Episode 159: Gottman Method of Couples Therapy

Gottman Method of Couples Therapy

In this episode of Thanks for Sharing, our podcast on all things related to mental health, including marriage counseling and family relationships, Jackie Pack continues her series on effective communication in relationships. She covers the concepts taught by in the Gottman Method, one of the most effective methods of couples therapy. 

Jackie discusses turning towards, turning against, and turning away.  Often times, it isn’t the big things in our relationships that make them strong. It’s how we show up for each other consistently in small ways.  

TRANSCRIPT: Gottman Method of Couples Therapy

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. So today’s episode is going to be part 2 in a series on effective communication. In our first episode in the series, last week, I talked about effective communication and a lot of the mistakes that people make that get in the way of effectively communicating and in being heard and being understood and creating a connection in our conversations.

I mentioned in the past episode that I’ve been trained from the Gottmans, who have written a lot and done a lot of research examining and studying relationships. And so some of the information that I’m taking in the last episode was from the Gottmans. And today, I’m going to be pulling a lot of information from John and Julie Gottman.

So, in the episode from last week, I mentioned that it’s most effective if we can do a gentle startup, and I mentioned that we were going to talk about that in its own podcast episode. So I didn’t go into a lot of information about what a gentle startup is, other than you can kind of guess from how it sounds what it might be.

Now, we all use gentle startup skills, and a softened startup is basically the way we treat guests or people that maybe we don’t live with. We treat them respectfully. We treat them courteously. We’re much more intentional about how we’re engaging with this person because you can never get a second chance to make a first impression.

So, a gentle startup really has 5 components. The first component is that we make statements that start with “I” instead of “You”, and we do this in order to avoid blame. So, complaining is okay. We all have those days or those moments when we need to vent, but criticizing is not effective in communicating, so criticizing is a statement that’s usually generalized. It can include words like “always” or “never”, which most people if they’re on the receiving end of those kinds of words feel like you’re attacking them. Now the psychologist, Thomas Gordon, noted that when statements start with the word “You” instead of the word “I”, they’re more likely to be critical and to make your partner or whoever you’re communicating with defensive.

So, I think most of us have heard of “I” statements, and this is kind of behind this idea of the gentle startup that we make statements that start with “I” instead of “You”.

Now, if you’ve been practicing using “I” statements instead of “You” statements, you probably weren’t practicing that very long before you realize that you can make an “I” statement, but it’s really a “You” statement disguised as an “I” statement. So this would be cheating. It’s not really an “I” statement, but it kind of is something like, “I feel angry because you are lazy,” or whatever that looks like, but it starts with “I”, it looks like a promising start. We say, “I feel this.” But it ends up, “You are this.” So that’s actually not an “I” statement.

An “I” statement really has to expose your internal landscape and give the other person an idea about what’s going on with you, and not necessarily what’s going on with them.

So, the second rule of a gentle startup is that we describe what’s happening and we don’t assign meaning or we don’t make judgments about what’s happening. This can be really hard to do because our brain moves pretty quickly, and we love to reach a conclusion or to draw a judgment based on something, but instead of accusing or blaming, we just kind of describe what’s happening objectively as we can and without judgment. 

So, for example instead of saying, “You never help me clean up,” I may say something like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed because I feel like I’ve done nothing but clean the kitchen today and it’s messy again.” So I’m not saying you made the mess or you haven’t cleaned the kitchen today. I’m just letting you know I’m feeling overwhelmed because I’m looking at the kitchen and it’s dirty and I’ve already cleaned it like four times, and I’m frustrated with that, but I’m owning that.

The third rule for a gentle startup is to talk clearly about what you need in positive terms. So, instead of stating what you don’t want, we’re going to state it in positive terms or what you would like or what would be a positive thing for you to have happen. So, you kind of say what you wish for or hope for. This is kind of that therapy question: “If you could wave a magic wand and you get what you want, what would things be like then?”

Instead of asking your partner to guess or to read your mind, we express it explicitly. I take responsibility for stating what I need for myself instead of trying to think that they love me if they can guess.

So, instead of saying something like, “We’re going to be eating dinner and the kitchen table has all your crap on it,” I’m much more likely to say something like, “Hey, I would really appreciate it if you could get your stuff off of the kitchen table so that we can get ready for dinner.” That also has a timetable. We’re up against dinner and I need that stuff moved.

The fourth rule of a gentle startup is we are polite. We act as though this person means something to us because usually, people we are having these kinds of conversations with do mean something to us, and so we make our request politely. We’re direct, but we can also add phrases such as “please” and “thank you” and “I appreciate that,” and things like that also kind of convey positive regard for this other person.

And then the fifth rule with gentle startups is that we give appreciation. So, I notice what our partner or my kids or whoever I’m with, I notice what they’re doing right, and noticing and offering appreciation for what they do right is always one of the best ways to go. If my partner or if my kids have been better in this situation, I’m going to remember that and I’m going to remind them:

“Hey, I really appreciated it last week when you were able to do this and it made things so much smoother.”

“Could we get back to that?

Or:

“Can we move back into that?”

So, I think again we’re appreciating, we’re acknowledging that they did something right, and maybe they’ve had a bad week, maybe they’ve had a bad day, so we also need to couch that in that realization of:

“Hey, I realize this week has been really demanding for you at work. However, what I’ve noticed is we really haven’t had a lot of time to talk or connect, and I would really like it if we could plan a time to do that.”

So, I’m giving appreciation, I’m acknowledging why there’s a reason for that, that this isn’t just because they’re a jerk or something or because they don’t love me. So, we give appreciation.

We also don’t store things up. So, I’m not going to hold onto something for weeks and weeks and weeks before I say something because it’s hard for me to remember when things were going well. It’s hard for me to appreciate if we’ve stored things up. So, those are some of the rules for a gentle startup.

Now John Gottman, in his research says that in the first three minutes of a discussion, he is able to predict with 90% accuracy whether that discussion is going to go well and whether the overall relationship is going well. Now, that’s pretty good predicting. If you’re not familiar with his research, he’s been doing this for a long time, I believe even prior to him marrying Julie, and then when he and Julie got married (she was also a therapist, I believe) and he did more of the research side of it, and they were really able to combine that and not only know what the data says but how to integrate and make changes with the data.

So, they’ve been doing that for a long time, I don’t know, several decades they’ve been doing this work, and one of the things that they’ll do will talk about how–I don’t know if they still have this, but originally how they started their work, they live up in the Seattle, Washington area and they had an apartment overlooking, I think, the Puget Sound, and they would ask couples:

“Hey, why don’t you come? You can stay this weekend in this beautiful apartment overlooking the Sound.”

So, couples would come. They also agreed that they’re going to be monitored, there are cameras in the room, they’re going to be getting their tests, like blood tests (I’m not sure why exactly, but it was probably meant to determine what was going on internally). The Gottmans, or whoever was manning the cameras, may not be able to observe. So, they were looking at heart rate and pupil dilation and skin (when the skin gets kind of clammy). They were looking at all of this stuff over the weekend.

And then they did it in a longitudinal study, so this couple would come back every three years or every so often, this couple would come back. So, they were really getting good data about these couples, over a long period of time, to see what happened with their relationship.

LEARN MORE about Couples Counseling

Now, when John Gottman started doing his research, he tried to approach it without deciding what outcome he was looking for or hoping for. He just wanted to gather data, and then after they had data for a decade or two, they could start making sense of it and they would know what the data said, and hopefully, that would reduce some of the bias by wanting the data to say a certain thing.

So again, in their research, he shows in the first 3-minutes of a discussion, he can predict with 90% accuracy whether that discussion is going to go well and whether their overall relationship is going well, and a large part of that (we’re going to talk about the second part of that in a minute) But, a large part of that was just how the conversation started and how the other person responded to the conversation. So again, this gentle startup was a big predictor in how not only that conversation was going to go, but overall it kind of gave a temperature of what the relationship was.

So, a lot of times, this can be used if you’ve ever been trained in any setting on “I” statements. It’s kind of an “I feel…” or “I noticed…” or “I feel about…” So, “I feel ____ about ____ and I need _____. Then along with, adding in some expressions of appreciation. I mean those aren’t required in the “I” statements or the gentle startup, but those are often helpful.

So, one of the things that the Gottmans talked about when they were talking about adding these emotions: If you’re going to be able to say, “I feel…,” then you need to have a large vocabulary of feeling words. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be super long, but usually, it’s got to extend beyond what I call the Dr. Seuss emotions—sad, mad, bad, glad.

So, if if you can’t think of words beyond those Dr. Seuss emotions, there’s, you can look at the feelings wheel, which usually gives you a couple of layers of feelings. It will kind of give you a look that the person might have, a cartoon person or a stick figure person face might have that then says this is the emotion and this is how it looks on their face.

And so, you may want to hang that on your fridge and work it out at family dinner tables and talk about, “What is this emotion?” and, “When you feel that, let me see what your face looks like?” or “Let me see what your face looks like?”

When my kids were really young, we had one of these feeling face charts on the fridge, and I always wanted to make sure they knew so that they had this robust emotional vocabulary so that they could be more effective at explaining how they were feeling and understanding how other people were feeling.

So, oftentimes, there’s vulnerable emotions such as “sad” or “hurt” or “betrayed” even. Those are really some vulnerable emotions, and if we were to state that:

“I feel insecure.”

or

“I feel betrayed.”

or “I feel ______”

Some of those emotional words that are much more vulnerable, like, “I feel afraid.” Instead of just being angry. Anger is not a super vulnerable emotion. Usually, we feel a sense of empowerment when we’re angry. Oftentimes when we’re angry, we see ourselves in a one-up position from somebody else, so, even that is not a vulnerable setting. And so, oftentimes we will mask these more vulnerable emotions like sadness or fear or insecurity or hurt; we’ll mask those with anger. And so also we can’t fill in that “I” statement all the time with, like, “I feel angry. I feel rage. I feel irritated.” Because those really aren’t vulnerable emotions, and it makes it difficult for the person hearing us to kind of look behind the anger and to really see what’s there.

Also, it’s more difficult when we’re feeling angry, it’s more difficult for another person to connect with us, so we’re showing a non-vulnerable side to ourselves when we’re approaching this through anger, and they’re going to feel that and they’re going to respond to the anger, and a typical response to anger is not to lean in and move towards connection. So, these are a couple of things here that I think that are important to recognize with a gentle startup.

Now the Gottmans also talk about what they call “inconsequential moments” that can determine the fate of relationships. Now sometimes we think how we argue or the number of arguments that we have or whether or not we see eye-to-eye or agree on everything, we think that must be a big predictor of how our relationship is going to be, how it is currently, and the overall health of our relationship. So, one of the things that the Gottmans have determined through their research is these inconsequential moments determine the fate of relationships even more than conflict and arguments.

So, the Gottmans in their literature, if you’ve read some of their books or taken some of their trainings, or even heard them speak, they will talk about this–They talk about it in terms of, they use the term a “bid”. Like, this person is making a bid towards me, or this person is making a bid against me, or this person is dismissing my bid. And they also talk about “turn towards.” Do we turn towards each other?

So, when I was taking one of my trainings, they were showing a video clip of this couple who was in the apartment in Seattle, Washington area, and they were there for 3 or 4 days. They were there for a good weekend, and they’re just kind of in this apartment most of the time, so they can be watched, they can be observed. And so, I’m watching the video, and they’re talking about: Here’s an example of the couple not turning towards.

And so, I’m watching this and I’m looking for something significant, and I think he was sitting at the kitchen table, and again this is an apartment, so the kitchen is open, it’s not its own separate room, and she’s in more of the like the living room or family room area looking out of this window at the Sound.

And she says, “Wow that’s a beautiful sailboat out there.”

And he… (It shows him sitting at the kitchen table; he’s reading the newspaper; he doesn’t even really stop reading the newspaper or really even lookup. He just kind of makes a grunt, and goes ‘uh.'”

And they stop the video and they say, “Did you see that turn towards?” And most of the people there in the training were like, “No, I didn’t see that.” Because we think that’s so insignificant, and yet in their research, the Gottmans say that acknowledgment counts.

He acknowledged that she spoke, and he interrupted what he was doing, even though it wasn’t an abrupt interruption. He couldn’t be involved in reading the newspaper the way that he was sitting at the kitchen table, but he still also acknowledged that her presence was there and that she spoke. Now, they went on to explain that that’s not an enthusiastic turn towards, but what they noticed is in their research–that counted.

They played another video clip with another couple, again same apartment, and I think he was sitting at the table. This was a different couple. He was sitting at the table and I think the radio was on in the background and he was eating breakfast or something, and she was at the sink maybe washing some dishes, and something on the radio, like a story on the radio, came up that she had heard and she said something. She made a comment to him about what the radio was saying, and he just didn’t respond at all. He didn’t grunt, he didn’t acknowledge, he didn’t say “Oh yeah”, he didn’t add a comment, he just nothing. It was as if she had not spoken.

And again, they pause the video clip and they explain that this is a dismissal of the turn towards or an ignoring of the turn towards, and that was highly indicating that this relationship was in distress, even though we’re not seeing conflict.

We’re not seeing arguing.

We’re just seeing nothing.

So I want to talk about this because I think these seemingly meaningless, inconsequential exchanges between people in relationships, as the Gottmans have shown, are really critical glimpses into how that person is in relationships and how the relationship is. So as meaningless as they seem on the surface, at a deeper level, these exchanges are highly nuanced and they were emotional signals–And it can give us the emotional landscape of these relationships.

So how we respond to bids, according to the Gottmans’ research, how we respond to bids is key to successful relationships.

So, they say when you use, when couples use a lot of bids that move each other towards one another, research shows that they laugh more, they support each other more–it dramatically reduces the odds of divorce, and it increases meaningful sex in the relationship.

So, this in and of itself would suggest that we want to understand and be able to recognize and respond to these bids. Couples that make more bids towards each other rather than against each other or turning away are more likely to stay together. And again, this is from some longitudinal studies, so the Gottmans have these couples that they’ve been studying for decades, and they know how the story turns out with these couples.

So, the Gottmans discovered that there’s this magic ratio. Couples who manage a ratio of 5 positive toward responses (like these 5 responses that turn us towards each other) to one negative, which is either turning away or against responses, are more likely to have a healthy, long-lasting, meaningful, and successful partnership.

Now, men who ended up divorced generally turned away from their wives’ bids 82% of the time, whereas men in stable, successful relationships only ignored their wives’ bids 19% of the time. So, that’s a pretty big discrepancy. 82% of the time and 19% of the time.

It makes me wonder: In just knowing the couples that I’ve worked with over the years and the conversations that I’ve listened to and been a part of in session, I’m guessing a lot of times that the men who were ignoring their wives’ bids 82% of the time, I’m willing to bet two things.

First, I bet they didn’t know they were ignoring their wives’ bids 82% of the time.

And second, I bet they didn’t know it would lead them towards divorce.

So, they didn’t realize how significant it was, and my other guess is that they didn’t know how often it was even happening. 

Now women use turning away responses slightly less often. I think we’ve had, I’ve done podcast episodes before where I talk about how women are more likely to be socialized, whether it’s biological or not. We know that little girls are socialized to read relationships and to turn to relationships, so that’s not super surprising. Whereas little boys are kind of told that they can be tough, they can be strong, they’ve got it on their own.

So again, none of this is surprising, but this is what the research from the Gottmans says:

So women who ended up divorced had ignored their husbands’ bids 50% of the time, as opposed to those in ultimately stable relationships, who ignored their husbands’ bids 14% of the time.

Now, I can also tell you, having been in the rooms with these couples as they’re working through their relationship aspects. I often will observe a bid and have to point out like, “Hey, that was a bid”, and the partner, man or female, who didn’t see the bid and is upset and is not recognizing that this partner is trying to make a bid towards the relationship and towards them, they can get a little bit defensive when you’re pointing it out.

I’ll point out: “They may have made a mistake, they may have said something thoughtless, but right now they’re making a bid and they’re moving towards you.”

So I think it happens with both males and females where we can miss, and again when we’re thinking of turning towards and we’re thinking of bids as really kind of inconsequential things, but having consequential meaning, it can be easy to overlook these things.

Now, the Gottmans talk about being in negative sentiment override. So, if the couple is in negative sentiment override, what that means is that we generally view this person that I’m in a relationship with through a negative lens, and I generally view my relationship with them negatively vs. couples who are in positive sentiment override.

So, one of the things that I tell couples is: If I’m in positive sentiment override, and I view my relationship in a positive way, and I view my partner with positive regard, even when my partner makes a mistake, I’m much more likely to think everybody has a bad day, but this guy is a great guy, and generally speaking, I like a lot of things about him and I’m happy with him. So, I can overlook this thoughtless thing that was said or him forgetting something.

Whereas, if I’m in negative sentiment override, let’s say that my partner does something positive, but I’m in negative sentiment override, my thinking is much more going to be: “Well even assholes have a good day!”

I’m still not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and change my perspective of how I’m seeing him. And that’s going to have a negative outcome for this relationship.

Now psychologists and people studying relationships have identified four types of positive bids. So, healthy relationships have a mixture of all of these positive bids, so sometimes they call them they’re nearly passive. This is what I described in that first example. It was a grunt. It was an affirming, “uh-huh.” But more of a grunt. It was just kind of a gesture of acknowledgment. It may have been like nodding my head or moving my chin up, like, “Oh yeah I see you.” It might be a smile.

But these grunts, let’s clarify between grunts. So, this is a friendly grunt. This is not like a “go away and leave me alone” grunt. So these are almost passive. They’re almost not even there, but they are there. So that’s one way that we have them. If that was the only kind of turning towards you had in your relationship, it probably wouldn’t make it as successful or as meaningful, but it’s still something in the positive box.

Now, there’s also what they call, there’s the nearly passive. Then there’s low-energy. So, it’s a few words of acknowledgment. Okay, sure, maybe a question to clarify what the bid was.

“Sorry, what did you say?”

So it’s pretty low-energy. The person’s not getting a lot of reaction to what they’re saying, but there is an acknowledgment that they’re saying something.

Now, there’s also an attentive bid. The other person is getting involved, and the person who is saying something is getting a reaction, and it’s a positive reaction. These responses, these attentive responses, indicate that I can share my opinion with you or I will tell you what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling. They may include an offer of empathy or an insight or even a joke that gets us both laughing together, or a question for me to think about that kind of reflects something back to me.

So, actions like a good night kiss or holding hands are also attentive responses. If I notice that my partner is having a difficult day and I go over and even just kind of rub their back, that’s attentive. I’m getting involved and doing more than just kind of low-energy or passive.

Now, the fourth kind of turn towards is high-energy. These are attentive responses, but they’re even bigger than the attentive response–They have more energy. It’s kind of our complete attention and full eye contact. I’m not having any outside distractions. They’re usually pretty enthusiastic responses, like, “Wow, that’s awesome! I’m so proud of you!”

High-energy responses often do include some physical aspect in addition to verbal, so it might be a big hug, it might be a kiss, it might be kind of that loud, hearty laugh or giggling. They also have the most positive impact, obviously.

These are actions that stand out to us. And we are going to remember those moments. So, when we get this kind of reaction, we really know that we’ve been heard and that we’ve been seen and somebody is responding positively to us.

So, if you have dogs, they make bids all the time. They’re constantly coming up to somebody and licking their face or putting their hand on their leg. I have a dog who constantly will put the hand on the leg and look at you like, please would you like to pet me, sir? That’s how we say it in our family. That’s one way of being attentive. They’re coming in and they’re letting you know that they’re making a bid. When I come home from work, they are up off the ground or the chair or wherever they were laying. I’ve got tails hitting the wall, I can hear them coming because they’re so excited.

This is more of that high-energy turn towards. Now most healthy relationships like I said have a ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative response. So again, nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to make mistakes. We’re all going to have bad days where we don’t give these positive turn towards.

So, I think some things to keep in mind, some simple tips to keep our approach kind of moving towards rather than away or against someone is to remember:

First, I acknowledge what’s said even though it seems insignificant. I give it an acknowledgement.

And number two: I open every conversation with this positive bid. So that also helps us when we think about the gentle startup. If I’m approaching each conversation that I initiate with this positive bid: “I want to share something with you,” or, “I want to understand something from you,” or, “I want to connect with you.”

Remember the Gottmans, in their research, found that they could predict with over 90% accuracy the outcome of a relationship just based on what was heard in the first 3-minutes of a conversation. So if those first minutes are full of anger or negativity or blame or criticism, the outcome is usually not going to be much different than how we started it.

Now, let’s talk about another kind of bid, which is the against. So this is when people, they do respond to you, but you’re kind of wishing they hadn’t responded to you because it’s not the response you wanted. So, responses in this category can be ridiculing, sarcasm (which we think sometimes we’re being funny, but sarcasm typically is not funny), belittling, making fun of–These are the responses that make the other person feel bad. And they’re kind of the viruses of poor relationships.

So, here’s 6 against responses: (And if you’re like me when I read these, you’ll kind of wince a little bit and be like, ouch that hurts. You also will probably remember a time when that was the response you got.)

So, the first one is contemptuous. So contempt, when we think of contempt, oftentimes if I’m having contempt for another person, it’s I think I’m better than you. So, I am looking up to you, so there’s no way… if I’m treating you with contempt, we are not equals, and it’s going to be difficult for us to connect because I think I’m better than you. So something like if you ask a question, like “Hey, I’m lost. Maybe we should ask for directions.” And if the person were like, “Well maybe it would just be better if you don’t get lost.” It’s kind of this put-down to the other person.

Now another against bid would be what they term a “belligerent bid.” So, I think in relationships most people would describe it as like they’re just asking for a fight. They’re just being ornery. It didn’t really matter what I want to say or what I said, they were going to fight with me. So, if I say, “Hey, let’s go get dinner.” They make some comment about me not paying attention or how tired they are and that that’s rude of me, and so it’s kind of just this, they’re just being cantankerous, and they just want to fight.

Then there are contradictory bids, so, these responses are designed to get a reaction, but usually, the person who is getting this response doesn’t feel like they’re winning in any way. They get a reaction, but it doesn’t feel nice, so these are things like correcting. So, I ask you to load the dishwasher and then I am upset because I have to come do it again because you don’t know how to do it. It may be: “I don’t want you to talk to me right now. I want to be left alone.” But then they’re kind of pouting and angry so that you leave them alone. So, it’s contradictory. What they’re telling you they wish you would do or what they would like, then they kind of also get mad at you for doing that, and so the person doesn’t quite know what the best reaction is.

Then there’s the domineering. So, these responses assert authority and they attempt to force the other person to withdraw or retreat or submit. Just give in. So I have a client and when he was a young boy, he loved playing basketball, he loved to watch basketball and really looked up to some of the college basketball players. And one day he was outside shooting hoops and doing layups and all of this stuff that he saw his idols doing.

And his dad came home from work and just kind of said like, “You’re never going to be a professional basketball player. You’re short.”

It’s just kind of this domineering attitude like they assert authority over you. When he was first telling me this story, I asked him, “How does your dad know? Was your dad a basketball player? Did he play college ball?” So, all of a sudden they presume to have this authority, but really it’s about putting you down.

Then we get into character attacks. So, this is name-calling. It’s a character attack. It’s a way of hearing what you say and then putting you down.

So, it may be like: “I didn’t quite understand what was being talked about in the meeting.”

“That’s because you never do.”

So, they put us down and make us question who we are because of what they’re saying.

Then there’s just the defensive turn against, where maybe I’m sharing something and the person is like, “Well don’t look at me. I don’t know what you want me to do.” Those are just kind of those defensive turns: “I’m not asking you to do anything, I’m just kind of sharing how I feel in this moment, and you’re upset.” So, those are all kind of those turns against.

So, what happens when somebody moves away from us with one of these responses is that we’re going to feel undervalued. We’re going to feel underappreciated. We’re going to feel like we are not important or we don’t matter, and if we stay in the relationship for years, it will sew the seeds of resentment, and eventually, we will just stop making bids towards each other, and the result is that we have two people living together as roommates at best. But there’s not much connection beyond that.

Now, if the other person is in a position of power, like a boss or another position of authority, then we may suppress those emotions in order to avoid conflict. But the relationship is going to be one that is based on fear, and it’s not going to be able to grow into a healthy relationship.

If you’re the one who is responding against others, you need to understand the negative bids seriously undermine your relationship and can have an overall negative impact on the emotional health of the other person. And so it’s really important that we can take responsibility for how we respond to each other, and even if I feel like there is a reason for me to be angry or a reason for me to be mad at this person, responding in a way that moves against them is still going to be damaging, and that’s not something that we can excuse or justify.

So, let’s talk about the last one, which is turning away bids. So this is when you ignore someone outright or you just act completely uninterested. Now there may be reasons why we’re unresponsive. There have been times when I’ve been unresponsive. I might feel irritated. I might not even know what to say, or my attention may be somewhere else. But whatever our conscious motivation is, turning away from a bid indicates that we’ve disengaged from the relationship and the outcome is not going to be good.

Actually, there’s some research that shows that this turning away is even more damaging than the turning against. So when we repeatedly ignore or dismiss the bids of another person, the situation can sometimes escalate, and they become more hostile, they become more defensive, they get louder because they’re trying to be seen. They just want to know that you see them or you hear them making noise, however loud it is. So what do turning away responses look like? The first one is just silence.

Now, there have been times where I’m working on something or I’m posting something on social media and I’m kind of engrossed in what I’m doing, and one of my kids comes in and starts talking to me, and I have zoned out. I’m not really turning my attention towards them.

Now, one of the things I’ve talked to my kids about because I think in the age of social media and electronics, I’ve said to my kids: “Just because you walk in the room doesn’t mean it’s a good time for me to listen to you. So you can’t demand attention. And just because you start speaking, the other person does not has to be attentive to you, and if they’re not, then it’s not their responsibility to do so.”

So, I’ve said to my kids something I want them to try practice saying: “Hey, I’d like to share something with you or talk about something with you. Is now a good time?”

Sometimes then I’m able to say, “Give me 2-minutes. Let me finish this thing, and then yes, I want to.” And then I can put down my phone or my laptop or whatever it is. I can pause my show, and I can really turn to them and give them my attention.

So, sometimes we can be so engrossed in something we literally don’t hear somebody talking, and no one wants the silent treatment. No one wants to be ignored. There have been times I’ve been driving a kid to soccer and my mind is wrapped up in something, and I could spend the whole time not talking to them, which may or may not be a bad thing. I have one of my daughters who she kind of did this thing before games or practice to kind of get herself in the zone, so she had a playlist that we listened to, and she didn’t really want to talk because that felt like a distraction to her, but we had talked about that. We each knew where the other person was coming from so that silence didn’t feel threatening to either of us. It didn’t feel like we were snubbing each other, so the problem with silence really comes when we haven’t kind of flushed out what that’s about or we haven’t kind of determined why this isn’t a good time or said something like that. If my kids do walk in and they just start talking to me, sometimes I will say to them, “Hey, can you give me a few minutes? I’ve got to finish what I’m doing right now. I’m in a train of thought and I’ve got to wrap this up, and then we can talk. Then I’ll come find you and we can have this conversation.” But if I don’t do that, if they walk in the room and I just keep doing what I’m doing and that happens repeatedly over and over and over again, then it doesn’t feel just like the person’s busy or it’s just a bad time. It feels like I’m not important, so we have to be aware of that turning away response that just looks like silence, and we need to be able to be aware if I have ignored somebody and let them know, hey, here’s what’s going on with me.

Now another way of turning away is dismissiveness. This is where we ignore the substance of what the other person is saying, and we might focus on some incidental detail. That’s kind of where we get the whole “Squirrel!” We might reframe the issue, so they’re telling us kind of their opinion or their train of thought on something and we say, “Well I don’t think that’s it at all..” and I just start talking over them and say this is actually what the issue is, and they’re left kind of feeling like they were wrong or somehow they’re less than, or sometimes we might minimize the importance of what’s being said. We may say things like, “Well look at the bright side.” If somebody says, “I’m really struggling.” “Well, keep a positive outlook.” That doesn’t really help the person, and it feels like whatever they’re feeling are just being dismissed outright. Now I recognize that dismissiveness is often a sign of fear, so for the person who is being dismissive, it might be a fear of your feelings. It might be a fear of me having to feel something or how vulnerable I feel about you. There may be a fear of causing conflict or a misunderstanding, so I just kind of avoid this whole topic and I keep changing the subject. There might be a fear of if we talk about this, then that makes it real and I don’t want to speak this into existence. Now also so many of us have had the painful experience of being dismissed in our moments of need, times when we wanted a listening ear or empathy, and instead we got kind of a useless platitude like, “Well be grateful” or “Stay positive” or “Don’t give it your energy” or “It’s in your head. It will all be fine.” Most of us, though, have also been dismissers. I don’t think that’s a word, but most of us have also been dismissers, and in that moment when I’m dismissing somebody I totally get it. I may not have had the emotional bandwidth. I may be frustrated that we’re still talking about this, or I may truly may have thought this situation was much more simple and they just kind of needed that pep talk, and I missed the boat and really what they needed was not that pep talk. So I think we have to be aware of that whole dismissiveness factor. It’s a very lonely reaction to get and it can make us feel extremely lonely, which is a very painful emotion.

Now if you’re thinking about this and kind of feeling confused, I will acknowledge that yes, relationships require a lot from us. They also have the ability to reward us like nothing else out there, so I think just choose a few things to focus on, a few areas to practice, and keep adding to it and over time, you’re going to get it. Now Gottman’s research does indicate that turning away bids are more prevalent than against bids, so I’m more likely to ignore or dismiss somebody than I am to act against them; however, the effects of both turning away and turning against are both disastrous, so Gottman found that during a conversation at dinner, stable couples engage each other as many as 100 times in 10 minutes, whereas those headed to divorce engage each other only about 65 times, so what happens in stable relationships when one person is met with a turning away response is that they re-bid about 20% of the time.

So, in couples headed for a divorce, re-bids were rarely attempted, and so it should come as no surprise that turning away bids actually increases more conflict in the relationship, and even if this isn’t like visible tension conflict that you can cut with a knife, sometimes it’s just this apathy. Turning away bids actually increases the dysregulation in the coupleship.

Now if a bidder is repeatedly ignored, he or she is likely to become angry and critical of the respondent, and as a result, the emotional temperature goes way up and small incidents become huge issues. A small dismissal today can lead to this knock-down, drag-out fight a month later. The other thing that sometimes is even more threatening than what I call this hot anger, like so red anger in a relationship. It might be loud, it might be intense, everybody can hear it, everybody can feel it, there’s things that are being done, also very hurtful to a relationship. That’s red anger. When I’m working with couples, sometimes I feel what I will term white anger. This is the absence of and there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of rage, but the person isn’t even showing it, and to me, that’s one step even more in the wrong direction because if somebody’s angry and they’re yelling, we can try to make repairs and we can try to de-escalate that situation, but if the person is angry and raging but it’s white, we may not even bring our attention to it because we may not fully know how deep the anger goes.

Now I will say, a lot of us stonewall. The Gottmans talk about stonewalling as one of the big indicators that something is seriously wrong in this relationship. We can turn away, we can disengage, we may have a lot of reasons for doing so, but we also know that it has disastrous effects on any relationship. And so a better way to handle this situation is to start to become aware of when a bid is made and to accept the bid and maybe we explain to the other person where we are:

“Hey, I appreciate you coming in and wanting to talk. I’m not in a place where I’m ready to talk if this is about an argument we had, but I will get myself there and I will let you know so that we can have that conversation and we can circle back.”

It’s things where maybe I say: “Hey, I really want to hear about your day, but my head is in all of these other places, so if you can give me an hour for me to kind of set some things to rest, then I really want to hear about and connect with you about your day.”

I have to be willing to share what’s going on inside of me instead of just ignoring or turning against them to get them to shut down and move away from me.

So here are some helpful things that we can keep in our head in order to avoid that turning away. So number one, kind of step outside of yourself for just a week and start to watch yourself and observe yourself, because most of us turn away more than we think we do, and we’re much better at judging when somebody else turns away from us than we are at judging our own selves because again, we think there are reasons for it, and we think those reasons are known even if I may not tell the person why I’m not turning towards them.

So, once you learn to spot your turning away behavior, number one, any time we increase our awareness of something, especially if it’s something we don’t want to do, we tend to start to decrease it. The other thing that I tell people is: Tell on yourself.

So, if I start to be aware that I’m turning away from people in my life and I don’t like it.  I’m not comfortable with the number of times I do that in any given week, I may start saying to people, “Hey, I’ve been tracking myself on this and this is kind of the data that I’ve got, this is what I’m noticing, and I want to make a difference. I want to change that. So if you could… if you notice me doing that, if you could just gently remind me or in a kind way say, ‘Hey, I’m not sure you’re here with me right now’, that would help me to start to change at the moment and to start to do better.”

And most people, if they know that you’re working on the relationship, are going to be generous with you.

So again, I think being aware of things that we’ve talked about in this episode:

  • Having a gentle startup.
  • Treating the people we talk to the most often with respect and with care and with courtesy, that’s going to help.
  • We also if we can remember that the first 3-minutes of a conversation predict the outcome of that conversation.

So all the more reason to start with a gentle startup and to let the other person know: “Hey, I’m not coming in as an enemy. I’m coming in as a friend and I want to have this conversation with you.”–We’re typically going to get a better response.

If you find yourself in negative sentiment override, again some things to become aware of is start to track what are you missing? Because I often say positive and negative simultaneously co-exist. Sometimes we think that if something negative is happening, nothing positive is happening, and that simply isn’t true. What I find is that we aren’t very good at seeing the positive when we’re in negative sentiment override, and so even that same person, there can be negative things that I’m focused on, and they can still be doing some positive things that aren’t even putting it on my radar.

So, if you find yourself in negative sentiment override, then you’ve got to draw your attention to those positive things because most likely you are missing those, and if you’re not missing those and this relationship is in that much trouble, then the relationship probably needs to end to save yourself and them more emotional pain.

I think again, just kind of bringing our attention to how to effectively communicate with those we communicate with most often, just a reminder that with a little mindfulness and attention, we can change our patterns and get our relationships back on track and rewarding both the person we’re in a relationship with and us, and there’s always something we can do to start that change. We don’t have to wait for the other person.