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A Tool to Build Relationships: Constructive vs Destructive Communication

What is one of the best ways to observe amazing communication? Reality TV! I am not referring to quality reality tv such as Property Brothers on HGTV or Chopped on the food network. I am talking about the shows where you don't believe the characters are real. You know the shows I am referring to, such as 90-day fiancé or the Jersey Shore.

Don't judge me for watching these brain cell destroying shows, join me. If you've ever watched any of these shows, then you have been exposed to horrible communication. People interrupt one another, ignore each other, snap over any little thing, and sulk like teenagers on their phones. While it is easy to judge these reality stars, most of us can stand to improve our communication, whether it is with a direct report, colleague, parent, child, or significant other.

In this article, we will provide you with a communication tool to improve your relationships. This tool is essential for those who are important to you or those at work you may need to interact with regularly.

The tool is constructive communication, and it comes from the PENN resiliency program. The tool provides a way to assess how you are responding to another person. There are four types of responses.

If you desire to build the relationship, then you should respond in a constructive vs. a destructive manner. However, if you are genuinely committed to developing a personal or professional relationship, you should focus on responding in an active constructive way. Let's bring this framework to life with a scenario.

Scenario: Imagine someone is returning to the office, and they say, "I am concerned about working close together due to COVID."

Response #1 passive destructive, I would say, "I have so much work to catch up on. I have to prepare for this meeting." My response indicates I am destructive because I immediately change the subject to talk about me, ignoring their concerns. Additionally, I am passive because I do not engage in the topic.

Response #2 active destructive, I would say, "Don't worry about it. The company has precautions in place, so you will be fine." My response is destructive to the relationship because I am actively dismissing their feelings. You are engaging actively by saying, don't worry, your feelings are not valid, and you're acting ridiculous. This behavior is equivalent to a missile destroying any possibility of a relationship with this individual.

Response #3 passive constructive, I would say, "ok. I'll keep it in mind." At least you engage, but the problem is you barely engage in the topic, so this is indicative of passive behavior. While this is marginally constructive because you acknowledge the other person, it is still limited in building a relationship.

Response #4 active constructive, I would say, "Thank you for telling me. Please let me know if there is anything you are particularly concerned about with COVID so I can keep it in mind." I am actively participating in the topic, and I am working to build a relationship. I am listening to the other person by providing a constructive response that acknowledges their concerns.

An active constructive response will enable you to build a relationship with the other person. Unfortunately, many of us do not regularly respond with an active constructive response. Why? When we are stressed, tired, or exhausted, we can fall into bad communication habits like our favorite reality stars. We may barely acknowledge the other person's comments, go on our phones, tune others out, focus on what we need to get done, and the list goes on. These are all destructive or passive behaviors that negatively impact our personal and professional relationships. As a result, people will keep from opening up. They will avoid confiding in you, withhold creative ideas, or stop engaging and contributing because they are afraid you will tune them out, so what is the point in even trying. Imagine if a child, a significant other, a co-worker, or a direct report, felt as if there were no point opening up to you. The saddest part is many of us would not even know our behavior created this response. Why? We figured others would understand we are busy, stressed, tired, and exhausted, and that's why we are not communicating at our best.

I want to finish with research specifically focused on personal relationships. Dr. John Gottman, a preeminent researcher on relationships, found that those couples that turned toward their partner are the most successful. What does turning toward your partner mean? Every day people make bids for attention. For example, they might let out a sigh, point out a beautiful tree, or comment on the lovely meal they are eating. Dr. Gottman found there were two significant responses when someone makes a bid. First, we can turn toward our partner and acknowledge their comment. For example, we might say, "your right dinner is excellent. I especially love the appetizer." Turning toward someone is an active constructive response. The other option is, we can turn away by ignoring their comment about dinner. Turning away typically looks like either destructive response or potentially passive constructive. Dr. Gottman found those who have incredible relationships turn toward each other 86% of the time, and those who have bad relationships turn toward each other 33% of the time. In any relationship, active constructive means listening, nodding, asking questions, engaging, and sharing your thoughts. This small change will make a massive impact on your relationships both personal and professional. Remember, it doesn't matter whether you know this. It matters whether you do this most of the time to the tune of 86% of the time.

I encourage you to turn toward kids, significant others, colleagues, or co-workers when they share something because this is the secret to building an incredible relationship personally or professionally. What is one small change you can make to build a relationship today?

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