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I’m reading Flourish, Dr. Martin Seligman’s book about how positive psychology impacts our well-being. He references research that demonstrated the impact of negative language on employees in sixty companies, one-third of which were highly successful, one-third moderately successful, and one-third failing.

Researchers coded language in business meetings as either positive or negative, and results indicated that “companies with better than a 2.9:1 ratio for positive-to-negative statements are flourishing.”

Companies with a lower ratio were not.

Researchers then listened to couples’ conversations over entire weekends and determined that the same ratio that made companies successful indicated a failing marriage. In fact, the ratio of positive-to-negative statements made between partners needed to be as high as 5:1, in order to maintain a healthy, loving relationship.

It’s not a giant leap to go from this necessary ingredient for healthy adult relationships to the need for a high positive-to-negative ratio for conversation between parents and children. I am reminded of an important mantra from the Positive Discipline program: connection before correction. 

When I work with parents and kids who aren’t getting along, I am struck by the negative words and emotions that fly between them like sparks igniting a fire. And I wonder where it started. It really doesn’t matter, though. Once negative language becomes a habit, it’s hard to break. It sounds like backhanded compliments (“Thanks for taking out the trash, for once!”), assigning absolutes (“You always…. You never….”), and looking for ulterior motives in the other person’s behavior (“You just did that/said that so I would ____!”).

Breaking the habit of negativity starts with awareness. I love Sean Covey’s analogy in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens called the Relationship Bank Account. He notes that we make deposits in our RBA when we do something nice for another person, give a genuine compliment, and talk through problems instead of arguing. We make withdrawals with insults, disrespect, and demands. Parents can do their own research by keeping a pencil and a sticky note handy throughout the day and making tally marks of positive and negative statements they and their children use. Or, they can really make the research tactile by discussing with their children what constitutes a deposit or withdrawal from the family RBA and then keep coins or poker chips next to a jar. Whenever someone makes a verbal “withdrawal,” take a chip out. Put one in when someone makes a “deposit.” This can be fun, and also eye-opening.

Of course, it’s not necessary or possible to be ONLY positive. Researchers reported that a ratio of over 13:1 resulted in employee ineffectiveness and decreased credibility. After all, people make mistakes, and correction is necessary to the learning process. When the relationship is solid, though, parents and children can help each other solve problems and support each other in the learning. Connection FIRST creates a foundation of love and trust, so that correction can be accepted and managed by the receiver. 

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