Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
Relationships are important. Like, more-important-than-Vitamin-C important. Scurvy is no fun but a lack of relationships might kill you faster.
From The Relationship Cure:
A study of people living in Alameda County, California, for example, showed that people who had close friendships and marriages lived longer than those who didn’t. This was true independent of such factors as diet, smoking, and exercise. Another study, of 2,800 men and women over age sixty-five, showed that those with more friends had a lower risk of health problems and recovered faster when they did develop them. In addition, a study of 10,000 seniors at Yale University showed that loners were twice as likely to die from all causes over a five-year period as those who enjoyed close friendships.
But what makes them work? What makes them fail? What’s the essential building block of a relationship? Why do some spark and others fade? You might have a theory or two but I don’t think we know what really keeps love, friendship, and family going.
And that, frankly, is kinda terrifying. Luckily, there is someone who knows…
Dr. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at University of Washington, is the guy when it comes to relationships. He’s that researcher featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink who, after just a few minutes, could predict with uncanny accuracy whether a couple would end up divorced.
Gottman discovered the key element that makes relationships fly or die. It’s something you can use to build stronger bonds with all the people you care about — and it’s going to surprise you.
Let’s get to it…
What Makes Or Breaks Relationships?
At the Gottman Institute they bring couples in and watch them talk to one another. Researchers study the content of the conversations and then track how the relationships fare over time.
So what did the successful couples talk about? Did they discuss happy things? Did they resolve problems? Did they talk about things they had in common? Turns out successful couples discuss…
The same boring crap everyone does. There was nothing special at all about the content of their conversations… So what gives?
But this is what led to a big discovery by Gottman. The content doesn’t matter. What mattered was what they weren’t saying. What was beneath the words. And whether their partner was paying attention, being responsive, and being supportive.
From The Relationship Cure:
But after many months of watching these tapes with my students, it dawned on me. Maybe it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversations that matters. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether couples agree or disagree. Maybe the important thing is how these people pay attention to each other, no matter what they’re talking about or doing…
What proved to be critical was something Gottman calls “bids” — and how the other person responded to those bids. In fact, Gottman says the bid is “the fundamental unit of emotional communication.” And this was true for all relationships, not just romantic.
If you could carefully observe and analyze those encounters—as my research colleagues and I have done—you would see how each one is made up of many smaller exchanges. There’s a bid and a response to that bid. Like cells of the body or bricks of a house, such exchanges are the primary components of emotional communication. Each exchange contains emotional information that can strengthen or weaken connections between people.
I know, I know, I’m getting to it — so what’s a “bid”?
From The Relationship Cure:
A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch—any single expression that says, “I want to feel connected to you.” A response to a bid is just that—a positive or negative answer to somebody’s request for emotional connection.
When you ask, “How are you?” do you really expect a rundown? Of course not. So how much of what we say is really about the information?
“It’s a beautiful day” doesn’t convey valuable data. They can see what you can see. It probably means “I’m glad I’m here with you. Are you glad to be here with me?”
That article your friend texted you might contain useful information. And their sending it might mean, “I care about you enough to send you stuff that interests you. Do you care about me too?”
A co-worker might say, “We should hang out sometime.” Here in Los Angeles this means, “I’d rather crawl naked across four miles of broken glass than ever see you again” but in civilized parts of the world it often means, “I think you’re cool and want to spend more time with you. Do you want to spend time with me?”
It’s not about the content. It’s about the unspoken emotions underneath. Those bids and how we respond to them are the cornerstone of relationships.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Sometimes we kinda know this but more often we forget. We get wrapped up in the literalness of it all. And it turns out the bid underneath the words is what really matters.
So bids are crucial. But how do they work?
Turn, Turn, Turn
They say, “It’s a beautiful day.” From a bid perspective, there are three types of responses:
- You can “turn toward” the bid: “Wow, it really is.”
- You can “turn against” the bid: “What are you talking about? Looks just like yesterday.”
- You can “turn away” from the bid: You don’t reply. Or you say, “We’re going to be late. Let’s get going.”
No surprise; turning toward bids is what builds stable, long-lasting relationships. If you want to nurture a deeper emotional connection with somebody, turn toward that person as often as you can.
Turning toward means agreeing, supporting or at least acknowledging the bid. They all tell the other person, “I hear you. I understand you. I’m interested in what’s going on with you. I’m on your side.” High energy responses, eye contact, and enthusiasm all get you extra credit.
This isn’t just important for romantic relationships — it’s the bedrock of all relationships.
Children who habitually turn toward their playmates form friendships more easily. Siblings who turn toward one another early on are more likely to stay close for life. Coworkers find it easier to collaborate on projects. Married couples and other pairs have fewer conflicts. Turning toward leads to fewer conflicts, because the partners in a relationship are having the conversations they need to have—the conversations where they demonstrate their interest and concern for each other.
Turning against a bid is giving a belligerent or argumentative reply. And turning away is ignoring the bid or replying with something unrelated. Repeatedly turning against or turning away, over time, harms relationships. No bueno.
When you find yourself in a heated argument over something ridiculous like not emptying the dishwasher, it’s not about the dishwasher. Often it’s because of the lack of respect or attention conveyed when you rejected or ignored those prior 5 bids.
My research shows that habitually turning away can eventually destroy relationships. Even if the bidder doesn’t act hurt or angry at the moment his or her bid is rejected, there seems to be some internal mechanism that keeps score. By watching relationships over time, my colleagues and I have seen that the dismissed bidder typically gets fed up. He or she starts complaining to and criticizing the person who turns away, leading to a pattern of attack and defend. And once this attack/defend pattern becomes ingrained in a relationship, it can start a downward spiral of interaction that eventually ends in the dissolution of that bond.
As the saying goes, “It’s the little things.” And it’s how you respond to the little things.
(To learn the four most common relationship problems and how to fix them, click here.)
So you’re turning toward bids and not turning against or away from them. But that’s not the tricky part. The trouble lies with identifying bids and knowing what the other person needs to hear to feel emotionally connected to you.
So how do we get better at that?
They say, “We should hang out sometime.” Are they just being polite and you should vaguely agree — or do they want you to specify a date and you’ll seem dismissive if you don’t?
Bids can be subtle. And they vary based on the person and the context. Yes, this can be annoying. But nobody is going to say, “I hereby formally reaffirm my desire to continue this friendship.”
Bids are subtle for a reason. We’re all afraid to be vulnerable. We want to protect our feelings and our ego — but we all also require emotional validation. And much more frequently than we think. So bids are often deliberately vague with a healthy dose of plausible deniability.
I know what some people are thinking: “Am I expected to be a mind reader? Do I need to enthusiastically overreact to everything to be safe? Does every relationship hang in the balance because I didn’t jump up and down?”
You don’t need to be perfect. Everybody misses bids or responds incorrectly. Even people in good relationships screw up around 20% of the time.
We learned, for example, that husbands headed for divorce disregard their wives’ bids for connection 82 percent of the time, while husbands in stable relationships disregard their wives’ bids just 19 percent of the time.
You don’t need to be frighteningly enthusiastic all the time. The goal is to try and learn the common bids from the people who matter most to you and what they want to hear from you to feel supported. And you want to learn more about your own bids and what you can do to make sure others are getting the message about your needs.
You probably already do this to a limited extent. You know that when you’re out of town and your partner texts, “How are things going?” they’re not asking about your day. They need to hear, “I miss you.”
So start paying more attention. And start writing things down. Build yourself a “bid roadmap” for each of the key people in your life:
- What form do their bids commonly take? What responses made them happy? And which ones did not? What is it they’re looking to hear outside of a very literal response to their words?
- How do you usually bid? Do they usually turn toward, against or away in response? What can you change to get a more fulfilling response?
- When do you turn toward, turn away, or turn against bids? What do you think causes the response?
When you really get good at this it’s like a superpower. You’re responding to their feelings instead of just their words, and that’s what really improves relationships. It will also help you be more patient when times are tough and address the real, unspoken issues causing the trouble.
That’s how it is once you begin to recognize the many idiosyncratic ways that people can make and respond to bids for connection. If you can see past a person’s anger, sadness, or fear to recognize the hidden need, you open up new possibilities for a relationship. You’re able to see your coworker’s sullen silence as a bid for inclusion in decisions that affect his job, for example. Or you can recognize that your sister’s agitation says she’s feeling alienated from the family.
You don’t need to be a mind reader. But start making note of bids and responses and you can actually become one with the people who matter most.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, you’re tracking and decoding bids. Now how do you improve conversational style so others turn toward your bids and you can better turn toward theirs?
Curiosity, Depth, And Feelings
If you want to screw up perfectly good interactions with incredible consistency, make sure your initial bids are negative and critical. Hand grenades are tough to come by these days but don’t you worry — starting a conversation with blame and accusation will do almost as much damage.
Gottman can predict with 96% accuracy how an interaction will go just by listening to the tone of the first three minutes.
When bids for connection start on such a negative, blaming, or critical note, it’s fairly easy to predict what will happen next. In fact, my studies of married couples show that 96 percent of the time, you can predict the outcome of a fifteen-minute conversation based on what happens in the first three minutes of that interaction. And if the first three minutes include a lot of negativity, blame, and criticism, the outcome is not going to be very good.
On the other hand, playfulness is golden. It not only improves conversations, it can even lighten arguments and help repair relationships.
From The Relationship Cure:
We also discovered the importance of playfulness in people’s bids. For years I have wondered why some couples are able to make jokes and express affection for each other—even in the midst of an argument. It’s an important question because our research shows that such emotional “repair tools” lead to the development of happier, stronger relationships.
Overall, remember three words when you want to have a conversation that deepens your connection with someone: curiosity, depth and feelings.
- Curiosity: Ask them open-ended questions. Or ask for advice. Then shut your giant mouth and listen like they’re about to tell you tomorrow’s lottery numbers.
- Depth: When was the last time you asked someone about their dreams and aspirations? Ever ask someone about their childhood? Sure beats “How was your day?”
- Feelings: Get away from the facts. Ask how something made them feel. Show a genuine interest in their internal world and their perspective. When was the last time you paid someone a thoughtful, specific and sincere compliment tailored to them?
That’s how you deepen an emotional connection.
(To learn how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out how to create even bigger moments that take relationships to the next level…
This is how to easily make your relationships awesome:
- It’s all about bids: If you think the conversation is about what the conversation is about, you’re in trouble. The content isn’t what’s critical. Responding properly to their bids is key.
- Turn, Turn, Turn: Turn toward. Agree, support or acknowledge bids.
- Decode Bids: Build yourself a “bid roadmap” for the important people in your life. “When Eric texts me to see how I’m doing it means he’s insecure about the new blog post and wants to hear it was good.”
- Curiosity, Depth, and Feelings: And what would your response be if someone very close to you paid you a thoughtful compliment, asked about your dreams in life, and then focused intently on your response? (I might need some tissues, frankly.)
Give Gottman’s research a shot. With practice you can become a mind reading, emotional Sorcerer Supreme with the ones you love.
Now you can take it to the next level and become what Gottman calls a “collector of emotional moments.”
Someone you’re close to makes a bid. You respond perfectly and hit the bullseye. They open up about their feelings and so do you. This is when you really deepen a connection with someone.
The key is to look for and celebrate those moments in which you connect with another person on a feeling level. Such moments usually begin by noticing an emotional expression as a bid for connection. You hear something a person says, or you see a facial expression or gesture, that reveals their happiness, sadness, anger, fear, contempt, or disgust. Once you notice it, you let this person know with your words, expressions, or gestures that you understand how they’re feeling. Your demonstration of understanding provides a bridge for emotional connection and paves the way to a deeper, more meaningful relationship.
To feel truly understood on an emotional level is immensely powerful and it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give someone.
The conversation is rarely about what the conversation is about. We want to be emotionally understood by others. We want to connect with others. That’s why we text. That’s why we call. That’s why we talk.
And that’s why some of us write blog posts…
Join over 320,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
Originally published at www.bakadesuyo.com