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How to Avoid Negative Response Styles

Negative response styles can lead to relationship breakdown

How do you know if you’re using a negative response style? In any relationship the way a partner chooses to respond to good, bad or even mediocre news can have a big and lasting effect. It sends signals about reliability, trustworthiness, and the satisfaction.

The way we communicate speaks volumes as to the value placed on the relationship and whether your partner will be supportive and helpful in the bad times.

Here’s an example. Having spent your evenings working towards a qualification you finally learn that you’ve passed. Shelly Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says there is only one way of responding that conveys genuine enthusiasm, support and interest. She calls this an active constructive response and it would go along the lines of, ‘that’s fantastic. We must celebrate, tell me more.’ But, as Gable points out, there are three other less than positive ways of responding, which effectively throw a wet blanket over everything. She describes these as:

A passive constructive response: ‘That’s good. Have you seen the car keys?’ Which depletes the news and shifts the topic.

An active destructive response – or what Gable describes as “finding the cloud in the silver lining” which goes along the lines of: ‘How did you manage that, hack into the computer and change your grades?’ It’s a clear display of negative emotion couched as cynical and undermining humour.

Lastly, there’s the passive destructive response which Gable says can take one of two forms like, ‘we’re out of milk,’ where the news is completely ignored, or, ‘that’s good, but wait until I tell you what happened to me today,’ which is self-focused.

Gable’s research involved a study of several hundred couples. The quality and durability of a relationship, she says, can be judged by which one of the four possible responding styles is most prominent. Relationships have a much higher chance of hitting the rocks if the preference is for using any of the three more negative response styles.

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