Taming the negativity factor in relationships

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Why do we put more focus on a negative comment than a positive comment?

One reason is thousands of years of human evolution. Our survival and rise to the top of the food chain happened because of our ability to detect and avoid danger. As a result, our brain has evolved to be super-sensitive to negativity; many will remember and relive a negative experience much longer and more intently than a positive experience.

Professor Roy Baumeister, co-author of Bad is Stronger Than Good, reported that in situations where people could lose or win the same amount of money they were much more upset losing $50 than winning $50, and that bad events wear off much more slowly than good ones.

This micro skill introduces a way to better manage positive and negative comments in relationships that we value at home and at work.


To tame negativity it’s helpful to understand that many of us, without knowing it, put much more weight on a negative experience than a positive one, which is why some relationships struggle, or even end. Ultimately, to have a healthy relationship the ratio of positive to negative comments can’t be 50:50. Researchers suggest it needs to be at a minimum of five positive comments to one negative comment.

Understanding that average day-to-day positive experiences don’t have the same potency as a negative experience can help change our focus and behaviour. By being aware of the frequency and benefits of positive experiences we can position ourselves to take more control of our actions rather than just reacting and allowing negative emotions to rule and define a relationship.


Knowing how our brains have evolved allows us to pay attention to how much positivity we receive and give. A positive and healthy relationship is defined by how both parties keep score of the positives and negatives. This can influence how much positive we engage in and help recognize how much positive we have.

Mike Bechtle’s research found that it takes three to four seconds for a negative event (for example, bad news) to go into our long-term memory, and up to 12 seconds for a positive event – provided we don’t get distracted.

The lesson here is to slow down and enjoy positive events for a moment and allow them time to be processed before moving on. This can help build up an inventory of all the positive events we experience.


Taming negativity requires intent, which can train the brain to focus more on positives and give less weight to negatives. Every relationship has both good and bad interactions. It’s how we process them that ultimately defines the health of a relationship.

Objective review of interactions – Knowledge loses its opportunity to be useful when we don’t apply it. If you’re struggling with a relationship you value and want to improve it, pay more attention to the positives. Any negative interaction with another, when we’re not aware, can burn hot and influence our perceptions with respect to how they are being good or bad.

Stepping back and taking a moment to write out all the positive things you experience each day – no matter how small – can help balance the scales. Focusing and writing out all the positives can be mentally challenging. Happy relationships are often the byproduct of many small, positive experiences. Relationships take work. Being objective and focusing not only on what’s not working but what is working can help provide motivation to work through challenges.

Be deliberate with strained relationships – Understanding the brain’s bias to focus on negativity can provide the knowledge required to strengthen a relationship you’re concerned about.

For 30 days, consider following a one-minute activity. Set up a master journal online or on paper with two columns: positive and negative. At the end of each day, list the positive and negative things you did or said in the appropriate columns. Look at the ratio of items and keep in mind that at a minimum you want to get it to five-to-one positive. This exercise takes some practice and patience, but it provides a focused way to influence your day-to-day positive and negative decisions and interactions. Realize that you can’t control what another person does; you can only control what you do.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

This article was originally published on the Globe and Mail website and is reprinted here with permission. You can find all the stories in this series at: tgam.ca/workplaceaward.

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