The Benefits of Active Constructive Responding

Kate Hood

ACR 960X450 2.0

“good, the more communicated, more abundant grows” - John Milton

I love watching how young people and adults interact. It’s interesting because the age gap offers an obvious difference in social position, opinion, and, sometimes, power. Recently, I spent time camping in the south of Tasmania with a group of Year 7 students and at one point our local GP and friend came to visit for a night. We were camped at his property and he flew down to ensure the students were having a good time. He took them exploring through a secret cave and taught them about the history and unique flora and fauna of Tasmania. It was fascinating for the students, but it was the way he interacted with them that was most striking, most impressive, and that most enhanced their experience. I heard him interacting with statements like “I just need to start the generator John, but I’m going to come back and talk to you more about your favourite surf spots” and “that’s amazing Jamie, what did it smell like there?”

This is a man who has travelled the world, worked in Africa and Antarctica, directed stage productions, and has so many stories to tell. Yet, it was his interest in the students that connected him to them. He was genuinely interested in what they had to say, their lives, and their interests. He was unwittingly, perfectly applying the theory of Active Constructive Responding, the theoretical brain child of UCLA Professor Shelly Gable (Seligman, 2012).

Active Constructive Responding (ACR) is a way of responding when someone shares good experiences or information. If the receiver of the good news actively and constructively responds it can often provide a boost in wellbeing to both people involved in the conversation (Lambert et al, 2013). Traditional psychology has thoroughly studied how people respond when things go wrong, through practices such as appraisals and coping (Gable et al, 2004). However, until Gable and her team theorised and examined the ways of responding to good news, there was very little analysis available.

What Gable’s research found is that people most commonly respond to good news in one of four ways:

- Passive Destructive: 
Characteristics: disinterest, does not pay much attention, changes the topic of conversation
Body Language: looks at watch, sighs, or turns away from the conversation
Example: “what’s for dinner?” - “guess what happened to me today?”

- Passive Constructive: 
Characteristics: passively engaged with little enthusiasm and doesn’t make a big deal of the situation
Body Language: a head nod and a gentle smile
Example: “that’s nice Dad.”

- Active Destructive: 
Characteristics: actively points out the problems associated with the ‘good’ news, creates doubt and concern about the scenario, completely kills any excitement
Body language: reactive or aggressive, authoritative movements
Example: “wow, are you sure you want to go there, it’s so dangerous – have you considered the risks?”

- Active Constructive: 
Characteristics: actively responds to the good news with interest and enthusiasm, asks questions that help to almost re-experience the moment, the conversation is a pleasant and joyful one for both participants.
Body language: leaning into the conversation, an increase in movement/hand gestures, people might try to show something on their phone to help communicate the experience
Example: “that’s amazing, I’m so happy for you – tell me how you felt when you found out!”

Now, of course we all aim to ACR when anyone shares good news with us but sometimes we get too tired, distracted, or busy to do so. In my example above, the GP was happy to delay a conversation but he did it in a way that didn’t deflate the student.

Sometimes pointing out the risks involved in a situation is certainly required. We all know the people we turn to in our lives when we need some constructive criticism or honest advice in order to form balanced, well-considered decisions. However, when a friend, colleague or loved one shares the gift of good news, it’s our initial response to what is being shared, that can directly contribute to the building and maintenance of healthy, happy relationships.

Benefits of ACR 

In Gable et al’s (2004) paper, four studies were completed. They examined the effects of ACR for people in intimate relationships of longer than three months, as well as married couples. The below results were found:

Personal benefits
- Increased positive emotions
- Increased subjective well-being
- Increased self-esteem
- Decreased loneliness

Relationship benefits
- Increased relationship/marital satisfaction
- Increased intimacy
- Increased commitment
- Increased trust, liking, closeness
- Increased stability

(Gable et al, 2010).

ACR conveys a response that demonstrates understanding, care, and validation not only of what the person has to say, but of your relationship with them. ACR is the spark that a “people person” has when response to good news is genuine and authentic. We also know that ACR can be practised and developed to become the natural way in which you respond to good news gifted to you.

“People may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner

Resources

https://www.psych.ucsb.edu/people/faculty/gable

http://www.happier.tv/playlist/active-constructive-responding/active-constructive-responding/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRORihbXMnA

Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish. Sydney, Australia. Random House. (Chapter 3 is on ACR.)

References

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228.

Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 42, pp. 195-257). Academic Press.

Lambert, N. M., Gwinn, A. M., Baumeister, R. F., Strachman, A., Washburn, I. J., Gable, S. L., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(1), 24-43.

Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish. Sydney, Australia. Random House.

Kate Hood 100x100

Kate Hood


Kate Hood is an Associate Trainer for the Institute of Positive Education. She completed her Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) in 2015 focusing on the change in language that students use after learning Positive Education principles. She also taught Science, Mathematics and Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop campus for 6 years.