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If we consider the behavioural characteristics (expressive qualities) of our responses to each other (both verbal and non-verbal), we can divide them into two categories; active (overt), and passive (covert). But they can also be characterised either as constructive (positive), or destructive (negative) when we consider their semiotic attributes (meaning-making) and impact.
Such a classification process produces an array of four response types as shown in the following matrix which was first introduced by Dr Shelly Gable from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Imagine telling someone that you are promoted to a higher position at work and what response they could give you:
- Active Constructive (Nurturing) response is an enthusiastic reaction that shows genuine interest. This type of response is often followed by asking for more details and has been shown to strengthen relationships.
Their response would be “Congratulations. I’m happy that they finally acknowledged your contribution. When do you start? Let’s go out tonight and celebrate.”
- Active Destructive (Hurtful) response acknowledges what the other person has said but then adds a negative comment.
The active negative response would be “Wow, it’s going to be a tough ride. How are you going to cope with all that responsibility?”.
- Passive Constructive (Cold) response is not an enthusiastic reaction. It’s cold.
A passive constructive reponse is: “that’s great” (with a bland tone of voice) and turn away to continue what they were doing.
- Passive Destructive (Ignorant) response ignores what the person has just heard and continues by saying something completely unrelated, trying to change the subject.
This style of communication would entail a dismissive response such as “Where is John? We need to finish this project today”.
These four categories that I call them Nurturing, Cold, Hurtful, and Ignorant, apply to responses (or reactions) to all types of interpersonal communications. In this article, I want to focus specifically on the situations which many people fail to handle correctly and hence often lose the precious opportunities to enhance their personal and professional relationships. In other words, this is about our responses to positive stories that we hear from our friends and partners.
Capitalisation: Sharing our positive stories
When we share our positive stories with each other, this called capitalisation (Langston, 1994). Capitalising on positive events of our lives has long been associated with wellbeing and the rise of positive affect. However, these outcomes are closely linked to the reactions of the individuals with whom we share such stories.
Unfortunately, however, how some spouses deal with negative incidents has received much more attention by the academics, than how they handle positive emotional experiences of their lives. This disproportionate focus on negative events and emotions has prevented researchers from sufficiently studying the importance of positive experiences and exchanges in the lives of couples.
Gable, Gonzaga, and Strachman (2004, 2006) tried to close up this gap, and their work has shown that being there for your partner when things go right plays an important role in the strength of your relationship, over and above the impact of the positive event itself. Moreover, they discovered that capitalisation has a pivotal role to play for the health of relationships, and demonstrated that positive emotional exchanges are indeed the true foundations of happy and stable relationships.
Active Constructive Responses for a Positive Upwards Spiral
Likewise, Lambert et al. (2012) discovered that happiness and life satisfaction escalate to their highest, only when people share their positive experiences, and support each other with active-constructive responses.
Their studies showed that sharing your positive experiences with your partner and friends will amplify its positive impact. Moreover, they learned that those who received an active-constructive (nurturing) response, experienced even more positive emotions. This indicates that the nature of the response to your positive stories is indeed significant.
Another important point is the fact that an active-constructive response to your partner’s (or friend’s) good news increases your own positive affect, as you celebrate and savour the happy event. This process deepens the relationship between you further and reflects the effects of another complementary theory by Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) who showed that positive emotions generate an upward spiral which enhance emotional wellbeing.
The upward spiral effect is in fact, the consequence of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) which suggests that positive emotions broaden the scopes of our attention and widens the capacity of our cognition.
Take Away Message
We all have responded unconstructively at times. Either because we were too exhausted to show enthusiasm, too busy to ask for more details, or envious and bitter about the situation because of our own insecurities. But, no matter what the reason, each time we fail to respond in an active constructive way, we lose an opportunity to enhance our relationship. We lose a chance to have a positive impact and create an environment where happiness, kindness, and support are abundant and genuine.
Similarly, because we are not sure of the response we will receive we do not share our positive news. This can range from the smallest to the most significant moments in our lives where the best way to enhance their positive impact on our lives is to share them with those that we love. When we share positive news, we increase the positive emotions we feel individually and in our relationships.
“Remember, people who capitalise on positive stories and respond actively and constructively to the positive events of others build love, better relationships and experience greater happiness.”
- Lambert, N., Gwinn, A., Baumeister, R., Strachman, A., Washburn, I., Gable, S., & Fincham, F. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(1), 24-43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0265407512449400
- Langston, C. A. (1994). Capitalizing on and coping with daily-life events: Expressive responses to positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1112–1125.
- Gable, S., Gonzaga, G., & 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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2064
- Gable, S., Reis, H., Impett, E., & Asher, E. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.
- Fredrickson, B. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00431