When does a broken relationship start to go wrong?
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently.
Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.
These seemingly big moments are not the defining ones that make or break relationships. Rather it’s almost always the small things, like that time two weeks ago when your friend asked you if you wanted a cup of coffee. How you responded to that question may have influenced the relationship more than you can imagine.
These apparently inconsequential moments determine the fate of relationships more than arguments. Psychologist John Gottman can determine the fate of a married couple with an accuracy rate in the 90s.
Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, a fascinating new book, explores his research. Gottman looked at those “seemingly meaningless and inconsequential exchanges between people.”
As meaningless as they seemed on the surface, at a deeper level, the exchanges were highly nuanced, emotional signals, …
These emotional signals are what Gottman called “bids.” And it turns out that how we respond to bids is the key to successful relationships.
Sweat the Small Stuff
Picture this scene: Your boss is sitting in front of her computer. She’s working. Or perhaps she’s pretending to work when in fact she’s updating her Facebook page or reading her emails— you know her better than we do, so you choose.
Now imagine yourself entering her office and asking her “Do you want a cup of coffee?” Your boss could choose to respond in one of three ways:
1. She could acknowledge your offer in a positive way: “That’s really nice of you. I’ll have cream and sugar.” Or “Thanks, but I’m okay right now.” In psychologists’ speak, this is called a “turning-toward response” or a “toward bid.”
2. She could acknowledge your offer in a negative way: “Your coffee is disgusting. I’ll get it myself.” Or “You want to get me a cup of coffee? What do you want in return?” This is called an “against bid.”
3. She could just stay silent or change the subject: “There’s this new film out about the life of the flamingo.” This is called a “turning-away bid.” By replying, she acknowledges that you’ve spoken, but she doesn’t engage with what you’ve said. In effect, she ignores your bid.
Whatever response she chooses determines what you do next. Consider this for a second. Only the first, the “toward bid,” is likely to encourage you to make another of your own bids. Faced with an “against bid” or a “turning-away bid,” you’re more likely to make an unconscious mental note not to bother offering her a cup of coffee next time.
Positive bids create a virtuous cycle. When you respond to someone with a toward bid, the person feels good about him- or herself. As a result, that person is more likely to make more positive bids, which, in turn, lead to more positive interactions (and more offers of coffee).
When you use plenty of bids that move you toward one another, research shows that you laugh more, support each other more, dramatically reduce the odds of divorce, and you get more sex. (That alone makes this post worth reading, right?).
Couples that make more bids toward each other, rather than against or turning away are more likely to stay together.
Gottman discovered that there is a magic ratio: Couples who manage a ratio of five positive (toward) responses to one negative (turning away or against) response are more likely to have a healthy, long-lasting partnership.
Men who ended up divorced generally turned away from their wives’ bids 82 percent of the time, “whereas men in ultimately stable relationships only ignored their wives bids 19 percent of the time.”
Women use turning-away responses slightly less often. The women who ended up divorced had ignored their husbands’ bids 50 percent of the time, as opposed to those in ultimately stable relationships, who had ignored their husbands’ bids 14 percent of the time.
Bids are present in every relationship.
At work, the ratio of positive to negative bids will affect the quality of your relationship with your boss, your peers, and those you manage. The bid ratio is likely to reflect the difference between those customers or suppliers you look forward to seeing and those you don’t. If you’ve ever had a customer who didn’t seem to care, you know exactly the feeling of a turning-away bid.
How can we make more effective toward bids?
Positive bids could be as simple as a laugh, a smile, a touch. The point is acknowledging.
[W]hatever form it takes, this positive response reassures the initial bidder that you have heard and accepted what they say (even if you don’t necessarily agree with it).
Psychologists have identified four types of positive bids. Healthy relationships have a mixture of these.
A friendly grunt, an affirming “uh-huh,” or a gesture of acknowledgment: a nod or a smile. (Note: This is a friendly grunt, not the “Go away and leave me alone” grunt favored by moody teenagers.)
A few words of acknowledgment—“okay” or “sure”— or a question to clarify the bid: “Sorry, what did you say?”
Now you’re getting involved. These responses indicate sharing opinions, thoughts, and feelings. They include an offer of empathy, insight, a joke, or a question. Actions like a good-night kiss or a handshake are also attentive responses.
Attentive responses, but even bigger— with more energy, complete attention, and full eye contact. These are usually enthusiastic responses (“Wow, congratulations!”). High-energy responses are often physical (big hugs, sloppy kisses) and loud (hearty laughs, giggles). They also have the most positive impact— when you get this kind of reaction, you really know you’ve been heard. But remember the experience of being greeted by a sloppy dog: too much of this kind of positive attention can be exhausting, particularly if the recipient is a rather shy person.
Most healthy relationships have a ratio of five positive to one negative response. There are three simple tips for keeping your approach moving toward, rather than away, from someone.
1. Always respond by showing that you’ve heard what has been said, even if you want to change the subject: “I’m so glad that you’ve found a flat that you like. That must be a weight off your mind. I’ve just finished a new draft of the report, so if you have a moment . . .”
2. Open every conversation with a positive bid. In his research, remember, Gottman found that he could predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, the outcome of a relationship based on what he heard in the first fifteen minutes of a conversation. In many cases, the first three minutes gave a strong sense of whether the relationship was going to survive. If those first minutes are full of negativity, blame, and criticism, the outcome will be negative as well.
3. Even when you vehemently disagree with a person’s suggestions, say what you like about those suggestions first. Establish common ground (e.g., “I like the fact you’re being totally up front”; “I appreciate how passionately you feel about this issue”) before presenting your case.
This is when people respond to you but you wish they hadn’t. Responses in this category include “mocking, ridiculing, belittling, and making sarcastic comments about a bid or bidder.” These are the responses that make the other person feel bad and they are the virus of poor relationships.
Here are six against responses. If you’re like me you winced reading these, with my last relationship in mind.
A contemptuous response to “Shall we ask for directions?” would be “We wouldn’t need to if you could just read the map.” Ouch.
Someone is spoiling for a fight. If a person asks “Do you want to see a film?” and the response is “Do you really think I have time for a movie? Don’t you realize how busy I am?” it’s pretty obvious where the conversation is going.
These responses are designed to get a reaction— ideally “I’m sorry; you’re right” but usually something rather less savory. The following are all contradictory responses: “I think you’ll find there’s a better way to tie a garbage bag,” “Leave it alone; let me do it,” or the supremely irritating “Actually, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced . . .”
These responses assert authority and attempt to force the other person to withdraw, retreat, or submit. For example, a daughter might say, “My dream is to be on America’s Got Talent.” A mother might respond, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not nearly talented enough.”
“I didn’t quite understand what Michael meant in the meeting today” gets the against response “Of course not. You weren’t paying attention, as usual.” “You always,” “you shouldn’t have,” or “you never” are early warning signals that a load of negative bids is on its way.
Me: “I can’t find my book.” My spouse: “Well, don’t look at me!” Here, the respondent— even though no blame was being apportioned— is on the defensive.
What happens when someone moves away from you with one of these responses is that you feel undervalued and unappreciated. If you stay in the relationship for years, it sows the seeds of resentment and eventually you stop making toward bids.
If the other person is in a position of power (like an aggressive boss), you may suppress your emotions to avoid conflict, and the relationship will become one based on fear. But if you are the one responding against others, understand that these negative bids seriously undermine your relationships. It’s critical that you change your bids to positive ones.
I’ve been working hard recently on changing my against bids. I find that sometimes, especially when I’m busy, my default is to reply with a negative bid. To counteract this I’ve been doing a few things. First, I try to count to 3 before responding. This helps me ensure the other person is done speaking and gives me more of a chance to consider the impact of what I’m thinking of saying. Along the same lines, active listening is a great tool to help ensure you’re understanding what other people are saying. Finally the book recommends one that I’ve just implemented, which is basically trying to step out of the situation and name what’s going on. Something along the lines of “I notice we’re not having a productive conversation right now and we’re both raising our voices, how can we approach this in a better way?”
This is when you ignore someone outright or act uninterested.
There may be a reason why you are being unresponsive; you might feel irritated or your attention may be elsewhere. But whatever your conscious motivation, turning away from a bid indicates that you have disengaged from the relationship. The outcome is not going to be good.
When you repeatedly ignore or dismiss the bids of another person the situation escalates. They often become hostile and defensive. Most of us turn away without even knowing that’s what we’re doing.
What do turning away responses look like?
Let’s say you’re searching the Internet or cooking or driving. You’re engrossed and, to be honest, you’re not really interested in whatever’s going on around you. So, you zone out and try to ignore any bids coming your way. No one wants the “silent treatment”; if someone is with you, that person may feel this is a snub. The trouble is that if this person keeps trying to interact with you, you’re just as likely to respond against (“Can’t you see I’m busy?”) as toward (“Sorry, I was completely away there; what did you say?”).
You ignore the substance of what the other person is saying and either focus on some incidental detail (“She had nice fingernails”), reframe the issue (“Yes, yes, but the real issue is . . .”), or minimize the importance of what’s being said (“Does it matter?”).
In the middle of a conversation, you change the subject, either by announcing a new and irrelevant piece of information (“It says here that penguins can do elementary algebra”; “I feel like going for a walk”) or with a deliberate non sequitur (Dad: “Did you finish your homework?” Son: “What are you cooking for supper?”).
Gottman’s research indicates that turning away bids are more prevalent than against bids. The effects of both are disastrous.
Gottman found that during a conversation at dinner, stable couples engaged each other as many as a hundred times in ten minutes, whereas those headed for divorce engaged each other only sixty-five times.
What happens in stable relationships when one person is met with a turning-away response is that they rebid about 20% of the time. In couples headed for a divorce, re-bids were rarely attempted. It should come as no surprise that turning away bids increase conflict.
If a bidder is repeatedly ignored, he or she is likely to become angry and critical of the respondent. As a result, the emotional temperature goes up and small incidents become big issues. A small dismissal today can lead to a relationship meltdown next year.
A lot of us stonewall. We turn away and disengage, which has a disastrous effect on relationships. A better way to handle the situation is to accept the bid and “explain to the other person that you feel the need for space.”
Here are three ways to help you avoid turning away:
1. Observe yourself for a day and find out how many bids you ignore—accidentally or deliberately. Most of us turn away more than we think (though we are much better at judging how many times others turn away from us). Once you’ve learned to spot your turning-away behavior, you’ll almost certainly reduce it.
2. Are you turning away to avoid an argument? It’s often the case. We don’t want to attack (in effect, to turn against), so we avoid or deny the situation by turning away instead. Unfortunately, the impact is not so very different. You might try to discuss the issue or even just acknowledge the issue and delay a deep conversation until later, so you eventually understand more about the other person’s underlying concerns. Simply say, “I know this is on your mind, but I’m worried it’s going to lead to an argument now. Can we discuss it another time?”
3. Fill the silence. A good proportion of our bids that involve turning away happen when we feel we can’t be bothered to make the effort to listen fully. A genuine “uh-huh” will usually be enough to do the trick.
If you’re like me you’ll spend a bit of time reflecting on past relationships and think about your bid patterns. “With a little mindfulness and attention, you can change your patterns and get the relationship back on track, usually without the other person even noticing.”
Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is designed to give your brain a workout.