I was doing a facilitation recently in a team and mentioned the “five to one” ratio – that for every one negative comment we give someone, we need to balance that with five positive ones. One person on the team was incredulous: “Where do you get that data?”
I had heard of the positivity ratio for years and it makes intuitive sense that one can “get more with honey than with vinegar.” But what does the data say on being more appreciative of each other?
One person who talks about needing to be mindful of our positive to negative comments is John Gottman. He’s a researcher and marriage counselor known for his ability to predict the likelihood of couples getting divorced or not with a 90% accuracy. In his work, he has discovered the single biggest determinant in this predication is the ratio of positive to negative comments partners make to one another. The optimal ratio is five positive comments for every negative one. For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was 0.77 to 1 — or three positive comments for every four negative ones.
Think about that for a moment. How many positive comments are you giving to those closest to you – whether at work or at home? We have a built in “negativity bias” as a species, so we often need to be intentional with our practices to off-set this inherited negativity bias.
In another study, researchers Zender & Folkman (2013) found that the average ratio for the highest-performing teams is almost six positive comments for every negative one but for the lowest performing ones it is about three negative comments for every positive one.
Barbara Frederickson is a positivity researcher and academic. She has found that there is a tipping point, which is three positive comments to every negative one. She even has a positivity ratio tracker on her website:
In my work as a conflict intervener, I often encourage and coach people on how to bring up tough conversations. However, if there is not much history or foundation of positive comments to negative ones, the attempts at engaging the tough stuff will be all the more difficult.
So, I’ve come to see that having difficult conversations and having appreciative cultures, go hand in glove. We all need to build up our “emotional bank accounts” before making withdrawls. And the deposits need to be an ongoing practice.
What do you think?