October 17, 2018

Supporting those around us is easier said than done.

How do you know how to best help a friend?

What’s the right question to ask your worn-out coworker?

Will checking in on your sister’s weekend make her feel supported, or stressed?

And at the end of a frustrating week, might a heavy, all-the-feels conversation just be too much to handle?

The next time you want to give a pal a boost, try capitalizing on positive events. Research has shown that connecting around the good things we experience—rather than, say, salacious office gossip—can improve both the mood and self-esteem of both people in the convo and strengthen their relationship.

Research has shown that connecting around the good things we experience can improve the mood and self-esteem of both people in convo.
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The University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center calls this practice "Capitalizing on Positive Events," and it can be as basic as a five-minute conversation in which you ask a friend, family member, or acquaintance to tell you about a good thing that happened today.

Their answer could be anything as small as biting into a surprisingly crisp apple, or as big as getting accepted into the school of his or her dreams. The only requirements are that the event was positive and that your pal is comfortable talking about it.

Here's how to try the exercise IRL and help your conversation partner feel good as the chat deepens.

1. Ask: What Was the Best Thing That Happened Today?

Get the ball rolling by asking the first question: What was the best thing that happened today? Some other variations: What made you smile? Did you see anything that made you stop and laugh?

There’s no need to be picky, just accept the first thing your friend says and take it from there. You can either fill them in on what you’re doing—saying something like, “Hey, I heard about this new kind of conversation and want to try it. Will you tell me about something good that happened today?”—or keep it casual. It might feel scripted, but Greater Good’s subjects said once they got started, any awkwardness dissipated and the conversations feel natural.

2. Give Them Your Undivided Attention

Responding in an active and constructive manner means putting down anything distracting (no Instagram scrolling!), making eye contact, smiling or cheering, and making enthusiastic comments as appropriate.

If a sibling tells you about a promotion, for example, that might mean saying “Your hard work is paying off,” or “You must be so excited,” rather than something like “That sounds like a lot more responsibility.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t have tough conversations or express your concerns—it’s just not the focus of this particular exercise.

3. Ask Questions

You can coax the conversation along by asking constructive, positive questions.

If your friend tells you she made important headway on a work project, you could ask about what that entails and how it felt to make progress. If your mom drank a truly stellar cup of coffee, ask her to describe it—how did it smell? What did it taste like? How did it improve her day?

The more you get someone to reflect on the positives, the more you both benefit.

4. Project Positivity Forward

Keep the good vibes going by alluding to the future. In that promotion instance, you could say something like “I’m sure you’ll learn all sorts of leadership skills,” or “Now you’ll be able to take that vacation you’d been planning.”

Again, the focus isn’t to banish any negativity—it’s to focus on the positive in this short moment.

5. Trade off

So the focus of this exercise is on those around you—but don’t you deserve a little time in the spotlight, too?

After a few practice conversations, find someone who can return the favor. Maybe you switch off days, or spend five minutes talking about your partner’s day, and then five minutes discussing your own. Just be sure to keep the focus on whoever’s sharing—no thinking ahead to your own answers, or the relationship-building benefits will take a hit.

Again, it might feel weird kicking off a conversation with an "exercise" in mind, but give it a try the next time you're chatting with a friend or co-worker at the water cooler. What you'll likely find: It feels more natural than you think, and it'll feel more meaningful than the typical "How are you? I'm fine" dance.


Read next: 10 Ways to Be a Better Speaker and Listener

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