How to Save and Build Your Relationships by Holding One Thing in Mind

Our evolutionary tendency is to focus on what’s wrong—where’s the nearest threat to our comfort and survival? The same applies to relationships. How do we manage conflict? How do I accept our differences? What if x, y, and z never change?

The truth is how you celebrate each other predicts the success and well-being of relationships far more than how you fight, as positive events occur at a higher rate than negative ones (Moore, 2019).

Consider the last time your partner or a friend brought you positive news. How did you respond? Did you take it at face value and say, “Nice.” Were you preoccupied with something that caused you to dismiss or ignore it? Nevertheless, psychologists have come to the conclusion that there are four different ways of responding, and only one of them contributes to building positive relationships—active constructive responding.

Let’s look at this through a scenario: Joe is having a baby. He’s excited about the news and can’t wait to tell his closest friend in the office, Jeff. He walks into Jeff’s office and says, “You’re not going to believe it, man, I’m going to be a dad!” Jeff has two kids of his own and a lot to share. Here’s how Jeff dictates how the rest of the conversation plays out:

Active Constructive

Jeff drops what he’s doing, jumps out of his chair, and says, “No way! Congratulations! Where were you when you got the news? What have you and your wife done to celebrate?” Joe’s mood elevates even higher than when he walked in, and he dives into reliving the experience. He tells Jeff all the details, and he’s feeling warm, appreciated, and closer to him than before. Their friendship is stronger than ever.

Passive Constructive

Jeff continues finishing the email he’s typing without shifting a glance toward Joe and says, “That’s wonderful, Joe.” Turning to face him, he continues, “Did you see the report that Maria sent out this morning?” Right away, Joe quirks his head in disbelief from being dismissed, then acknowledges some of the highlights from Maria’s report. He feels more distant from Joe and walks out of the room, questioning whether they’re truly friends at all.

Passive Destructive

Jeff continues finishing the email he’s typing without glancing toward Joe and says, “Good luck with that, man. Welcome to the end of life as you know it. Did you see the report that Maria Sent out this morning?” Joe’s gaze drifts toward the floor as he questions his own excitement. He doesn’t even hear Jeff’s question. Then, Jeff prompts him again, “Joe, what did you think about the report?” Joe picks his head up and dismissively says, “I’m not sure. I’ll have to look over it again and get back to you.” Joe walks out of the room, questioning what just happened and why he even brought it up to Jeff in the first place. Their relationship is damaged, and Jeff may not even realize it.

Active Destructive

Jeff turns directly toward Joe and says, “You need to take a good look at yourself and see if you’re ready to be a father. It’s not all joy, fun, and games. No one ever shows you the daily headaches. So, if you want the reality, come to me.” Joe’s pissed. He’s able to keep his real comments to himself but manages to say, “Thanks for the heads up,” and walks out of the room, sure to never share any news with Jeff again. Maybe they’ll remain professionally cordial, but anything beyond that is likely to fade away.

When your partner, friend, co-worker, or anyone you plan to maintain a positive relationship with shares something with you, take a moment to pause before you respond. In that moment, consider what’s more important. Will you focus on the task or thought at hand, or will you set yourself aside and provide them with the greatest gift of all—your attention and curiosity? Ultimately, the choice is yours, and your relationships depend on it.

(If you prefer to see the four types of responding in action, watch this video put together by the University of Pennsylvania.)

John Marshall is the founder of Humessence and a Lead Coach and Facilitator for the company. As a Conscious Leadership & Executive Coach, he helps leaders become aware of subtle thoughts and behaviors that create challenges in their lives and careers, empowering themselves and their teams to develop the human elements that drive collective success and well-being. Visit his profile here to learn more.


Moore, C. (2019, March 11). Active Constructive Communication: How to Do It and Why It Matters. Positive Psychology. Retrieved February 7, 2024, from