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Response Styles. How They Might Be Destroying Your Relationships.

Imagine this. You’ve just received a promotion, and you immediately call a significant person (a friend, a partner, a family member) to share the good news. Their response goes something like… “That’s good,” or perhaps “That’s a lot more responsibility for not very much of a salary increase!”

Now, consider if you’ve ever responded to someone else’s good news in a similar way…

It's natural for us all to want to share our good news with those around us! In most cases, we get the positive, excited response that we hope for. But in some cases, we might get a response that "bursts our bubble." Perhaps someone responds to us with a dismissive shrug or perhaps an outright negative comment. This can leave us feeling dejected and upset, and may even damage our relationship with that person.

How we respond to each other determines the quality of our relationships.

Communication. It’s the foundation of our relationships. But did you know that how we respond to others sets the tone for the broader relationship? In fact, psychologist Shelly Gable (Professor of Psychology at the University of California, positive psychologist, and leading researcher on positive aspects of close relationships) has found that the way we respond can either destroy or enhance these relationships. Gable’s (2004) framework is based on two dimensions: active/passive and constructive/destructive. Each style impacts communication, and influences both the moment and the long term quality of the relationship. 

What are the different response styles?

  • Active Constructive Responding: This style reflects full engagement, expressing enthusiasm, asking engaging questions, and offering sincere praise. An example would be, "Congratulations! That's wonderful news! How are you feeling about it?" This style builds trust and rapport by validating emotional reactions.

  • Passive Constructive Responding: While appearing positive, this response lacks depth and genuine interest. A typical example might be a casual, "That's nice," subtly supportive but conveying disconnection.

  • Active Destructive Responding: This response criticises and diverts attention to negatives. For instance, "Do you really think you deserved that promotion?" This hinders communication by putting others on the defensive.

  • Passive Destructive Responding: This style barely acknowledges the speaker or swiftly changes the subject, conveying disregard. An example could be, "Oh, okay. Anyway, did you see the football game last night?" It severely damages communication bonds. 

What is the most effective way to respond to each other?

Of these four response styles, Active Constructive Responding is the one that has a positive impact and can boost the quality of your relationships. How does it do this?

  • It demonstrates genuine interest while making others feel cared for, understood, and validated

  • It encourages further sharing and disclosure

  • It builds trust and rapport

  • It promotes positive emotions in both the listener and the speaker 

  • It boosts confidence and reduces stress.

How can we respond more effectively and thus have better quality relationships?

  1. Evaluate your style. Reflect on whether you are actively engaged or passively listening, and whether your tone is constructive or destructive. Adjust accordingly. 

  2. Focus completely on the conversation. Avoid distractions and be fully present. If you can’t, express your interest in hearing more later. For instance, “I really want to hear more about this. Can I check back in later?” 

  3. Dig deeper. Ask exploratory, or open-ended questions like, "Can you tell me more about the role? How did the conversation go?”

  4. Paraphrase what you hear. Listen not only for content, but for emotions too. For instance, "It sounds like your manager offering this next step to you makes you feel recognised for your work.”

  5. Express support and validation. Try and put yourself in their shoes. Consider what they might be thinking and feeling. For instance, "I can understand why you would feel proud”.

  6. Be mindful of your body language. Demonstrate interest and understanding by leaning in, nodding, maintaining eye contact, or smiling.

  7. Share words of encouragement. For instance, "You worked exceptionally hard for this. I think you’ll do really well”.

And if you have responded in an ineffective way, reflect on the reasons this may have happened. Were you feeling concerned? Frustrated? Annoyed? Did it trigger something for you? Take the time to work through this, and if relevant, share this with the person.

How can we manage negative responses of others?

Of course, there will be times that your good news falls on unappreciative ears, so what then?

  1. Firstly, stay positive. Try not to let it spoil your mood. And try not to take it personally. Focus on the good news itself. 

  2. Consider what might be happening for that person. For instance, was the timing off? Are they distracted by something else? Perhaps they don’t know how to respond constructively, or feel uncomfortable doing so. At the same time, if there’s no reason for them to be responding this way, draw the line and let it go. 

  3. Finally, consider whether you may have misjudged or misunderstood someone's response. They might have been delighted to hear your news but, if they're not a naturally expressive person, their compliments or praise may have been given more subtly or quietly than you expected.

How we respond to each other shapes not only our interactions, but the quality of our relationships. As Gable’s research has shown, responding in a way that is active and destructive destroys our relationships, whereas responding in a way that’s active and constructive enhances them. Remember that improving our communication is ongoing; be mindful of your style, look for opportunities to improve and monitor your progress along the way. With effort, we can have more quality relationships by communicating actively and constructively.


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