Forget Connections with Lasting Impact (AKA Listen!)


February is a month when we have a day dedicated to expressing our love for another individual. Whether that be a beloved partner or a longtime crush, love is expressed through various means: gifts, flowers, and extravagant meals, to name just a few.

While these options provide joy and happiness, buying gifts and going out to nice dinners every night might burn a hole in your wallet. Forging strong connections with those around you does not have to come from material items, you can accomplish the same goal through something you do every day: communication. In particular, how you respond to good news and how you give feedback can not only make the relationship stronger, but can help bolster the benefits of positive emotion in those you communicate with.

Active Constructive Responding and Effective Praise

When someone shares good news with you, the way you respond will have an impact on the relationship. There are four ways in which we respond to good news: passive constructive, passive destructive, active destructive, and active constructive.

However, only one of these four ways strengthens relationships. Passive constructive would be considered a conversation killer. This is when someone shares good news but then there is no follow up and the conversation ends there, possibly due to disinterest. Passive destructive is when you hijack the conversation, changing the topic and completely ignoring what the individual just shared.

Active destructive is when you focus on the negative aspects of someone’s good news. For example, if someone came to you and shared that they bought a new house and your response was, “Are you crazy? In this market? Sounds nuts!” Finally, and the response style that builds strong relationships, is active constructive. This is when you further the conversation by showing authentic interest in their story. You build positive emotion in that person by having them elaborate on their experience.

There are at least two scenarios to keep in mind when deciding to engage in active constructive engagement. First, does the news involve some danger or some level of concern? If the news is considered dangerous, then you should not respond in an active constructive manner. In this scenario, you should focus more on understanding and addressing the aspects of danger than on the good news.

For example, your friend has had a little too much to drink, but wants to show you how fast their new car goes. If there is some level of concern on your end, but the news is not considered dangerous, then make this a two-part conversation. The first conversation would be playing the active constructive role, building that positive emotion, but maybe the next day you bring up your potential concern.

For example, that same individual wants to show you his new car, but you notice that their spending habits have changed substantially in the recent months, which just so happened to be around the time they went through a major life change. In the moment, spread the joy and excitement of the new car, but a follow up conversation to check in on that person may be warranted.

Second, you may not care about the news itself. However, this is still an opportunity to build up the individual sharing the news. If we respond like we do not care, then that individual is less likely to share good news with you in the future, therefore hurting the relationship.

Another form of communication that can impact the relationship is how you provide feedback. It is a natural tendency for human beings to bring attention to the negatives, or the areas that need improvement. We frequently provide such feedback with detail on what was potentially done incorrectly, but also tend to include how to fix it.

However, what happens when that person does something well? The feedback we give turns from a more detailed response to “Good job. Keep it up.” With this type of feedback, it is more difficult to build-off of what was done well This is where effective praise comes in. Effective praise identifies what worked and builds momentum by teaching the individual how they brought about those positive outcomes so they can replicate those outcomes in the future. This process demonstrates that you were attentive during their sharing. It demonstrates your authenticity, and it helps create winning streaks for that individual. The more wins we come across, the better.

Emotional Toll

Living on the East Coast has made communicating with my family on the West Coast more challenging., particularly during phone calls with my mother. One reason why this is a challenge is because she is a prime example of a “joy thief.” When I share good news, the conversation quickly changes to her good news. As a result, and to no fault of her own, I have been impacted in two ways: I either do not share good news with her anymore or I become a “conversation killer.” I do not share good news because I do not want to experience frustration when she changes the subject to focus on herself.

On the flip side, when she shares good news, I do not bother asking follow up questions because, quite frankly, she does not reciprocate. You can imagine how short our conversations are when this is my mindset. Due to this, our connection has weakened. This is not fair to my mother because she has done so much for me in my life – especially since I moved to the East Coast – that we should be doing more to strengthen our connection. Mom, if you’re reading this, please call and we’ll give it another shot. Yet, in order for this to happen, we both have to do a better job at responding to each other more actively and constructively.

During my first internship of graduate school, my fellow classmates and I worked a week-long youth soccer camp. Our role was to provide an hour-long workshop to improve their mental focus before they got into more sport-specific drills. Once the workshop was complete, we would receive feedback from our supervisor for about 15 minutes.

For the areas I did well, it was a quick “good job” and then move on to where I needed to improve, which he spend a lot more time on. He noticed that my body language changed as he covered the improvement areas. He asked how I felt about the feedback and I was honest with my response. His feedback led me to believe that I was not doing anything well.

In my mind, my supervisor was not doing anything to build my confidence. For what I did well, he would simply state “good job;” whereas he would give me a laundry list of things that I needed to do differently where improvement was needed. Based on this conversation, he decided to change the way he gave feedback. He gave me effective praise for the things I did well and why he felt that way, but kept his same process on the improvements areas which was also necessary. Not only did my body language change during feedback, but I went into my next workshop with more confidence than the time before.

Forging Stronger Connections

In order to respond more actively and constructively – and in a way that benefits the receiver – one strategy is to ask follow up questions. Don’t worry - there is no right number of questions you should ask, but the process itself allows the individual to continue talking about their good news. The key is to demonstrate genuine interest in the news they are sharing. If you notice that you are starting to lose interest or it is becoming harder to ask follow-up questions, find a way to end the conversation on a positive note. Another strategy is using the phrases, “That is wonderful!” or “That is amazing!” followed by a question. This pairing demonstrates excitement and curiosity of what the individual experienced.

In order to provide effective praise, name the process that went into the individual being successful. When explaining what somebody did not do well, we take the approach of “That was not good because...” so we can use the same approach for explaining what somebody did well. For example, “That was good because...” or “I liked this because...” adds that extra one or two sentences of detail, which increases the likelihood that this behavior will be replicated.

Final thoughts

For whatever reason, there is too often a natural tendency for human beings to focus on the negative aspects of ourselves and other people, to make judgments of others, and to out-do one another by talking about our own experiences.

However, in order to strengthen the bond between two people, you must bring attention to the positive aspects of both yourself and your other, and to actively listen to others instead of focusing on yourself. Not only can you strengthen your connection, but at the end of the day, you build that person up. It does not take much to make a person feel good. Be the change the world needs by responding more actively, constructively to somebody’s good news and help build momentum through effective praise.