In the 1970s Dr. John Gotman began a study. His purpose: to figure out the difference between happy and unhappy couples.
For 15 minutes, each couple would sit down and solve a relationship conflict. Dr. Gotman observed their interactions, followed up with the same couples nine years later, and arrived at a simple conclusion: “The magic relationship ratio.”
For every one negative interaction, happy couples in a strong relationship have five or more positive interactions. The magic ratio for a good relationship outcome is 5:1.
In my conflict work, I’ve found that job relationships hang on a similar balance. In fact, the magic relationship ratio can be applied to just about any positive outcome we desire.
Maybe you’re working toward a promotion. Maybe you’re leading a team that has a major long-term goal. Maybe you’re in a difficult relationship with a coworker.
The magic relationship ratio gives us the mindset we need to start working toward something better.
Demystifying the Ratio (It doesn’t happen magically.)
Achieving a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative—whether in our minds and/or in our relationships—can be challenging.
For one, it’s easier to notice the negative. Because positive things tend to match our expectations, they’re easy to overlook. That’s why we take so many positive things at work and in life for granted—especially if we’ve lived most of our lives in a context where basic needs have been met and things have tended to work out in our favor.
Also, negative things produce pain and frustration. They ‘scream louder,’ capturing our attention in ways that cause us to forget or lose sight of the positive. Our natural tendency to focus on the negative creates a negative bias.
Our friend Michelle Kline, MSW wrote a great blog post about her experience combating negative bias—and her success in achieving that positive outcome.
The main idea: We need a method. Michelle calls hers ‘daily aims.’
“Apart from long-term goals, I have a list of my daily aims. These are the things that on my best day I have gotten done in addition to long term work...on an average day I’d say 5-6 of them I do. But that is okay...If these get done most days for forever, I am good with that. The point is not perfection.
Over time, by centering day by day on different habits, they become ingrained into our minds and our expectations...similar to brushing my teeth or drinking water and eating, I want these things to become an embedded expectation. I’m not choosing every day to do them—I just do them because that is what I do.
An area I have had a lot of success in this is in sleep. By working on this habit over the past three years, I’m really proud of myself to say that 95% of the time now, getting enough sleep is just something I do.”
I love Michelle’s anecdote about changing her sleep habit because it shows what’s required to change any habit. We build positive outcomes by intentionality, repetition, and persistence (not perfection). And not by magic.
The Magic Ratio at Work
We need to challenge the way we look in order to change the way we see.
If what we see in an important relationship is falling short of that 5:1 ratio, it may be time to challenge the way we look. If what we’re mostly noticing is the negative, it may be time to make a change in what we’re looking for. With regard to our working lives, one of the best habits we could build is the habit of noticing the positive.
Dr. Gottman talks about finding opportunities for agreement, noticing when your partner is having a bad day, and seeing chances to express affection.
In both Dr. Gottman’s suggestions and Michelle’s personal story of success, I see three key takeaways.
Commit to Noticing the Positive
Make it your daily aim to notice something positive in the people around you. Slow down enough to truly see—not just the frailty and failings of others, but their strengths and successes as well.
Once you notice it, acknowledge it.
When you notice something positive, express it—whether that’s through journaling, personal habit tracking, and/or (in relationship) telling the person. At work, this can look like tracking even small instances of progress daily. Or seeing a coworker’s value and expressing appreciation. Acknowledging the positive solidifies our positive mindset.
Give yourself grace.
You won’t be perfect. And in the short run you may feel like you fail more often than not. But with perseverance, over time, it can become ‘just something I do.’ With repetition, it will become less about the checklist and more about a different way of seeing—your mind and body trained to expect to see the positive and to respond to people and life accordingly.
Which can, admittedly, look to others something like magic.
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at email@example.com