Sometimes, although we do not realize it, we maintain a communicative style that is too critical and even hostile. And it is that criticizing comes to us spontaneously, learning not to make value judgments and accept without judging are more complex skills that demand some training.
For this reason, I propose a very simple exercise: try to discover the sad face in the image that appears below.
It probably didn’t cost you much. Most people find the sad face surprisingly easy to spot. And it has been shown that the same thing happens to us in our daily lives.
In practice, we notice more the negative events, their impact is greater than that of positive ones. If a person is in a bad mood, he or she will have a tendency to remember negative experiences he or she had and it will be more difficult to remember the good times.
In the same way, a single negative act can have a disproportionate effect on someone’s reputation and it can take years for that person to clean up his or her image. A compliment can momentarily inflate our ego, but a criticism can have devastating effects for the rest of our life.
For this reason, it is important to pay attention to our speech, especially in the context of the couple’s relationship, with our children, parents or friends since some words can hurt deeply, much more than we suppose.
It takes 5 compliments to delete a criticism
Psychologist John Gottman has spent more than three decades analyzing the factors that predict a couple to stay together and happy. He discovered something very curious while examining people’s comments: the frequency of positive comments has to exceed that of negative ones, in a 5:1 ratio.
In other words, it takes five positive comments, showing understanding and support, to be able to delete a single negative comment that had a tinge of contempt, hostility or unhealthy criticism.
Surprisingly, Gottman also found that the level of positive feedback is often bottoming. Why?
The answer is very simple: when a person makes us a positive comment, no matter how banal, we tend to thank him or her. However, we do not always respond with another positive comment, so we break that kind of “circle of good vibes”.
On the contrary, when we receive a negative comment, we have a tendency to immediately respond with another even more pointed comment, which in turn unleashes more hostility. In this way, the situation quickly slips out of hand and can end in a full-blown argument. In fact, you probably remember that last fight with your partner that started for a silly reason.
Obviously, the problem is that this mechanism occurs automatically, we do not realize that we are breaking the positive circle and unleashing a loop of negativity.
If you do not want to become a toxic person, next to whom nobody wants to be, it is better that you begin to be aware of that mechanism. The simple fact of not feeding that loop of negativity, with sharp and critical comments, will greatly improve your interpersonal relationships and, in the long run, increase your well-being.
How to do it?
– Insert positive words in your speech
A study conducted at the University of Texas recruited 80 couples who had just started their relationship. Over three months, they collected the messages that these people had sent to each other. The psychologists were able to see that the couples who wrote in more positive terms, not only stayed together but also felt satisfied with the relationship.
However, those who used more negative words, made criticisms or simply limited themselves to referring to daily activities, not only felt more dissatisfied but many had already broken up.
So the message is clear: it’s important that you make an effort every day to include words of understanding, encouragement, or support in your speech.
– Use comparative thinking
Psychologists at the University of Groningen wondered if comparative thinking could be used as a tool to improve interpersonal relationships and avoid friction. Thus, they recruited couples who were in a stable relationship and asked them to think of each other in two different ways. One group was asked to explain in a few words why their relationship was satisfactory. The second group was asked to think of other relationships that were not as satisfying and to explain why theirs was better.
In practice, both tasks were identical: explain why the relationships were satisfactory. However, the path was different. In the end, it was found that those who had made the comparison highlighted more positive aspects of their partner.
Therefore, the strategy is simple: for staying longer in a positive vibe, it helps making comparisons and bring to mind all the things that could go wrong. In this way we will realize that our reality is not as negative as we perceive it.
Slatcher, R. B. & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006) How do I love thee? Let me count the words: The social effects of expressive writing. Psychological Science; 17: 660–664.
Baumeister, R. F. et. Al. (2001) Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology; 5: 323–370.
Buunk, B. P. et. Al. (2001) Enhancing satisfaction through downward comparison: The role of relational discontent and individual differences in social comparison orientation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 37: 452–467.
Gottman, J. (1984) Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.