Psychologists say it’s around the age of eight that children start to move away from a me-centric world to realizing other people matter too.
Unfortunately sometimes they get stuck in that time-warp and life remains all about them. Those people are usually easy to spot. In the first five minutes of a conversation, you can feel it.
But what about the more subtle versions? Have you ever called someone just to whine or vent or be supported? And the next thing you know your solving issues for the person you called? You suddenly realize, at some point, the conversation got flipped – you’re now talking all about the other person. Wait! How did you get left out?
The Gottman Institute has actually studied this and can predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy the success of a marriage. (I would propose that these examples would fit into any relationship, but their focus was on married couples.)
When something great happens to you – such as a huge promotion and you tell (in this case, your partner) your wonderful news, Gottman has sorted your partner’s response into one of four categories: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.
They would look something like this:
Honey, guess what! I was offered a HUGE promotion today!
Passive destructive: No acknowledgement. Instead, you counter with your excitement over finding the sweater you thought you lost.
Active destructive: You mumble, “That’s great” while simultaneously scrolling through your phone.
Passive constructive: Debbie Downer would be proud of your response as you diminish your partner’s excitement with comments like: Do you think you can handle more responsibility? or I guess that means you’ll be spending more time away from home.
Active constructive: You are present and genuinely excited for your partner: Wow! A HUGE promotion, that’s fantastic! Yay for you! (And then you stop talking as you both bask in your partner’s great news. If you keep talking, you’re liable to get to the yeah, but statement: yeah but, how will you ever handle work and the kids?)
The Institute claims the single biggest indicator of success in the marriages they studied lies in what they call “leaning in.” It’s a kind of an abbreviated version of those four scenarios because it all boils down to one reaction: in the moment, how you react to your partner when they present something they’re clearly interested in.
Oh, look! A pair of ducks just landed in our yard. (Or, look! The snow is really pretty! or, come see what I found! etc.). The point is, it may be something seemingly insignificant to you, but important to your partner. The way you react is the reveal: Do you show interest in what your partner is offering? (lean in?) Or do you ignore your partner’s excitement, perhaps even emitting an acknowledging murmur, without looking at what is exciting your partner?
Think about the last time an important person in your life shared really fabulous news…which one of the four reactions did you have? If you’re willing to remain present (and curious, and open-minded), all of these scenarios will make your interactions more interesting as you play the observer. Knowing what you know now, think of that same fabulous news and your reaction, how could you have changed it? By saying something else? By being more attentive? Or probably the hardest – by saying YAY! and then stop talking?
Next up, notice how you’re being treated. Where does that opening example fit in of calling someone to talk about you and the conversation flipping to be all about the other person? What could you have done differently? What do you wish the other person had done differently?
Which reaction type are you most often? Does that surprise you? I’d love to know below.