Today is my youngest daughter Calli’s twentieth birthday. She’s a wonderful young woman, attending Occidental College in LA. What’s not to love about that? Beach. Hollywood. Swimming pools. Movie Stars. I love her deeply, and I’ve loved watching her grow from a sometimes not so happy baby to a confident, active, and smart adult, moving in the direction of her many dreams.
Per our family tradition, Heather and I serenaded her over the phone early this morning with an unusually horrible version (even by our standards) of “Happy Birthday.” Following that, according to another birthday tradition, I asked Calli what she had learned this past year. She gave us several answers, but the first thing she said particularly stuck with me. “I’ve learned that what people say hurts in ways I didn’t realize before.” Sensitivity and maturity growing in her.
I was instantly reminded of a conversation a couple of weeks ago I had with my friend Kevin McMullin . Kevin is a very fine musician, storyteller, and teacher who lives in Northern Wisconsin, and who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. He mentioned the work of John Gottman, and how focusing on making sure that what he said to his students was always heavily weighted to the positive made a difference. He talked about the kindness ratio.
I’ve been familiar with the work of John Gottman for years, but I’m not deeply versed in it. I first encountered his ideas around relationships. If I can summarize very simplistically, he found that certain behaviors between couples were good predictors of the long-term health of the relationship. For example, if the ratio of kind to unkind words dipped below five to one, it spelled trouble in the long run. That was a minimum. In general, his work is worth exploring beyond my feeble attempts to explain it.
I may not be accurate in my specific understanding, but the the concept is intriguing. The damage done by one insult or sharp remark requires five kind or positive things to repair the damage or restore the balance. Whatever that number may actually be for each person, (which undoubtably varies by personality, situation, context, and time of day, as well as who knows what other factors,) the idea that feeling hurt requires repair in some amount seems true. And can we generalize about that number?
I mentioned this to Tom Pease, and he said “Only five to one? Who doesn’t do that?” Fair enough. Almost everyone I know is basically kind, especially to those we don’t know. But our interactions in families, friendships, and work situations may allow, strangely enough, more unkindness because of familiarity. I certainly know some couples that I feel uncomfortable being around because of the unkindness they show to each other, even though they are perfectly kind people elsewhere. Heather and I have always made it a priority to enhance our relationship by how we speak to each other.
Kevin said that when he made a point of keeping the balance of positive comments high with his students, he felt that they improved more. In the role of teacher it can be easy to say things in the name of being helpful that hurt. This isn’t about being false or glossing over mistakes or issues, but about recognizing how the way we talk affects how others are able to hear us.
It’s a larger topic than a simple blog article, but here’s the song I wrote after our conversation. It’s called Five to One. It’s still in draft form, but close enough to share.
Here’s to Birthdays. To John Gottman. To Kevin. To Tom. To Heather. To Kindness. And most of all, to Calli. Happy Birthday.
Five to One
Five to One
Kevin teaches fiddle to children`
Ten or twenty students a week.
The more he gives them positives
The less their fingers squeak.
He wants them to play and to practice
He wants their love of music to grow
He does his best not to forget
This simple ratio.
Five to one
Five kind words to one that’s rude
Five to one
Change your attitude.
He doesn’t give cookies or stickers
He doesn’t give a toy or a star
He sees what they try to do
And he sees who they are
It’s not just the words he’s saying
It’s the tone he’s speaking in
One smart remark out of the dark
Is like a sliver in your skin…Chorus
Sometimes he’ll lose his patience
Like all of us now and again.
Other days he’ll be amazed
He’ll go from five to ten.
Some things you can’t measure
Other things you can
Numbers tell tales as well
That help us understand…Chorus
© Stuart Stotts 2013
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