Negativity & Spontaneity in Interpersonal Relationships

17 July 2016 Coaching
4 min read

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Business Innovation Brief

Rigidity is the enemy of the imagination

According to psychologists Fredrickson and Losada (2005), human flourishing is optimal functioning and is made up of 4 key components:
1   goodness, event in happiness, satisfaction, and superior functioning;
2   generatively, event in broadened thought–action repertoires and behavioral flexibility;
3   growth, evident in gains in enduring personal and social resources; and
4   resilience, revealed through survival and growth in the aftermath of adversity.

Their approach is called the Broaden-And-Build theory. This theory holds that “positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction” because they enhance behavioural flexibility, unlike negative emotions which are associated with a narrower repertoires of responses (679). We don’t need evolutionary psychology’s backstory as justification for asking about the role of positive emotions. The simple fact is: rigidity is the enemy of the imagination.

Equally, behavioural flexibility is important in any setting with a culture of deliberate creativity. That’s why Gregg Fraley is always asking: “are your people having fun?” Not competitive sarcasm with sharpened elbows, or repetitive gallows humour: spontaneous fun.

The Broaden-And-Build theory provides an interesting context for considering John Gottman’s research on married couples. And from Gottman’s work we can bring some interesting insights to the interactions of work teams that succeed in collaborating and coping in the face of uncertainty.

Lake as mirror. Light reveals the smallest details of the interaction of plant, flower, water surface, sunlight.
Ricardo Vernaglia (2004). All rights reserved

Gottman On Marriage

Enduring marriages are associated with less predictable behaviours moment-to-moment (1994). Let’s call this spontaneity. Something similar appears in business teams, according to Losada and Heaphy (2004), who found links among higher levels of expressed positivity among group members, greater behaviour variability within moment-to-moment interactions, and long range indicators of business success. Sutcliffe and Vogus (2003) look at positive experiences at the organisational level, finding they are linked to broader information process strategies and greater variability in perspectives across organisational members and organisational resilience. Gottman’s work on married couples investigates what he calls “a behavioral balance theory of marriage” which sees lasting marriage as functioning “with a kind of set point that balances positivity with negativity” (1993, 2). His data shows that spouses of either gender have different preferences for engaging or avoiding with conflict. When a member of a couple makes “bids for emotional connection” from their partners, the partner responds in ways that could be categorised as “turning towards,” “turning away” or “turning against these bids” (Gottman and Driver 2000, 64). Different bids ask for varying degrees of emotional involvement and responsiveness. These could range from attention, to interest, enthusiastic engagement, extended conversation, play, human, affection, emotional support, self-disclosure (64-65). Crucially, the emotional tenor of any given bid can fall anywhere on the positive – negative spectrum, from cooperative to confrontational. According to Gottman,
“It appears that conflict avoidance is not necessarily dysfunctional, nor is intense conflict engagement and escalation necessarily dysfunctional. Negativity appears to be dysfunctional only when it is not balanced with about five times the positivity, and when there are high levels of complaining, criticising, defensiveness, contempt, and disgust. Even stonewalling (the listener’s withdrawal from interaction), as in the avoiders, is not dysfunctional unless it occurs at very high levels (as in the hostile/detached couples) or is not balanced with positive speaker behaviours.”
For those of you who have heard Time To Think’s creator Nancy Kline talk about the 5:1 ratio of appreciation to criticism, this may well be the original source of that wise advice.

The Good News For Work Partners

From Gottman’s work it would seem that how well you and your work partner collaborate is not about negativity or conflict management per se – it’s about how negativity (expressed as either conflict engagement or interaction withdrawal) is more likely a problem when either occurs outside a relationship where positive communication behaviours – like listening, and leaning in – predominate. Behavioural flexibility therefore includes allowing time for expressed conflict or active withdrawal – as part of a “balanced diet” of interactions. It’s interesting to think that behaviourally, there’s an 80-20 rule at work (or near enough). I think this should be permission for each of us to surrender the need to be either bulletproof or perfect. And it also means — if you’re committing to change, and you want to break the pattern of gallows humour — it’s ok sometimes to break the conversation, in order to make something new. Spontaneity takes so many different forms at different times!

What do you think?

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Fredrickson, Barbara and Losada, Marcial (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 7, 678–686. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678 Gottman, John & Driver, Janice. (2005). Dysfunctional Marital Conflict and Everyday Marital Interaction. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 43(3-4), 63-77. doi: 10.1300/J087v43n03_04