The Good, The Bad, and The Neutral

Author: Dr. Pam Murphy is a child psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).


Many variables contribute to your overall happiness and sense of well-being. Of course everyone is different, but for many individuals positive relationships are an essential element of “happiness.” Any relationship might be in this category – relationships with your significant other, children, relatives, friends or colleagues. If your relationships correlate to your contentment with life, you might ask yourself… “What can I do to make my relationships better”?


Relationships are influenced by many factors, but one of the most important is how we talk to people that matter to us. Some communication strategies to strengthen relationships can be found here in our Families & Friendships and Families with Kids workshops. Another strategy you might want to try in order to improve any one of your relationships is to count.  Yes, count.


Starting right this moment, keep track of the types of comments you make to one person that matters to you. Comments fall into 3 categories: positive, negative, and neutral. A positive comment might be, “Excellent work on this report.” A negative comment could be, “I told you 10 times to stop hitting your brother.” And a neutral comment would be, “I’m going to go to the grocery store.” Now, you don’t have to write down the actual comment – just count the category of your comments. Questions ‘count’ too. You may want to place questions in the neutral category, but realize that many questions are loaded in the negative direction. Be honest – no one has to know what you’re doing except you. You can count for an hour or all day. Then look at your tally.


No surprise, but relationships work better when we’ve made more positive than negative comments. With children, some experts suggest a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative (or corrective) comments. Even with a friend or spouse, relationships are strengthened by positive, honest, affirming comments. Certainly good friends criticize and make constructive suggestions that feel “negative.” But it is the ratio that matters.


As the positive comments outnumber the negative, the better chance this relationship will add to your happiness.