Toolbox Talks: What is the right ratio?


You don’t need the scientific community to tell that more positivity in your life is a good thing. Whether you’re at home or at work, if the positivity outweighs the negativity it was probably a good day. There is no shortage of studies on the subject and they all agree that healthy relationships need more positive affirmations than negative criticisms. Where they tend to differ is in their assessments of “What is the right ratio?”

One of the more famous studies, from psychologist Dr. John Gottman, put forth the idea that the Magic Ratio of positive-to-negative was 5:1. Dr. Gottman and his colleagues used this ratio to predict if a newlywed couple would still be married or divorced after 10 years. They were 94% accurate in their assessments. How did they do it? They observed a 15-minute conversation between the new husband and wife, and scored the number of positive and negative interactions. If the couple hit the 5:1 Magic Ratio, they were predicted to stay married. If not, an appearance on Divorce Court was in the cards.

“So, the Magic Ratio is 5:1? Got it.” Not so fast. According to Harvard research, Ideal Ratio is 6:1. Aubrey Daniels International will tell you it’s 4:1. Google “positive to negative” and pick a ratio somewhere in this ballpark and you’ll get numerous research results, each advancing their “perfect ratio.” So which ratio is the right ratio?

At the risk of angering academia, who cares? Odds are you need to give more positive reinforcement to your relationships. Does it matter if it’s three times more or four times more? ANY amount more is a step in the right direction. If your current ratio is 1:1, making an effort to get to 2:1 is a huge improvement. If you can’t get to 5:1 or 6:1 this week, don’t worry about it; just get a little better for now. Don’t make perfect the enemy of better.

Besides, how weird would it be for your workers if you showed up one day and went from zero to one hundred? Last week you couldn’t find anything positive to say, this week you’re Mr. Rogers. Their biggest question at this point will be if you need a drug test or an exorcism.

Which brings us to the next point. If you get in the 10:1, range you lose the benefits of positivity. If every day is nothing but rainbows and unicorns, then the authenticity and sincerity are questioned. In other words, if EVERYTHING is exceptional, then NOTHING is exceptional. The coaching and counseling must balance out the positivity. Granted, being too positive is probably not a big concern as most people are far from a 10:1 ratio and are struggling to just get to 2:1.

You shouldn’t try to jump in and go immediately to 5 or 6 to 1. Make a small move, let that behavior soak in, and do a little more as time goes on. The easiest way to get to 2:1 right now is to use the Compliment Sandwich. Tell them what you appreciate, ask them to help improve one area, and thank them for something else they do well. For example, when talking to your teenagers about driving: “I like how you always put your seatbelt on before starting the car. I’m a little concerned that you’re not leaving enough space between you and the car in front of you; remember it’s at least 3 seconds. Thank you for putting your phone in the glovebox when you drive; it’s so important to not let it distract you.” It’s that easy; I appreciate this, help me with that, thanks for doing the other thing.

Take it easy on yourself and don’t worry about hitting the “right ratio.” Just start moving in the right direction and you’ll eventually build-up to the “perfect ratio” but in a natural, not at all “invasion-of-the-body-snatchers” way.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.