TOM #1: How to make a good relationship even better

Posted on: March 13, 2022

Today’s issue is about a tool that, when you use it effectively, will reliably help to build trust between, and resilience within, you and the other humans in your life.

Part 1 is an overview of the tool and action steps to apply it in your business. (5min read)

Part 2 offers additional context, information and answers to FAQs that may improve your application of the tool. (7min read)

Let's begin by connecting today's content with your current situation.

Imagine something really good just happened. Woot! Amazing!

(examples of goods things: You rocked the presentation. You won the deal. The dream candidate accepted your employment offer. Your firm has been selected for an award. That thing that was going to cost $10k is actually only $3k, whew!)

  • Who do you call/text first to share the news?
  • With whom do you most want to share this news, and why?
  • Who, when you tell them, is likely to diminish how good this news has you feeling?

Part 1: Intro to ACR

Even the most trivial wins have the potential to build trust.

People in our lives typically want to tell us about their successes. How we respond can build the relationship or undermine it. (And influence whether they keep sharing their good news with us.)

Most of us have worked hard at being better at sharing bad news, but it turns out that how we celebrate the good in our relationships is a stronger predictor of relationship success. 

According to research by social psychologist Dr. Shelley Gable, the key to turning small moments of good news into levers for building better relationships is how we talk about them. When we do it well, we are doing what is called Active Constructive Responding (ACR). 

ACR = better business.

Dr. Gable’s research is most frequently referenced in contexts about romantic and familial relationships, but ACR is relevant to all human interactions that involve someone sharing good news with another person. 

We are humans no matter where we are and no matter how well we know each other. I’ve used ACR with complete strangers, like the plumber who replaced my tankless water heater last month and the cashier who helped me yesterday. All 3 of us have a bit more emotional resilience as a result of our interactions, thanks to ACR.

Why does this matter to you as a business owner? 

You can improve levels of commitment, satisfaction, closeness, and trust with your team, your customers, your vendors...with everyone you interact with in your business via ACR. This matters because with subtle tweaks to how you engage with people, you can generate better business outcomes.

💭 Imagine what it will be like when your team has more commitment to, more satisfaction with, and more trust in you? And you in them?

💭 What will it look like when your vendors and customers feel more committed to you and trusted by you?

I joke that the real proof that this research is relevant to business is that the theoretical framework fits in a 2x2 matrix, which are ubiquitous in management consulting and MBA classrooms. Kidding aside, the two dimensions (active versus passive AND constructive versus destructive) are illustrated below.

How ACR and other responses sound in real life.

To make it easier to connect how ACR works outside the lab, I’ll use the first good news example from earlier (you rocked the presentation) and provide 3 responses for each of the 4 matrix combos. 

As you read through the example responses that follow, notice which ones sound like the people you thought of earlier. 🤔 Bonus points for noticing which ones sound like you:

active + constructive: 

  • “Wow, that’s wonderful! You’ve missed in-person events so much. What was it like to be back on the stage again?”
  • “Congratulations! You worked so hard to prepare. How does it feel for it to have gone well?”
  • Raising your hand to high five or fistpump your colleague, “Way to go! Tell me about it! What was the best part?”

active + destructive:

  • “Are you gonna have to do more of these then?”
  • “You sure? Even if it was just okay, people would’ve liked your presentation since they’re just happy to be in a real conference room rather than a Zoom room.”
  • “Good thing it went well. We worked hard to cover for you while you were gone, and it’d be a bummer to find out it was a flop.”

passive + constructive:

  • While still looking at their phone/computer screen “Oh, nice.”
  • “Good for you. Hey, are we still meeting on Tuesday?”
  • “Glad you’re back. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about…”

passive + destructive:

  • “Congrats. I remember how good it felt when I did that last week.”
  • “You know what just happened for me? You’re not going to believe how great this is…”
  • “We built a great slide deck for you. It couldn't have gone any other way."

Here's a more detailed version of the matrix:

How active constructive responding sounds in real life

Leverage ACR to make your relationships better.

There are constructive ways to share bad news and to talk about the bad stuff. If content about that interests you, reply to let me know so I can write about it in an upcoming issue.

But right now, I invite you to focus on exchanges involving good news, and put ACR into action in the following 4 ways:

1. Share good news with others. 💭 Notice how they respond and what it’s like to experience their response. See if there's any difference in sharing a small win and more significant ones.

2. Practice ACR. When others share good news with you, be intentional in how you respond. Show genuine excitement, make eye contact, smile, and use affirmative nonverbal communication. Then ask an open-ended question that allows them to connect more deeply with their experience or its significance. 💭 Notice what happens. Typically, ACR generates positive emotion in both people. What is your experience of it?

3. Create opportunities for others to share good news with you. Try asking, What’s good? or What good thing(s) have happened so far today/since we last talked? or What's something that you've accomplished or that's happened that we can celebrate?

4. Pay it forward. Teach at least one other person about ACR. It’s a life skill and will help them experience more joy and have greater resilience when bad stuff happens. You'll benefit, too. Like the saying goes: "If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” -Yogi Bhajan

Part 2: ACR in Practice & FAQ

Not keen on trying ACR at work just yet? 

Try it with kids! They are especially great for practicing ACR. Not only do they have lots of little good things to share with you, they will often give you a “do-over” if you’re not happy with how you responded the first time. 

They also catch on quickly. After a quick tutorial, let them help you practice receiving ACR. Really leaning into joy can feel strange--even scary!--if you're unaccustomed to it. So practicing with a low-risk partner is ideal.

When you retrain yourself to offer active and constructive responses to the people in your life, you will find yourself feeling more positive as well as receiving more positive feedback from others.

What if I’ve been responding in passive or destructive ways to certain people or in certain situations–but not all the time?

That means you’re human.

🤔 Who are these people? What is it about them that has you responding this way?

🤔 What are the contexts in which you respond this way? 

🤔 What needs to be different in these relationships or in these contexts for you to ACR?

I encourage you to share what you’ve learned by reading this email with one or two adults (with whom it feels safe to do so) and let them know you’re going to try to respond more effectively. Ask them if they’re open to practicing with you by sharing some good news with you. 

Practice with these “safer” people or in “safer” contexts to build up your ACR skills and become more familiar with what limits you from using ACR. As you become more aware, you will have more agency and capacity to shift your experience and use ACR in more situations.

Perhaps you tend to be understated or neutral in your responses. For you, it will be more effective to practice being “active”. 

Eye contact is KEY to actively responding. Practice looking the other person in the eye. 

Then build on that eye contact by pausing what you’re doing, and orienting your body in their direction. Let them feel what it’s like to have your full attention.

If you’re in the middle of something and you want to ACR, look them in the eye while saying, “I want to hear all about it” and then turn away while narrating what you’re doing, “Let me hit CTRL-S and save this so I can focus on you…” Then return your eyes to looking at theirs and rotate your full body in their direction when you’re ready to engage.

If you’re practicing with a loved one or close friend, try using body contact (a celebratory hug) or being more physically active with your body (raising arms, clapping your hands) or putting your palms up (emoji) while you verbalize “Way to go!” or “That’s awesome!” or “I knew you could do it!”

Perhaps you’re a worrier, and tend to focus on what’s wrong or missing. For you, it will be useful to practice being constructive.

Respond with an affirming statement, “That’s great!” and then stop talking. It’s likely your mind is racing with the ways this news might cause problems, but keep those ideas to yourself and redirect your mental attention from those thoughts to the other person.

Once you can do this, practice following the affirming statement with an open-ended, curious question. Questions about facts, e.g. “How many people were there?”, “Did the tech work?”, “Were you the first presenter?”, “Was parking easy?” not help the person sharing good news savor their experience. 

In the ACR model, questions about facts and statements which shift attention to your experience or what matters to you are destructive.

ACR is all about focusing your attention on the other person's experience of the event (not the event itself) and creating an opportunity for them to relive and relish what's good about the event, from their perspective.

Delay indulging your curiousity about factual details until after you've asked open-ended questions about the other person's experience and/or the significance of it, for them. You're likely a naturally curious person. Leverage your curiousity to learn about their mental model and how they make meaning of what happened.

My go-to question is, “What’s the best part about this for you?” It keeps me from jumping to conclusions about what the best part is and keeps me curious about what they’re going to share.

🤔 What question will you commit to trying this week?

As you get more practice, you may find it’s automatic to ask an open-ended question that’s unique to what the person is sharing with you.

What if I prefer to keep good news to myself or limit sharing it to very few people? 

For some of us, sharing good news can feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it feels like bragging or gloating. Perhaps it feels inappropriate for a leader or boss to talk about personal wins or like it violates your privacy to let people know what you’re excited about. However it feels for you is valid.

🤔 Notice how keeping good news to yourself is serving you and how it might be holding you back from building stronger relationships and boosting your personal well-being. Decide what, if anything, you’d like to “test” about your current way of (not) sharing good news.

🤔 I invite you to pay particular attention to how it feels for you when someone shares good news with you. 

  • If it feels good… 💭 What do you need in order to be comfortable giving other people the opportunity to feel good like this? How can you create those conditions?
  • If it’s unpleasant… 💭 What is unpleasant about it? What assumptions are you making that have you concluding it’s like that? What would be different, if anything, without these assumptions?

What if I don’t do “enthusiastic” or “effusive”?

You can still rock at ACR. In fact, sometimes enthusiastic and effusive people struggle with effective ACR, since their enthusiasm and effusiveness might feel saccharine or fake to people. 

The most important thing when responding to someone sharing good news is that your response is genuine and sincere.

Genuine, sincere support makes it “safe” for people to celebrate their good news with you. It might surprise you to read, but it makes sense when you think about it: joy is a very vulnerable thing to feel. Many people quickly short-circuit it inside themselves or encounter short-circuiting reactions from people with active + destructive responses. (If why people do this interests you, let me know and I can cover it in a future issue.)

How ACR builds resilience

Here’s my layperson’s explanation of why ACR is such a gift for both you and the other person.

Human brains make no distinction between events that have happened in the past, ones that are happening right now, and ones that might happen in the future. When we are thinking about an event, our brains (and bodies) are experiencing it as if it were happening RIGHT NOW.

When done well, ACR allows the person re-experience the good thing as if it is happening again, right now. Not only does this feel good, it also boosts their emotional resilience. (It's a form of savoring, and savoring is one of the most powerful generators of resilience.)

When you ask open-ended questions--especially ones that have the person connect with the sights, sounds, and feelings of the event--their system will release the neurochemicals and activate the neural pathways associated with the experience. (Quite literally they will be seeing and hearing the event in their mind and feeling the event in their body). This makes the present moment feel awesome and also makes recalling this event more available to them in the future. 

In tough times, it’s useful to remember when things went well. For example, the next time you’re about to go on stage for a presentation, you can more easily recall a time that you rocked it. And when you recall that experience, your brain will release the chemicals of when you rocked it, making it that much more possible and likely for you to rock it again this time! (This is why visualization is such a powerful tool.)

How ACR helps build closeness and trust

In addition to making it okay to share good news, ACR allows the other person’s attention to be on what matters to them. If you inject what matters to you (destructive responses), you put their brain into a cognitive state of comparing what they experienced with what you are describing. At best, it’s tolerable. At worst, it’s exhausting and sucks the joy out of their good news. (If you have a habit of responding like this, you likely have few people sharing good news with you.)

People tell stories of favorite moments in their lives so many times, because it feels good to tell them. Each time they tell the story, they get to relive it. Ever notice that they way they tell it is different than the way someone who was there else tells it? It’s because each person is sharing the details of the experience that were notable to them, from their perspective. 

You can learn a lot about someone’s “map” of the world by listening to how they tell stories. What they remember versus what you remember. What details they relate, and which ones they omit. 

As you get more familiar with another person's map, you understand them better...which makes it easier to communicate and collaborate with them.

When you take interest in and create space for people to share what's on their map, they feel heard, seen, and respected. 

In summary, ACR is a simple-but-powerful tool that can help you build a better business and life. 

Enjoyed the article? 

You can find more great content here: