The skill shared in this blog is less about how to have conversation and more about how to use conversation to reinforce more of what you want in a relationship. In my work as a therapist, I witness couples exhaust themselves attempting to communicate to their partner what they need and want in the relationship, only to get further discouraged. It’s not always the case that the other person is resisting them and refusing to change. Often, it’s the simple fact that change is difficult. Today’s blog is about how to help that change happen by using an easy-to-learn skill that’s often neglected.
Tip #3: How to get more of what you want
To understand the skill, I should remind you of a couple of things about human behavior.
First, most people respond well to positive reinforcement. When I was a boy, I was able to get my room cleaned much more consistently when a $5 bill or some other reward was attached to it. When my coach would tell me “good job,” my chest would swell and I would stand a little taller. More importantly, I wanted to do it again. Following where I’m going?
We respond well to positive reinforcement. Our brains are literally wired for it. Whether it’s raising children or working to improve your marriage, it works.
Second, for positive reinforcement to work, it needs to be intentional, specific, and consistent. In other words, there needs to be a well developed feedback loop that communicates to the person “You got it!”
One of the best ways to get more of what you want is to learn how to affirm. Hang with me and I’ll explain.
The word “affirm” comes from the Latin word “affirmare” which means “to make steady or to strengthen.” In other words, what you affirm in the other person, you’ll strengthen.
My therapy colleagues and I have an adage we remind each other of all the time: “Whatever behavior you affirm is the behavior you’ll get more of.” It’s true. When I listen to clients, I intentionally look for strengths to reflect back to them that empower and support change. Many times, clients were blinded to their strengths and behaviors until I made them aware of them.
What is an affirmation?
Affirmations are statements and gestures that identify, call out, and empower the strength of your partner. They acknowledge that they’re behaving in ways that matter to you.
Here are some great examples:
“Thank you for putting the kids to bed tonight. I so appreciate your help.”
“When you bragged on me tonight, it really made me feel special.”
“You are so thoughtful.”
“What great conversation we had this morning! It feeds my soul.”
“The kids really enjoy the time you spend with them. Thanks for being there for them.”
“You are such a good listener.”
“I love it when you think of me first.”
You get the idea: Affirmation builds more of what you want. Don’t be stingy with it—be extravagant with your encouragement and the chances of you seeing that behavior again will increase exponentially.
Complaining vs. Empowering
We make a mistake in relationships when we get trapped in complaining, thinking and hoping that the complaint will change the other person. Don’t get me wrong: There’s a place for complaining, but if you want real change, the money is in the affirmation.
Affirmation is a feedback loop to your partner that encourages them to continue the behavior you want to see more of. Our brains tend to create markers to what feels good and empowering, which allow us to repeat that behavior. Affirmations are so powerful because they’re not just praising someone. Rather, they call out the strength that you see in that person. You’re identifying what’s there that you love and appreciate.
The mistake I see many couples make is that they withhold affirmation because their partner isn’t doing the behavior perfectly. For example, because a husband doesn’t tuck the kids in bed every night, the wife doesn’t feel that deserves to be affirmed when it happens once. The wife may say to herself, “He tucks the kids in bed one time and now he deserves a cookie?” A wife could take that attitude and we’d all understand, but you’ll get more of the same if you do. Or the husband may think, “We had sex one time this month and I’m supposed to thank her for that?” The answer is yes—unless you want the same ol’ same ol’. At least the affirmation will start to help build toward change and growth.
John Gottman, a leading couples’ researcher, has found in his work that one of the leading deterioration factors in couple’s interactions is what he calls “the negative to positive sentiment override.” Just to break even in keeping the relational atmosphere tolerable, your positive words, gestures, and thoughts toward your partner need to outnumber the negative ones 3 to 1. That’s just to keep from going in the red. In order for the relationship to start to thrive, the positive sentiment override must outnumber the negative sentiment at least 5 to 1. Affirmations help move that ratio to a much more improved relational environment.
The Power of Words
Dr. Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman explain in their work that the words we hear and say to ourselves impact the wiring of our brains. In their book “Words Can Change Your Brain,” they write, “A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” In other words, the words we hear and believe about ourselves (negative or positive) produce thoughts that trigger a neurochemical reaction in our brains that produces emotions. If the words are negative, the neurochemical contains stress hormones, which produce a wiring in the brain for negativity. If the words are positive, the neurochemical contains feel-good neurotransmitters, which wire the brain over time in positive ways.
In other words, when you affirm your partner, you’re not only strengthening behavior, encouraging him or her, and being intentional with creating a positive relational atmosphere; you’re literally helping your partner wire a better brain. If the research is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt it, the ancient proverb in the Hebrew Scripture is true: “Life and death is in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
To close, here are 4 ways you can use affirmation to get more of what you want:
- Develop an awareness by intentionally watching for strengths and behavior you want to see more of in your partner.
- Be consistent and extravagant in communicating encouragement to your partner and reflecting their strengths back to them.
- Don’t wait for your partner to perform the change or behavior perfectly before you offer positive feedback.
- The words and affirmations you speak shape the atmosphere of your relationship. Be your own relational architect.