Practice the 5:1 motto for stronger, happier partnerships – at work, and beyond.
This is a question that applies to all of us – be it with our spouses, family members or colleagues. It has also drawn the attention of hundreds of psychologists and scientists. Is there a formula for successful partnerships – or is it simply a matter of chemistry? Can a relationship be strengthened and saved – or does it ultimately hinge on factors beyond our control?
In the 1970s, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson began figuring out the science behind happy, long-term relationships. In one of their studies, focused on married couples, they asked each duo to solve a conflict. These interactions were recorded and carefully studied. Nine years later, the researchers met with the subjects again to see which couples had stayed together and which had separated. Based on this data as well as their analysis of the couples’ prior interactions, the team was able to identify one of the key differences between happy and unhappy partnerships with great accuracy.
The secret, it turns out, lies in the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict.
In a stable and successful partnership, the ratio is 5:1 – which means that there are five (or more) positive interactions for every negative interaction.
While this particular study was focused on married couples, the findings are valid and valuable for all kinds of partnerships – from siblings, to team members, to close friends. The magic ratio of 5:1 is a blueprint for creating stronger, happier equations that are founded on respect, trust and empathy. I believe this is a great way for us to approach relationships with our colleagues, especially since it ties in well with The Ndiema Way.
So, today, my message focuses on how the 5:1 mantra can help you resolve conflict and build stronger, healthier partnerships at work and beyond.
It is natural to think of anger as a negative force – which it is, but it isn’t always destructive to the relationship. Expressing anger in a constructive way enables the conflict to be resolved and replaced with positivity.
What is dangerous is the unhealthy expression of anger – showing contempt, dismissing the other person, criticising relentlessly, being passive-aggressive or becoming defensive. Body language plays a huge part in this. Have you ever rolled your eyes sarcastically or flicked your hand dismissively in the middle of an argument? These are powerful negative interactions, and they can have a big impact on the quality of your partnership. Just think of the 5:1 ratio. Each negative interaction is so potentially damaging that it takes five positive interactions to balance out its impact.
The truth is that negative interactions are inevitable during conflicts – after all, none of us is perfect. The goal is to manage the frequency and intensity of these damaging behaviours.
By increasing the number of positive interactions (during a conflict as well as outside it), you create a protective buffer that helps your relationship withstand any negative impact.
Here are five powerful behaviours to bolster your partnerships:
1. Reinforce your alliance
The best part about being in a partnership or team is the conviction that you are one unit, that you can take on any challenge together. During a conflict, this feeling can sometimes disappear; the two people might start to feel more like enemies than allies. Which is why it’s important – even in the middle of a fight – to find the potential for agreement. Focus on the aspects that you both agree on, instead of concentrating solely on your differences. Express confidence that you can sort out the matter together. Break the tension with an inside joke that connects you both.
By reiterating your alliance in such ways, you bring your mutual respect and commonalities into focus. This feeling of partnership keeps the mercury in check and motivates you to resolve the issue in a calm manner.
2. Show interest
Perhaps the subtlest destructive force in any relationship is lack of interest. When your colleague brings up something that’s bothering them, do you respond with curiosity? Or do you listen with half an ear while scrolling through your inbox? It’s important to make eye contact, listen carefully and ask open-ended questions.
The same goes for good news, by the way. If your team member shares an accomplishment or an interesting learning, give them your full attention and ask for more details. Nothing dampens a happy person’s spirits more than their wonderful news being greeted with a bored “hmmm” by someone who matters to them.
3. Step into their shoes
Empathy lies at the heart of successful relationships. When you make an effort to empathise, you engage deeply with the other person. Not only do you show them that you care about their feelings, but you also truly gain a better understanding of their point of view. Express your empathy with statements such as “I can understand why you feel like that” or “it makes sense that you see it that way”.
The way someone feels isn’t right or wrong – it just is. Accepting the other person’s emotions doesn’t mean letting go of your own. By seeing your partner’s perspective as equally valid, you can connect with them meaningfully even during a conflict.
4. Do the little things
This is one piece of advice I’m sure you have come across before – but it is worth repeating because it is so central to successful partnerships. The small, day-to-day things count the most, so make them a top priority. You might think that making a grand gesture after a big argument can save your relationship, but it would only offer a temporary fix. To truly strengthen a partnership, you need to consistently demonstrate that the other person matters.
For instance, if you know your colleague sets aside an hour each morning for uninterrupted work, make it a point not to let others disturb them. If your team member is having a bad day, do something simple to minimise their stress – take a task off their plate or bring them their favourite beverage from the cafeteria. Express your support openly, be it saying “I’m here for you” during a difficult phase or celebrating when they pull off a big win. Over time, these small acts add up to a protective shield. Thus, even in the middle of a conflict, an undercurrent of trust and friendship will keep the negativity in check.
5. Appreciate purposefully
In another study, the same two researchers found contempt to be the topmost factor responsible for splitting up couples. In Masters of Love, Emily Esfahani Smith elaborates:
People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.
Instead of being a perpetual critic, get intentional about appreciating your colleagues. Make it a point to express your positive thoughts so they know you notice all the things they do right – not just what they do wrong. Plus, how you think about the other person has a powerful effect on the way that you treat them. During an argument, when all you can see is the other person’s flaws, focus intentionally on their good side. The positive thoughts will counterbalance the negative, making it easier for you to treat them respectfully.
After decades studying thousands of couples, Dr.Gottman divided them into the two groups – the masters, and the disasters. The masters have figured out the secret to long-term mutual happiness: they bring kindness, empathy and generosity to the relationship. The disasters, on the other hand, are filled with negativity, hostility and disrespect. In Dr.Gottman’s words:
There’s a habit of mind that the masters have, which is this: they are scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.
The masters of marriage and the masters of professional relationships certainly have a lot in common. At the workplace, too, relationships flourish when nurtured with appreciation and respect – whereas those characterised by criticism and contempt are bound to fail. So, the next time you have a choice between making a sarcastic remark at your colleague’s mistake or giving them the benefit of doubt and having a calm chat about it, choose the latter. Not only is it the kinder option, it is also an investment into the long-term success of your relationship. Make such investments intentionally and frequently to achieve and maintain the magic 5:1 ratio.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.