Despite our best efforts, we are usually unable to separate a statement’s impact from the source. This is known as shooting the messenger, and we are usually guilty of it, both anecdotally and as found in 2019 by Blunden and Liu in a paper called “Shooting the Messenger.” You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place unless you can harness what is known as the Losada ratio.
The Losada ratio is the ratio of how much positive feedback is required to lessen the sting of negative feedback. This is also known as the critical positivity ratio and specifically puts forth a ratio of positive to negative emotions that separate people who “languish” versus “flourish.” In a 2005 study by Losada and Frederickson called “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” the researchers studied communications within a set of businesses to examine the relationship between positivity and performance. They found that a greater amount of positivity was highly correlated to better performance and higher rates of success, especially in the presence of negativity.
Even positive statements as simple as “I agree with you” or “That’s a good idea” were highly important to curtailing the effects of negative statements as simple as “I disagree” or “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Losada discovered that the amount of positivity it took to reduce the impact from negativity was roughly 2.9:1—which means in order to make someone feel good about any amount of negative or critical feedback, you need to make about three positive statements to maintain a healthy work relationship. Otherwise, the negative impact on someone’s self-esteem and mood will be damaged—not irreparably, but in a way that may impact the future relationship.
Simply put, for a more positive and happy state of mind, you need to keep an internal counter, especially if you need to be a messenger of bad news. One of the authors of the 2005 study went on to note another purpose for the importance of having a generally positive outlook on life:
When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety—when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention—positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests. In our ancestors, transitory states of positive emotions led to behavior that may seem pointless or extravagant from the perspective of immediate survival, but that perhaps conferred serious advantages in the long term.
The thinking is that a state of positive emotion is a physiological sign that we were safe, not in danger, and could finally conserve energy and relax. It’s the feeling of no impending doom or obligation hanging in the back of your head. And that’s probably important for people to associate with you.
The clear lesson of this study is that to be likable, load up on positive statements during the course of the conversation—especially if you know you’re going to have to deliver anything remotely negative. It’s the art of sugarcoating. This in itself is no surprise, but the existence of a specific ratio that changes people’s opinions probably is.
In every conversation, there are three types of statements: neutral, positive, and negative. Be aware of the type of statement that you are using and police what’s coming out of your mouth. If you know you have to deliver a negative statement, make sure to use the bulk of the positivity afterward, because only then will you be directly counteracting the effects of the negativity. Be sure it is actually positive and not simply neutral.
For instance, you can heap praise on someone and then conclude that their presentation needed work. The praise will likely be forgotten by the impact of the negativity. If you reverse the order and lead with the negativity, the positivity will blunt the impact. It’s tough to keep track of 2.9:1 positive to negative statements in real life, so you don’t need to seek exact application here. You just need to realize the massive effect that negativity can have and understand the steps you can take to counteract it.
It’s not only supervisors or people who critique and judge others on a daily basis who need to understand this. In social settings, we also unintentionally use negativity more than we think—from disagreeing on the choice of restaurant to eat at to making fun of someone’s new haircut. This includes the use of sarcasm, which for the purposes of the Losada ratio is typically negative, even if it is used in good humor.
People are more sensitive than they present themselves to be, and you can choose to acknowledge this or not. You don’t have to compliment people and act like a sycophant—just erring on the side of positive and good-natured will do quite a bit of good. Shooting for 2.9:1 does seem impossibly tough and transparent, but if you were able to alter your statements at least halfway, there would be a world of difference.
It’s notable to mention that the results of the study, and in fact the entire concept of the critical positivity ratio, are in dispute. The original researchers don’t seem to definitely deny or confirm the disputes either way, though they are typically worded quite strongly.
Brown and Sokal in 2013 in “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio,” remarked,
We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct is known as the “positivity ratio.” We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools such as nonlinear dynamics and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met.
No matter, there is still wisdom in the power of positivity, no matter how ethereal or new-agey it sounds. Even if you choose to not believe anything presented in this section, hopefully you can start to consider the massive impact negative statements (even sarcasm at times) can have on your likability.
Another endearing quality is to ask people for advice and revere them as experts. At first glance, this appears to simply prey on flattery—are we so transparent and approval-driven that we can be plied with sweet words?
In a 2015 study by Brooks, Gino, and Schweitzer entitled “Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence,” researchers separated a group of participants into two halves. The first half was paid $1 for each test question they answered correctly while the second half was paid based on how competent their partner rated them. Before completing the test questions, participants had the option to send a message to their partner. The message could be either asking for advice or merely wishing them luck with the questions. Afterward, the participants were polled on how much they liked their partner.
Participants who were asked for their partner’s advice rated their partner higher on competence and also reported liking them quite a bit more than participants who only wished their partner good luck. This study found a significant positive correlation between the impression we have on somebody and whether they asked us for advice.
When someone asks us for advice, it’s hard to resist stepping onto a soapbox and educating. When someone puts you in a position of expertise and asks you to help them, it is difficult to resist the temptation to tell them everything we know about the topic. Let’s imagine you have just come back from a skiing trip and someone asks you if you know any good places to ski. They have no idea you’re essentially an expert on the topic at the moment because you planned the trip yourself.
What is your response most likely going to be?
You are going to tell them absolutely everything about your trip, send them your itinerary, talk about the various pros and cons of your particular trip, and offer any other advice you can think of. You’re going to feel smart because you have the ability to guide and teach someone. It’s important to mention this doesn’t tend to occur because we are innately helpful and generous with our time; it tends to occur because we enjoy feeling validated and important. A question conveys respect, intelligence, and belief in someone, and you will decidedly be in a state of openness and sharing. The wall has been torn down.
To be more endearing, make other people experts and ask them for their advice—even if you don’t need it. On an everyday level, this can display itself as more curiosity about topics another person has knowledge about. What does the person like to do? What are their hobbies? What is their educational background, or what do they have special training in? All of us have areas of interest, and we would welcome it when people ask us about stuff that we’re interested in. A bit of recognition, enthusiasm, and curiosity directed toward it feels great.
If someone is a Renaissance fair enthusiast, you could ask them specific questions about how they function and what’s involved in attending one. Make sure to ask for advice regarding them, not just logistical or broad questions. Advice sounds more like, “How can I do that?” versus “So what do you wear?”
We love displaying our deeper thoughts on a topic of expertise, something we almost never get the chance to do. Most of us may not seek out the spotlight willingly, but if someone else shines it onto us, we will gladly seize it for a brief amount of time because it makes us feel smart. This ties to the central fact that people love to talk about themselves. You are the sole topic that occupies your mind the vast majority of the time; people are selfish by nature, and we even know from an earlier chapter that we receive the same neurochemicals as sex when we talk about ourselves.
Asking advice of others is not necessarily about extracting information. The main benefit here is not learning where the best ski slopes are; it is to help the other person feel good about themselves and increase the comfort they feel with you. Of course, that leads directly to greater likability.
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