If you interviewed a guy for a job, and upon entering your office he immediately commented, “Your desk is a mess,” do you think you’d want to hire him?
When you got married (or thought about being married) did you fantasize about your beloved rolling toward your pillow first thing in the morning to tell you, “You snored all night— thanks for keeping me up”?
Do/Did your parents follow up a knock on your bedroom door with, “I’ll bet you haven’t done your homework, have you?”
What’s common to all of the above comments? They’re negative. They’re toxic. They instigate defensiveness straight off the bat.
I’ve touched before on the importance of first interactions when dealing with tweens and teens, but as I go about life and observe how people in general talk to each other, I feel like this one bears repeating:
The first thing you say when you encounter another person will set the tone for the encounter, and eventually (when a pattern is established) for the whole relationship.
So why not make it positive?
Our words reveal our minds and hearts. Listen to what someone says and how she says it, and you’ll see straight into her psyche. Is she a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person? Does she think life is fair, or that she’s getting a raw deal? Does she have good feelings or bad feelings toward the person to whom she’s talking?
When we meet someone for the first time—whether that’s the first time ever, the first time that day, or the first time after a separation for work or school or other life business—we’re establishing or re-establishing connection. On the most basic level, we are discovering the status of that relationship.
My husband is an engineer, and his job consists largely of figuring out what’s wrong with a project plan, a design, or a system. I once told him, “Sometimes it feels like you walk into a room and look around for something to criticize.” He responded, “Well, that is my job.” And he’s very good at it. But it means he has to step back from his at-work habit and foster the intentional at-home habit of saying something positive first:
“Good morning. How did you sleep?”
“Thanks for picking up my dry cleaning.”
“How’d your math test go?”
If I consistently lead with negatives, everyone in my life starts to expect that from me. They bristle when they hear me coming, then throw up a defensive wall as soon as my mouth opens.
This trend may resonate with anyone currently parenting a teenager.
Negative lead-in is a hard habit to break, but curbing it is absolutely essential if you want better relationships. Not sure how to start?
First, take a day to simply listen to yourself. Maybe even jot down your own words in a notebook, so you can really analyze them. What kind of greeting habit have you established?
Next, if you discover that it’s not as positive as you’d like it to be, take action. Plan ahead and script out a few positives:
How are you? doesn’t have to be a mindless throwaway. Ask it with intentionality. Follow up with a question about something you know from a previous interaction: Is your cold better? How did your mom’s surgery go? How’d you do in that race you were training for?
Give a compliment: That’s a great color. Nice haircut. Fantastic job on that presentation yesterday.
Show some gratitude: Thanks for emptying the dishwasher. I appreciated your help on that project. I owe you one for folding that laundry for me.
Then, if you do have a problem to deal with or an unpleasant issue to discuss, you’ll have already established a positive foundation to the relationship before you bring up that potentially negative subject. Your follow-on conversation is almost guaranteed to go more smoothly than it would have if you’d led with it.
Just like our parents (should have) taught us: always put your best foot forward.
Every single time.