The best relationships, whether it be with friends, family or significant others, have ‘positive sentiment override’. This is a term I learned from the work of Dr. John Gottman and I would define positive sentiment override as ‘positivity in a relationship as determined by past interactions’.
John Gottman spent decades studying relationships, and marriages in particular. Over the years Gottman performed numerous studies, including work in what was called the ‘love lab’; an apartment in which couples would spend a weekend interacting as they normally would. Gottman and his team would study the couples via camera, measuring heart rate, stress hormones, blood samples and measuring facial expressions to name a few.
More than 650 couples were studied over more than two decades and numerous life experiences. The result was that Gottman developed some amazing insights into what kinds of relationships work by getting a very clear understanding of what happens in strong relationships and what happens in weak relationships.
Gottman got to a point where he was able to observe a married couple discuss an ongoing point of contention (every relationship has them) for only 5 minutes and be able to predict with more than 90% accuracy whether the couple would stay together or get divorced.
This is amazing! You very rarely find those kinds of results in psychology. Usually when human behaviour is being studied it is not easy to predict what someone will do.
With regard to positive sentiment override, positive interactions include things like taking an interest in your partner, being nice to one another, and being empathetic. Negative interactions included things like criticism, hostility and anger.
You have to do more positive things than negative things in a relationship for the relationship to be strong and lasting.
Might sound like common sense. But here’s something you may not know…
Gottman’s extensive studies revealed that the requirement of positive interactions to negative to create positive sentiment override is 5 to 1 (five positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction).
In other words, for every time that you do something negative to your partner, you need to do five positive things to maintain positivity in the relationship.
In couples that broke up, the ratio of positive to negative interactions was .8:1. So these couples were doing slightly more negative things in the relationship but the degree of difference between positive and negative to create negative sentiment override was nowhere near as large as was needed to create positive sentiment override.
Negative interactions have a lot more power to inflict pain and damage than positive things have to heal. This is a crucial understanding not only for marriages, but in all relationships because we are talking about a part of human nature in which we are more sensitive to the impact of negativity than of positivity.
If you want good relationships, embrace this understanding.
Once you have positive sentiment override in a relationship it provides a sense of freedom to be oneself and communicate freely and without fear, even when you have something negative to say.
Essentially what you have in a relationship with positive sentiment override is a high level of trust.
Stephen R. Covey is one of my favourite authors on the topic of trust. He writes:
“The difference between a high- and low-trust relationship is palpable! Take communication. In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you. Can you even begin to imagine the difference it would make if you were able to increase the amount of trust in the important personal and professional relationships in your life?”
Low-trust relationships will always have a ‘stop-start’ motion. High-trust relationships get better results, faster. I think this is why Covey call his book ‘The Speed of Trust’.
My main take-aways today:
- Be aware of the human tendency to be greater impacted by the negative than the positive if your intention is to create powerful relationships. Ask yourself: Do I want to be right, or do I want to win?
- Live with integrity = Always keep your word.