that job”); or
- Passive destructive where the good news is ignored altogether (“Wait till I tell you what happened to me today”).
So, let’s break it down. Here are five tips to help you be an effective active-constructive responder leading to stronger relationships with your friends, work colleagues, family members, and your partner.
1. Listen mindfully
When a friend or your partner shares their good news with you listen carefully to what they are saying – hear the words, watch their body movements, and feel their emotions. Most importantly, listen without judgment. As they are talking resist the urge to add your own comments or provide advice. Also, avoid early jump-ins where you might be tempted to interrupt their story with your own good news or experiences. Focus on what they have to say, not on what you want to say.
2. Express your excitement
To demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm, and to encourage them to continue describing the details of their good news, use positive body language like direct eye contact, smiling, touching, laughing, leaning forward, and nodding.
3. Express sincere congratulations
Show how happy you are for them with upbeat praise or comments: “That’s brilliant. You thoroughly deserve being recognised for all your hard work” or “Well done. How exciting for you” or “What wonderful news. I can’t wait to tell all the relatives” (if it is appropriate sharing the news with others).
4. Ask questions to help them savour the experience
To help them relive the experience ask follow-up questions or prod them for extra details. In addition to showing your interest, helping them savour the positive experience shows that you appreciate their good news, that you understand and respect their goals, and that you support them, all of which will strengthen the bond between you and make you both much happier.
If by chance you have genuine doubts or concerns about the person’s good news, perhaps because of the questionability of the news’ origins (the boss has a history of promising employees promotions which never eventuate) or the possible ramifications of acting upon the news (taking up the new job may mean having to move to a different city thereby threatening the relationship), be careful not to be negative or dismissive of the good news. At all times try to be constructive in your response.
5. Encourage people who downplay their own good news
Sometimes we encounter people who make a habit of downplaying their own good news. A common example is when you offer someone a compliment (“Well done on your presentation today”) and, instead of receiving the compliment in an active and constructive way (“Thanks, I spent a lot of time preparing”), they revert to active and destructive responses (“At least nobody left early”). At these times we need to gently encourage the person to accept the compliment with a “thank you” and a statement validating their news (“You engaged so well with the audience and had great activities”). Doing so will reward both you and the bearer of the good news with a greater connection, trust, and happiness.
Now it’s your turn. How will you respond in the following scenarios when someone shares their good news with you?
- A friend’s son has started dating a lovely girl
- Your neighbour won a raffle at the local RSL club
- Your partner met a really interesting person at work
- Your partner had a fantastic workout at the gym
- Your mother snapped up a bargain at the season-ending sales
- A work colleague has been offered a job promotion
- Your partner watched a terrific program on television
- Your daughter is excited about her maths test score
That’s right – make a song and dance about it!
Describe a time when you helped your partner savour their good news.
Please leave your comment below.
(Selected comments will appear anonymously in my upcoming book The Happiness Challenge.)