John Gottman

John Gottman

Psychologist John Gottman has been researching relationships for more than four decades, and in recent years the popular media have taken notice of his findings. Accounts of his work have often emphasized the four “horsemen” in communication patterns that signal trouble for marriages: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. But we sometimes lose sight of the positive communication patterns that correlate with marital satisfaction and longevity.  More recent accounts suggest that kindness and generosity are important, too.

One key: how we respond to bids for attention. In communication terms, a “bid” is an attempt to engage one’s partner or colleague in a conversation – it can be as simple as “Wow, what a beautiful day,” or “I went to the store today,” or “I’m worried about Tom.”  Partners can respond to these openings in four ways: passive destructive (ignoring), active destructive (criticizing or playing down the feeling or observation), passive constructive (half-hearted engagement or interest), and active constructive (a wholehearted, positive respond that builds on the positive emotion expressed in the opening).  Gottman’s research, along with other research on couples, suggests that kindness and emotional stability – the absence of chronic negative emotions – are “the most important predictor(s) of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.”

These ways of responding aren’t innate; they can be practiced.  That seemingly magical ability that great leaders and friends have – making you feel important in a conversation?  It’s often down to this one communication habit of active constructive responding. Yet in our attention-starved techno-driven environments, we so often respond passively to bids from children, partners and colleagues, not recognizing the opportunity missed by failing to respond well to the bid. Great parenting, greater partnering, and great leadership – one could argue they all start with how we respond to bids from others.

What do you think about this habit?  What gets in the way of using it? How might you use it more often?