Six Ways to Leverage the Chemistry of Conversations

Did you know that every day we experience approximately 20,000 moments (according to Nobel-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman)? A moment is defined as a few seconds in which our brain records an experience. So, as Dr. Kahneman discovered, the quality of our days is determined by how our brains recognize and categorize our moments — either as positive, negative or just neutral (although rarely do we remember neutral moments).

The Magic Ratio

And here's where the research gets interesting, and potentially sobering.  In order for our brains to rate our overall moments positive, the ratio of positive to negative interactions must be at least 5:1.

This work began with noted psychologist John Gottman’s exploration of positive-to-negative ratios in marriages. Using a 5:1 ratio, which Gottman dubbed “the magic ratio,” he and his colleagues predicted whether 700 newlywed couples would stay together or divorce by scoring their positive and negative interactions in one 15-minute conversation between each husband and wife. Ten years later, the follow-up revealed that they had predicted divorce with 94% accuracy. (Di Worrall, "The Magic Ratio of Positive to Negative Moments," 11/10/10)

Five to one in favor of the positive!

The Gallup organization, in studying workplace interactions, determined the necessity of over a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative conversations and interactions in order for the workplace to be productive rather than destructive.

The Neurochemistry of Positive Interactions

As it turns out, there's actually chemistry involved in why this ratio is so lopsided.  And this neurochemistry helps to explain the experience we've all had in which we've noticed that negative comments stay with us longer than positive ones.

Judith and Richard Glaser, cofounders of the The CreatingWe Institute, explain it this way:

When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained-release tablet – the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.

Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.

Amazing, isn't it.  It's all about chemistry.  No wonder we hold in memory negative interactions and comments longer than the positive ones.

So how can we leverage this chemistry reality in order to build more positive interactions and conversations with others in our lives?

Six Ways to Increase Your Ratio of Positive Interactions

Let me suggest several steps that need be taken in order to increase your positive-conversations-and-interactions ratio.

One, pay attention to your patterns.  Start noticing the quality of your comments and interactions with the people in your life (significant other, children, work associates, employees, bosses, friends).  Some people find it helpful to keep a record in a notebook by making check marks after an interaction with someone (putting the check in a column of positive, negative, or neutral).   Attention and awareness are the first steps in establishing change.  Start becoming more adept at identifying how often you say or do something either positive or negative.  Develop conscious competence.

Two, bring this consciousness to every interaction.  When you get ready to have a conversation, to react or respond to someone, take a deep breath before your speak.  Remind yourself to make it more positive than negative.  Work on couching your comments in more affirming ways.  Rather than going negative--criticizing, being fearful, marginalizing, judging--consciously say things (even constructive criticisms) in kind, caring, compassionate, and positive ways.

Three, compliment more often than criticize.  Rather than being like the husband who told his wife, "Honey, I told you I love you when we first got married, so until that changes, just accept that it's true unless I say otherwise," remember we all need a 5:1 ratio of compliments and positive affirmations over negative judgments.  Make sure your compliments are authentic and based upon truth--otherwise they're hollow.  But practice in your mind different ways to compliment and speak positive affirmations to others ... and then speak them.

Four, practice makes perfect.  Being positive is more difficult for some than others.  Our temperament style often shapes the lens through which we look at others and situations:  is the glass half full or half empty?  But in spite of that natural preference, we can practice and change how we approach others.  So don't give up.  The initial attempts may fall flat, or feel awkward, or simply not "land well" on the other person.  But keep practicing.  It's a skill you can definitely improve.

Five, notice how others interact in positive ways.   We all need mentors, good examples, in order to learn new behaviors.  So start watching and observing people who engage in positive ways.

I have a really good friend who has the amazing capacity to reframe someone's negative perspective.  I've learned so much listening to him speak phrases and words and concepts in very positive and self empowering ways to both me and others.   Observing him has given me helpful languaging and vocabulary to practice myself.

None of us knows everything we need to know about living well and effectively.  We can learn from others.

Six, learn the art of forgiveness.  No person does everything perfectly, without flaws or errors or hurtful outcomes--including yourself.  Central to the practice of showing up more positively instead of negatively is the process of forgiveness with ourselves and with others.  Cut people, including yourself, more slack.  Recognize that perfection doesn't exist; that no one in your life wakes up one morning and says, "I'm going to try to be as negative, hurtful, and damaging to [insert your or someone else's name] as I can today!"; that most people are doing the best they can most of the time given who they are and where they've come from and what resources they have at their disposal at the moment.

Learning how to forgive is one of the most important practices of all.  It empowers us to let go, to be more gentle, kind, and compassionate with ourselves and others.  And in that way, to show up more positively and with more hope and joy in the process.


So why not leverage the powerful chemistry in our brains more consciously.  Let's increase the oxytocin instead of unnecessary cortisol by raising our positive interactions ratio during the day.  The people around us will be thankful for that energy boost.  And we'll feel way better, too!  It's a win-win.


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If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in coaching for how to be an effective culture architect in your groups? Feel free to email me at or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.