How to have meaningful conversations with the people you love
According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, the scientific theory of happiness can be summarised in the 5 letter acronym PERMA:
- Positive emotion
It’s perhaps no surprise that relationships make it into the list. Human beings are social animals and we need connection to thrive. But in the fast pace of life sometimes connection is reduced to snatched pockets of time spent in one another’s presence.
So, how do we pay attention to – and not just spend time with – the important people in our lives?
How do we have more meaningful conversations that continue to deepen the bonds with the ones that we love?
Although there are many ways to have better quality conversations, in this article we’re going to explore the 4 common response styles for when somebody shares good news with you.
When we are sharing good news we like to feel like we are being listened to, understood, and to have somebody share in our excitement or joy. This is the shared bond that draws us together.
See if you can spot yourself in any of these response styles.
1) PASSIVE DESTRUCTIVE
A passive destructive response doesn’t engage in the subject of the good news, and instead either hijacks or totally ignores it.
For example: ‘The most amazing thing happened to me today!’
RESPONSE: ‘Oh let me tell you about my day, you’ll never guess what happened…’ OR ‘Did you pick up my dry cleaning today?’
When somebody does this to you it can feel like you’re invisible, or like you’ve been rejected. The exact opposite of connection.
As an optimist, I like to think that in the majority of cases this isn’t the intention, but rather the result of a lack of attention. But the outcome is the same: distancing, and the lesson of ‘don’t share good news because you may get hurt’.
If you catch yourself responding in this style then stop, apologise, and ask them to tell you their news again.
2) PASSIVE CONSTRUCTIVE
A passive constructive response is positive, but in such a flat, generic and bland way that renders it impotent.
For example: ‘I gave my presentation today and it went really well!’
RESPONSE: ‘hmmm… that’s nice’ (often without looking up from a screen!)
There’s no interest, no curiosity to find out more, no connection.
This is usually the result of them having something else on their mind, and is especially common when they’re on a screen when somebody comes to speak to them.
This is the one I have to really watch out for, in particular with my kids.
If I’m busy doing something, it’s all too easy to give a passive constructive response, then off they go and leave me in peace. But I want to be there for my kids and I know that it’s attention, not presence or time that deepens relationships.
So unless what I’m working on is important and time-sensitive, when I catch myself responding in this way I’ll put down my work or phone and give them my full attention.
I don’t always get it right, but awareness has been key in enabling me to change.
3) ACTIVE DESTRUCTIVE
An active destructive response style is possibly the most detrimental to a relationship and can very quickly drive a wedge between two people.
For example: ‘I got that promotion that I’ve been working towards!’
RESPONSE: ‘Great, I suppose that means you’re going to be working longer hours and I’m going to be the one left taking care of things around here.’
If you’ve ever had your parade well and truly rained on, it’s probably down to this active destructive response style.
It’s usually the result of the other person already feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and all they can see is how this is likely to negatively impact their own life.
There can be no meaningful conversation off the back of a response like this.
If you catch yourself responding in this way to somebody you care about, take a moment to breathe, apologise and explain how you’re feeling. Then ask them to tell you again as you approach the conversation with a more active constructive response.
4) ACTIVE CONSTRUCTIVE
This is the gold standard foundation of emotionally intelligent, bond-strengthening, meaningful conversations.
It demonstrates genuine interest, curiosity and a shared joy for the good news. It makes the person feel understood, validated and loved.
For example: ‘I had a really good day at work today!’
RESPONSE: ‘Really? Tell me more, what happened?’
A hallmark of an active constructive response is a series of questions that seek to get more of the details about what happened, and allows the other person to relive and savour the experience.
Not only does it feel great when somebody meets your good news with this kind of response, it feels good as the responder as well.
But it takes intention and attention to respond in this way. If you know that you have a tendency to meet good news in any of the other three ways, you might benefit from setting your intentions at the beginning of the day, that active constructive is going to be your new default.
You may not get it right all of the time, but whenever you do find yourself falling into one of the other styles take a breath, apologise, explain, and ask them to start again.
It takes courage and vulnerability to do this, but if your goal is to start having more meaningful conversations with somebody you care about then it’s the place to start.
Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment are the 5 elements required for us to flourish in our lives.
By taking it upon yourself to deepen your relationship with another person, you automatically add to their life as well.
George Anderson is a wellbeing, mindset and performance expert. A speaker, coach and writer, he works with individuals to help them take more action towards thriving in their physical and mental wellbeing.
He has shared his messages with organisations such as Oxford University, Dell, Experian, British Land, Wickes, Travis Perkins and the NHS.
Over the last 20 years George has run successful personal training and boot camp businesses, and produced a number of online wellbeing programs and books for running, weight loss, confidence and wellbeing.