For Mother’s Day Give the Gift of the Magic Ratio

Breakfast in bed? A spa day? How about giving Mom what she really wants and listen to her.

I’ve been on a journey to come up with the best Mother’s Day gift ever. I think I’ve got it.

I began my search by reaching out to a master negotiator: William Ury, cofounder of the Harvard Project on Negotiation and author of “Getting to Yes.” Ury is an expert at reframing seemingly irresolvable conflicts to identify common ground.

I contacted him to reframe Mother’s Day for me. I wanted, along with my children, to deliver something deeply satisfying to my wife.

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“The greatest gift we can give on Mother’s Day is to listen to our spouses — and mothers,” Ury said. “True listening is far more than hearing. It is to listen as if we were in their shoes. It is to listen with our hearts, not just our minds.

“There is an old wise saying that we are given two ears and one mouth for a reason,” he added.

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I immediately raised this insight with my three children. We would listen to Mom for Mother’s Day, truly listen, as if we were in her shoes. They seemed disinclined to cooperate.

Humbled, I turned my focus to another story I’m working on: same-sex marriage. I was interviewing Salvatore Garanzini, a clinical psychologist who runs the Gay Couples Institute in San Francisco. He counsels gay and heterosexual couples based on the original research of John Gottman, whose famous “love lab” has studied 3,000 couples over 35 years.

Gottman’s research concludes that the most essential component of marital happiness and longevity — no matter a couple’s sexual orientation — is how you speak to each other.

How should we speak to someone we love, and how often?

“The speaker has to avoid being critical,” Garanzini said.

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“Criticism is anytime you talk with a sense of blame. It’s typically communicated with the word ‘you.’ “

So what is the right way to talk to your spouse and, on this Sunday and beyond, to the mother of the home?

“Anything that shows a sense of genuine curiosity about your partner. Asking them questions about their life, their hopes, their dreams.” And this is key: “Bothering to remember the answers.”

Nobody’s perfect. So, I wonder, how much latitude is there for criticism, for those sometimes irresistible negative comments?

“The magic ratio is 5-to-1,” Garanzini said. That’s the ratio of positive comments to negative comments that, based on the Gottman love lab research, produces the happiest marriages that last the longest.

Five to one. We’re going to keep count this Mother’s Day. We’re going to practice talking to the best mom there is. Five positive comments for every negative one — maybe throw in a sixth — to get out of our comfort zone.

And then we’re going to have a little quiz before Mother’s Day is over to make sure that when the children and I ask my wife how she’s feeling, what she’s loving about her life, what she would like to change, that we keep in mind what Garanzini emphasized — that we “bother to remember her answers.”

Remembering mom’s answers requires listening, which brings us back to Ury’s insight and the reason we have two ears and one mouth.

On Mother’s Day, and every day, let’s use them wisely.

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