Excerpts - The Relationship Cure
November 17, 2021
By choosing to turn toward, turn away, or turn against each other’s bids for connection—no matter how ordinary or small—they established a foundation that could determine the future success or failure of their relationships.
Once we started studying bids and responses to bids, however, the answer was clear: People who make playful bids and turn toward one another’s bids enthusiastically during everyday conversations have more access to humor later on, when they get into an argument.
A typical ladder of needs within a friendship might look like this:
- Light conversation or “small talk”
- Friendly gossip
- Problem solving
- Connection around heartfelt subjects like future goals, worries, values, meaning
Some bids are nonverbal, including:
- Affectionate touching, such as a back-slap, a handshake, a pat, a squeeze, a kiss, a hug, or a back or shoulder rub
- Facial expressions, such as a smile, blowing a kiss, rolling your eyes, or sticking out your tongue
- Playful touching, such as tickling, bopping, wrestling, dancing, or a gentle bump or shove
- Affiliating gestures, such as opening a door, offering a place to sit, handing over a utensil, or pointing to a shared activity or interest
- Vocalizing, such as laughing, chuckling, grunting, sighing, or groaning in a way that invites interaction or interest
Kids often learn to soft-sell their bids as well, especially if they’re raised in an environment where clear expressions of desire are discouraged. “Annie’s mom fixes Annie’s hair in French braids every morning,” a child might say. But what she’d really like to tell her harried mom is, “I wish you’d pay more attention to me in the morning.”
there are lots of reasons for fuzzy bidding. These include:
- Making ambiguous bids on purpose to avoid vulnerability or emotional risk
- Unintentionally poor communication, such as using inexplicit language
- Framing bids in negative ways that are hard for others to hear or accept
- Failing to acknowledge your needs in the first place
As we’ve discussed, people typically make one of three choices in response to a bid for connection. They can:
- Turn toward the bid: BID: How was your vacation? RESPONSE: It was all right. The slopes at Sun Mountain are magnificent, but the ski conditions were lousy. Have you ever been there?
- Turn away from it: BID: How was your vacation? RESPONSE: Have you got any messages for me?
- Turn against it: BID: How was your vacation? RESPONSE: As if you really cared.
When you turn toward a bid, it helps the bidder to feel good about himself or herself, and about the interaction you’re having. Consequently the bidder welcomes more interaction, typically leading to more bids and more positive responses from both sides.
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.
Amy decided to see a family therapist so they could get back on track. The therapist was encouraging, telling her that the most important thing for her to do was to start paying more attention to the details of her boys’ lives: to make a concerted daily effort to offer them praise for the things they were doing right, and to be absolutely certain to ask them about their activities—not in a nagging way...
“The biggest change is that I don’t think of them as a negative distraction anymore,” says Amy. “The breaks I take from my work to be with them are my reward.”
There are two more observations my colleagues and I have made about turning away that merit special attention. The first is that interrupting does not seem to be as harmful to relationships as the other two types of turning-away behavior: being preoccupied or ignoring the other person.
I believe that interrupting can also be a sign of people’s enthusiasm for interacting with each other. A pair may have so much to share that they literally can’t wait for their partner to stop talking before they jump back into the ...
Turning against a bid for connection means responding to it in a negative way.
Contemptuous responses that entail hurtful, disrespecting comments aimed at the person bidding for connection. Such put-downs are often delivered with an air of superiority,
put-downs are often delivered with an air of superiority,
Belligerent responses that are provocative or combative. You get the sense that the speaker is looking for a fight. He or she would argue with whatever the bidder says, regardless of content.
Contradictory responses, in which a person seems intent on starting a debate or argument. This is less hostile than a belligerent response, but it still blocks the bidder’s attempt to connect. FRIEND A: Would you like a tangerine? FRIEND B: That’s not a tangerine. It’s a Satsuma orange. WORKER A: I’d love to have your comments on this report by Friday. WORKER B: Why Friday? Isn’t Monday good enough?
Domineering responses that involve attempts to control another person. The respondent’s goal is to get the bidder to withdraw, retreat, or submit. You often hear a parental message in these responses, whether the speaker is a parental figure or not.
Critical responses that are broad-based attacks on a bidder’s character. They’re different from a complaint, which focuses on a particular event or specific behavior. When people are being critical, they frequently speak in global terms, saying things like “you always…” and “you never…” Often you’ll hear statements of blame or betrayal in these responses:
Defensive responses that create a sense of separation by allowing the speaker to relinquish responsibility for matters at hand. If the bidder is upset about something, the respondent may act like an innocent victim of misplaced blame.
Unlike turning-away responses, which are more mindless than malicious, turning against has a bite to it. It’s hard to hear such responses without thinking,
“bid busters.” These are patterns of behavior that repeatedly show up among those who have trouble bidding or responding to bids for connection.
- Being Mindless Rather Than Mindful
One way to enhance your mindfulness in relationships is to become a “collector of emotional moments.” It’s a term I first learned from my friend Ross Parke, a psychologist and the author of many books on child development. Over an exceptionally fine dinner conversation one night, Ross explained to me that he had come to think of his life as a string of pearls in which each pearl was a moment just like the one we were having—where we felt totally present and were connecting with each other on a deep and meaningful level. He said that he had decided to make a conscious effort to collect moments like these.
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.
You can become a collector of emotional moments by consciously looking for opportunities to connect with others. Doing so allows you to take a proactive role in the development of stable,
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.
What’s the solution? One answer is to start your bids on a softer note. The chart below provides some tips, along with examples of harsh startups and soft startups.
- Using Harmful Criticism Instead of Helpful Complaints
Here’s the basic rule of thumb: Complain when you must, but don’t criticize. What’s the difference? A complaint focuses on a specific problem, addressing the other person’s behavior, not his or her perceived character flaws. Criticism, on the other hand, is more judgmental and global; it frequently includes such phrases as “you always…” or “you never…” Criticism attacks the other person’s character, often with negative labels or name-calling. It often assigns blame.
- Flooding In troubled relationships, discussions of conflict can trigger intense emotions that sometimes lead to “flooding.” This means you feel so stressed that you become emotionally and physically overwhelmed. You’re no longer able to think clearly, or to participate in the conversation in a fruitful way. You’d rather be anywhere else than right here with this person.
What’s the best thing to do when you feel flooded? I recommend that you take a break from the conversation and do something that you find soothing for at least twenty minutes. That’s the amount of time it typically takes the body to recover from emotional stress. You might want to read a magazine, watch television, or go for a run. But whatever you do, try to think about something other than the conflict during this break.
Sit or lie in a comfortable position. 2 . Close your eyes and think about your breathing. Take several slow, deep breaths, finding a comfortable, regular pace. Ten deep breaths a minute is a good choice. 3 . As you continue to breathe slowly and evenly, mentally scan your body, looking for any areas of tension. The face, jaw, neck, shoulders, and back are common trouble spots. When you find an area that’s tense, deliberately tighten the muscles in that area, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then release them. Do it again—tighten, hold, and release. This will leave your muscles feeling more relaxed than when you began. 4 . Now relax each of those areas of your body by imagining that it’s very heavy. As you envision gravity’s pull, let your muscles relax and let the tension dissipate. 5 . Next, imagine that each of those muscle areas is very warm. Imagine that you’re basking in the sun or sitting near a warm, relaxing fireplace. As you grow warmer, even more tension will flow away. 6 . Continue to relax by envisioning a place that’s especially safe and restful to you. Maybe it’s a warm beach, a quiet mountaintop, or a secluded forest. Stay in this place for a few minutes, noticing the details of your surroundings, enjoying its peace and solitude. Each time you do this exercise, your image of this setting will come more easily to you. Soon, simply thinking of it may help you to automatically relax.
Like a crow gathering bits of debris for a nest, I kept looking around for faults I could use to build my case against other people. I wanted evidence to justify the low-level irritability I was feeling. So, like George Carlin, I started to believe that my world was populated by maniacs and idiots!
Our research shows that married couples who regularly express their appreciation for each other have much happier, stronger marriages. And in our laboratory studies with parents and their children, we observed significant differences in the ways children reacted when their parents criticized or praised them.
Children with critical parents turn away from their parents in times of trouble. But children with parents who consistently praise them for their accomplishments turn toward their parents for support, even when things go wrong.
Criticism: You’re sitting there thinking that Jack the bartender’s habit of whistling drives you up the wall
- Praise or appreciation: You notice that the customers really seem to like Jack’s sense of humor, and that’s good for business. You tell Jack what you’re thinking.
- Effects of praising him: Jack laughs and seems to be in a good mood all night. You think maybe it’s made him whistle more, but folks are hanging around and he’s selling lots of drinks.
- Criticism: Your daughter forgot to fold the laundry as you asked her to do. You think, “She’s so thoughtless,” but you say nothing. You start looking around for something about her to appreciate.
- Praise or appreciation: You see why she forgot about the laundry: She has so much homework to do. At least she’s diligent about her studies. She gets good grades, and she’s learning so much. You decide to praise her for being so good about her homework.
- Effects of praising her: She seems calm and peaceful, content to keep studying. You realize how proud of her you are.
- Criticism: Your brother is so opinionated. He acts like such a know-it-all. You don’t say anything. Instead you try to think of qualities you like about him.
- Praise or appreciation: You realize that he takes such good care of your mom. He’s conscientious and responsible. You don’t know what your family would do without him. You’ve never told him how much you value this about him. You decide to do so now.
- Effects of praising him: He seems to understand how genuinely grateful you are. You notice that he becomes a little easier to be around. It seems that he’s not trying so hard to prove himself. Maybe he just needed a little appreciation.
If you’re in a relationship where there seems to be an inordinate amount of conflict, you may want to take a look at the issues that aren’t being discussed. Perhaps one person is making repeated bids for connection around a particular matter, only to have those bids ignored or dismissed. As we described in chapter 2, consistently turning away from one another’s bids often leads to the type of hostility that destroys bonds.
As Wile explains, you typically have three choices when faced with an interpersonal conflict:
- Attack and defend. This happens when you decide the other person’s faults or inadequacies are to blame, so you lash out at that person, driving him or her away. If you’re the recipient of such an attack, you get defensive, which also leads to alienation.
- Avoid or deny. Here, you try to ignore or minimize your negative feelings about the problem. You tell yourself, “It’s silly to feel this way,” or “I just won’t think about it and maybe it will go away.” As the problem persists, however, it gets harder and harder to hold this position.
- Self-disclose and connect. You can discuss how you feel about the problem and work on common understanding. Even if you don’t find the perfect compromise or solution, you’ve at least established an emotional connection.
She feels so exhausted that it’s hard to respond to their demands for dinner and homework help. She can (1) blow up and tell them to leave her alone; (2) lock herself in the bathroom without a word; or (3) tell them how she’s feeling and ask for their support: “Hey, you two, I had a terrible day and I feel drained. Let me go soak in the tub for twenty minutes, and when I get done, I’ll do my best to help you.” With this she helps the kids to understand why she’s acting so down. They know they’re not to blame; in fact, they can be part of the solution. It may not be the response the kids want to hear, but it provides a way for them to understand what their mother is experiencing. It’s the conversation they need to have.
While these types of self-disclosing, trusting conversations are extremely valuable, you can’t have them unless both parties are willing to work on the relationship.
Improving your ability to bid and respond to bids is not going to solve all your problems. It will not banish all negative feelings. It will not solve all conflicts. But it will help you to get along better with people, to share life’s burdens, and to build better connections with significant people in your life.
The Seven Systems and How They Affect Us Panksepp, who first identified these emotional command systems, believes there are probably more than seven of them, but these are the systems he has found so far:
- The Commander-in-Chief. This is the emotional command system in everybody’s brain that coordinates functions related to dominance, control, and power. You’re most likely to activate this system when you need to break free from restrictions, take charge of a situation, or force action. You might call upon the Commander-in-Chief inside you when you feel physically threatened, when you think you’re being treated unfairly, or whenever you feel blocked from achieving a goal.
- The Explorer. Searching, learning, and satisfying one’s curiosity are the functions that this system organizes. Our distant ancestors probably relied on the Explorer to find food, water, and a dry cave, but we’re more likely to use it on a shopping expedition or while surfing the Internet for cool Web sites. The Explorer comes into play whether we’re seeking information for a business paper, ingredients for that special sauce, or a date for Saturday night. It may involve behaviors such as questioning, hunting, foraging, sorting, processing, planning, learning, and goal-setting.
- The Sensualist system can account for all this mystery. It organizes a broad gamut of sexual functions, including erotic dreams and fantasies; feelings of sexual attraction and excitement; involuntary physiological responses such as vaginal lubrication and penile erection; and sexual behaviors like flirting, kissing, and copulation.
- The Energy Czar. This system is responsible for making sure that the body gets the rest and care it needs to stay healthy. When you work or play too long, the Energy Czar sends your body signals that it’s time to stop and get rejuvenated.
- The Jester. This system coordinates a class of functions much appreciated but often undervalued by many: play, recreation, and diversion. Behaviors associated with the Jester include playing games, seeking entertainment, telling jokes, engaging in make-believe, and simply “fooling around.”
- The Jester plays an especially crucial role in childhood. Children learn a tremendous amount through play: how to negotiate complex social structures
- The Sentry. It’s no mystery how this emotional command system relates to survival. The Sentry coordinates functions in the body and mind related to worry, fear, vigilance, and defense. This system can keep you awake at night, wondering when you last replaced the batteries in your smoke alarm. It’s what stops you cold at the sound of footsteps in a dark parking garage. It makes you yank your child out of a busy street or run like hell at the sight of a mountain lion.
- The Nest-Builder. This system calls to mind all the nurturing, affiliating, and bonding behaviors and feelings typically activated in a solid parent-child relationship. That’s because the Nest-Builder coordinates functions related to affiliation, bonding, and attachment. But we engage this system when we form other types of relationships as well, including friendship and marriage. It may also come into play as we become attached to work teams, jobs, clubs, schools, and other communities of people.
- Nest-Builder is what drives you to make new friends in your freshman year, join a church or synagogue, and call your aunt Betty on her birthday.
For instance, a mother who lashes out at a bully threatening her child is activating the Nest-Builder and Commander-in-Chief systems at the same time. The Nest-Builder mediates her loyalty to her child, while the Commander-in-Chief coordinates her energy to attack.
The temperament you inherit is one of those pre-wired influences. If your mother was the ultimate trailblazer, for example, you may also have a natural tendency to prefer high activation in the Explorer system. On the other hand, if you inherited your father’s more conservative, homebody nature, you may be naturally prone to seek less adventure.
Males generally seem to have a much stronger tendency to activate the Commander-in-Chief system, with its functions of coordinating dominance, and the brain’s Sentry, with its utility for protection and vigilance. Males also show more development in the Jester system, which coordinates diversionary activities, like playing games and seeking amusement. Females, on the other hand, tend to have a more highly developed Nest-Builder, the system that controls affiliation, bonding, and attachment. In addition to the gender and temperament you’re born with, your life experiences can also influence the development of your emotional command systems. It may seem obvious that a child raised in a family that displays a great deal of fear, for example, is more likely to grow up to be a hypervigilant person than a child reared in a more trusting environment. And a child who is raised with lots of humor, fun, and play appreciates a good laugh as well. What’s more surprising, however, is the idea that our environment actually affects the way nervous pathways in the brain get built. In other words, the brain is actually quite malleable in its construction, and appears to stay that way throughout life. Brain scientists believe, for example, that the amount of gentle, nurturing attention an infant receives influences the way the nerve cells in her brain are arranged within her Nest-Builder system. Consequently, people who have had lots of cuddling and affection as babies may seek more of this kind of stimulation than people who didn’t get this type of care.
people may or may not have much control over the level of activation they need (or don’t need) within a particular emotional command system. If you’re born with a high need for activation in the Nest-Builder arena, for example, you may crave affiliation with others all your life, and be unsatisfied unless you have it.
emotional heritage, evaluating how they affect your current relationships. These elements include emotional history—that is, the lessons you learned about feelings as a child. You’ll also look into your family’s emotional philosophy, or what your family felt and believed about the expression of emotion. And, finally, you’ll explore your enduring vulnerabilities—events or relationships so painful that they continue to be a strong influence on you for the rest of your life.
as scientists learn more about the way the brain processes emotions and stores emotional memory, it becomes increasingly clear that yesterday’s feelings influence our ability to make and keep emotional connections today. If we want to have relationships that are more meaningful in the future, it helps to have some insight about the past. In fact, looking back thoughtfully may eventually help you to build better connections with the very folks gathered around that holiday table. To see how your past affects your current relationships, it helps to understand the relationship between issues of emotional heritage and the brain’s emotional command systems
many scientists and therapists believe people can change their responses, particularly if they can reexperience the same kind of stimulus under new and different life circumstances. That’s why the goal of so many forms of therapy is to help the patient revisit painful events from the past. Such therapy gives you a chance to reexperience your feelings in a safer or more neutral setting. You
Exercise: What’s Your Emotional History?
Thinking back, can you describe the philosophy of emotion in the home where you grew up? Did your family generally believe it was important for people to understand their own feelings and express them to others?
Our research shows that families generally fall into four broad categories of emotional philosophy:
- (4) disapproving Those with a coaching philosophy accept the expression of all feelings—including anger, sadness, and fear. In emotional situations, these family members often help one another solve problems and cope with difficult feelings. Dismissing families, on the other hand, tend to keep their feelings hidden, especially negative feelings. And since they don’t acknowledge feelings, their members don’t give one another much guidance on how to handle them. Families with a laissez-faire philosophy are similar to coaching families in that they think the expression of emotion is okay. But members of laissez-faire families don’t do much to help one another cope with anger, sadness, or fear. They’re more likely to just wait for such feelings to pass. Families with a disapproving philosophy are like dismissing families in their belief that people should keep their feelings hidden. But members of disapproving families take it a step further; they’re likely to be hostile or critical toward those who express negative emotions.
Exercise: What Was Your Family’s Philosophy of Emotion?
Coaching families typically turn toward one another’s bids for emotional connection. They help one another identify their feelings and they empathize. Unlike the laissez-faire families, coaching families teach children how to express their feelings in ways that are appropriate and effective. They set limits on behavior. (“You can stomp your feet when you’re mad, but you can’t kick the wall.”) Also, they help children develop problem-solving skills. Coaching families believe in the value of all emotions—even the negative ones. They recognize anger as a creative, motivating force in people’s lives. (“It sounds like you’re mad because you think Davie was cheating. Why don’t you tell him how you feel about it?”) They see sadness as a signal that a person may need to make some positive changes in his or her life. (“You seem kind of depressed since you retired, Mom. Maybe you need to be more active. Have you thought about taking a class or getting more involved at church?”) Because they value the expression of emotion, they’re more patient and tolerant with family members who are trying to cope with difficult feelings. They’re less likely to turn away from or turn against those who display anger, sadness, or fear. At the same time, these families often have fewer tantrums, conflicts, and bouts of depression with which to deal.
The Emotion-Dismissing Philosophy If you were raised in a family with an emotion-dismissing philosophy, you were subtly—or not so subtly—discouraged from showing your feelings. Still, tears, frustration, and worries inevitably come to the surface in all families. And when this happens in an emotion-dismissing family, members are likely to turn away. They may greet the emotional person with
So instead of asking her friend, “What’s wrong?” she pretends she doesn’t notice the woman’s sad expression and listlessness. This is hard for Carol because she considers herself a compassionate person. She even feels guilty for ignoring her friend’s bid. But it never occurs to her that just listening and being with her friend in her sadness might be enough. She wouldn’t necessarily have to provide a solution.
Louis doesn’t recognize Tom’s sadness as a bid for connection. He doesn’t realize that turning toward the boy with empathy would be one way to help his son get over it. Imagine how satisfying it might be for Tom to hear his dad say, “Gee, Tom. You must feel really sad. That was your favorite toy. What a bummer.” But Tom gets a more dismissive response instead. If this keeps happening over time, he’ll learn to stop looking to his dad for emotional support; he’ll become increasingly disconnected from his father.
Parents who turn away also miss the thousands of opportunities for guidance around handling difficult feelings. If a mother’s main message is “Don’t be sad,” or “Don’t be angry,” she may never get around to telling her child, “Here are some ways to take good care of yourself when you’re feeling down,” or “Let’s look at the problem that’s making you so mad and see if we can solve it.”
The Emotion-Disapproving Philosophy If you were raised in a family with an emotion-disapproving philosophy, you may have a lot in common with those from emotion-dismissing families. Both groups encourage their members to keep their negative feelings under wraps. The difference is that emotion-disapproving family members actually feel hostile toward those who express emotions like sadness, anger, or fear.
Below are some expressions commonly heard when a disapproving adult addresses a fussy or misbehaving child. Perhaps they’ll remind you of reprimands you may have heard as a child. “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” “Oh, don’t be such a baby! Grow up!” “Don’t use that tone of voice with me!” “Say something nice or don’t say anything at all.” Many people who disapprove of emotional expression tend to frame their relationships as power struggles. In this context, they see expressions of anger, sadness, or fear as an unfair strategy that people use to manipulate others. An emotion-disapproving person is likely to describe an upset family member as “spoiled.” He or she might say, “If you don’t get your way, you’re going to cry about it—is that it?” Or, “He’s just throwing a fit so we’ll do what he wants to
One key factor to this approach is the ability to focus on the feelings underneath a person’s behavior rather than on the behavior itself. Here’s an example: Craig’s wife, Angela, comes home from work one night as angry as he’s ever seen her. She barges into the house, slams the door, and heads straight for the bedroom, where she slams that door, too. Craig has talked to her about her temper before, and she knows he doesn’t like it when she acts like this. He disapproves of her “tantrum,” so he decides he’ll try to nip the problem in the bud. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he calls up the stairs. “Is that any way to shut the damned door?” But because his response to her anger is so unsympathetic, Angela slams another door—the door to connection and intimacy. “Screw you, Craig!” she yells back down the stairs. Now imagine what might have happened if Craig had recognized Angela’s anger as a bid for connection first and saved his concern about the door-slamming until later on. Upon her stormy arrival, he might have called up the stairs, “Angela, are you okay?” To which she might have replied, “No! I’m so mad I could spit!”
Of course, this happy ending presumes that Craig can tolerate Angela’s initially intense expression of anger and see it as a bid. If he can, he’s got an opportunity for intimacy and connection by turning toward her in the midst of a crisis—the very time when she needs him most. If he can’t tolerate her rage, he may turn against her and they could spend the rest of the evening in stony silence or arguing about the value of slamming doors.
The Laissez-Faire Philosophy If you were raised in a home with a laissez-faire philosophy of emotion, your family culture probably had a high tolerance for openly expressing negative feelings like fear, sadness, and anger. In fact, families with a laissez-faire philosophy seem to believe that expressing emotion is like “letting off steam.” You convey your feelings freely, no matter what that expression entails—tears, temper tantrums, rants, rages—you name it. And once the storm is over, it’s over. All your work is done.
Exercise: Emotional Philosophy and Today’s Relationships
Which Philosophy Works Best? In our two ten-year studies of more than one hundred families, the answer is clear. Families that create emotion-coaching environments fare much better than families that are dismissing, disapproving, or have a laissez-faire attitude toward emotions. Couples who accept, respect, and honor each other’s feelings are less likely to divorce. Their children tend to do better over the years as well. Because these emotion-coaching families create environments that help children to regulate their feelings, their children can concentrate better than can the kids in the other groups. They get better grades in school. They have fewer behavior problems, and they get along better with peers. Lab results show that they have fewer stress-related hormones in their bloodstreams and that, over time, they suffer from fewer minor health problems like coughs and colds.
feelings. For one thing, it takes time and effort to be with your emotions. While emotional awareness at work pays off in the long run, in the short term, grief, anger, and fear can be tremendously distracting from the workaday world. In other words, dealing with difficult emotions interferes with productivity.
With introspection and self-understanding, however, people do find answers. They come to see how past incidents create enduring vulnerabilities that become their “crazy buttons”—the issues most likely to cause problems in the course of current relationships. One thing I always do in therapy with married couples is to help partners explore one another’s enduring vulnerabilities. This allows each to become more aware of the other’s crazy buttons. They develop greater sensitivity and can be more respectful when they talk about these issues. It helps them to avoid the worst arguments while building trust and intimacy.
These include a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues, including:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- descriptive words
Many facial expressions evolved as a way for the human species to survive. Think about the way people grit their teeth and even bare them when they’re extremely angry or threatened. We share this common and highly intimidating expression of rage with our evolutionary cousins—gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Or think about the way most people raise their upper eyelids when they feel surprised. Such a wide-eyed look allows you to take in as much visual information as possible—an expression that’s been useful since our prehistoric ancestors first responded to unexpected bumps in the night. And finally, think about the way the nose crinkles in an expression of disgust. With raised nostrils and squinting eyes, our nasal passages and eyes are less exposed to noxious fumes.
In fact, valuable information is often gleaned through actions that psychologists call “micro-expressions”—flashes of feeling that may last just a fraction of a second, but may contain emotional data that the person would rather hide.
In some societies, it’s considered impolite to look directly at a person of higher status. When I worked with Pima Indians in Arizona, for example, I learned that a young person would not look directly at an older person; it’s considered disrespectful.
Exercise: Log Your Observation of Facial Expressions
Crossing your arms across your chest during a conversation is another common emotional cue. It may tell observers that you’re dissatisfied or opposed to what’s going on.
An open posture—in which you sit with your arms relaxed, your legs slightly apart, and your body tilted a little forward toward your conversation partner—gives just the opposite message: You respect this person and you want to offer your full attention. Adopt this position and you communicate that you’re open to influence, you’re available for interaction. You can also express affiliation by copying the posture of the person with whom you’re speaking.
While this kind of mirroring often happens subconsciously, you can also do it intentionally, quietly mimicking another person’s posture as a way to build rapport.
Erving Goffman called behaviors such as holding hands in public “tie signs.”
What the Voice Reveals
The voice moves from what Scherer calls “the chest register,” which is low, relaxed, and resonant, to the “head register,” which is higher and more tense. Their speech may also become louder and faster.
read fear and tension in the voice. Common signs of such emotions include the following: • Changes in mid-sentence (“I have a book that…the book I need for finals is…”) • Repetition of words or phrases in mid-sentence (“I often…often I work at night…”) • Stuttering (“Y-y-you wouldn’t be thinking of l-l-leaving…”) • Omitting words or leaving words unfinished (“I went to the lib…”) • Incomplete sentences (“He said the reason was…anyway, he couldn’t go.”) • Slips of the tongue (“I went to the grocery stair for milk and eggs.”) • Intruding incoherent sounds (“I don’t really know why…dh…I went…”)
Focus on being interested, not interesting. That’s the counsel Dale Carnegie offered in his 1937 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is still a top seller more than six decades later. And after my three decades of observational research, I have to say that it’s still some of the best advice available. Carnegie was right when he wrote, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Start by asking questions. Don’t ask the kind that can be answered with simple one-word responses. Instead, ask questions that allow people to explain their points of view and elaborate. Questions that begin with the words “Why do you suppose…” and “How do you think…” are good for this.
When you want people to disclose information about themselves, it can help to reveal details about your own life first. Be sure to aim for balance, however. Sharing too much personal information too early can be harmful to relationships. Your conversation partner may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of what you’re sharing, or feel pressured to become too close too soon.
Tune in with all your attention. Once you’ve encouraged somebody to talk, the next step is to listen—really listen. This probably sounds simpler than it is.
Respond with an occasional brief nod or sound. This indicates that you’re paying attention. Research shows that candidates who nod during interviews get the job more often than those who don’t. Verbal cues such as “mm-hmm,” “yeah,” or even a grunt serve a similar purpose. From time to time, paraphrase what the speaker says. Doing so tells the speaker that you’re still interested, especially when you can restate the important parts. This also serves to ensure that you understand what’s been said. A good time to paraphrase is when you introduce a question. For example: “You say you’d really love to go to Africa. Why do you think it would be a great place to visit?” Or, “It sounds like school has been really frustrating for you this spring. How is it harder for you now than last semester?” Maintain the right amount of eye contact. Allow the speaker to catch your eye. Studies show that we tend to look more while listening, less while talking.
From time to time, paraphrase what the speaker says. Doing so tells the speaker that you’re still interested, especially when you can restate the important parts.
Maintain the right amount of eye contact. Allow the speaker to catch your eye. Studies show that we tend to look more while listening, less while talking.
Let go of your own agenda. It’s hard to be a good listener when you’re struggling to direct the outcome of a conversation. Listening—especially when a friend or loved one is trying to work though a difficult emotional experience—requires instead that you let go of your desire to control the situation.
Turn off the television. TV often interferes with people’s ability to listen to one another.
When people agree that their relationships lend meaning to their lives, they keep coming together, turning toward one another, and strengthening those relationships—even in the face of conflict.
How do we achieve shared meaning in our relationships? One way is to recognize that conflict often stems from people’s idealism. If we can uncover the ideals hidden within another’s position in a conflict, we can often find common meaning. Another way to achieve shared meaning is to talk about our dreams and aspirations, fostering one another’s support for these quests. And, finally, we can achieve shared meaning through the use of ritual—that is, regularly engaging in meaningful activities that draw people together emotionally.
People in Conflict as Idealists In our culture, many people believe that having a conflict with another person indicates there’s something fundamentally wrong with the relationship.
Our studies, for example, reveal that a full 69 percent of all marital conflicts never go away. So, if a couple has an ongoing clash over a particular issue—money, housework, and sex are common—they’re likely to have that same conflict forever. If the husband’s spending was a sore spot in a couple’s relationship early on, it may well be an issue twenty years later. If they disagreed often about housework in 1982, they’re likely to be having the same dispute in the year 2022.
most conflicts don’t arise from pathology. I believe they develop because people attach different meaning to the same situations, which gets in the way of their ability to bid and respond to one another’s bids for connection.
Dissimilarities may simply indicate that they’re trying to live according to what they find meaningful. They’re idealists who choose to take different stands based on different understandings of what things mean.
Recognizing the idealism in one another’s positions and talking about it can be a tremendously helpful way to build emotional connections.
Become a Dream Detector My research also shows that people form much more positive emotional connections when they encourage one another’s dreams and aspirations.
But once you stop trying to solve the problem and start uncovering the dreams hidden within it, progress is possible.
Rituals symbolize cultural identity and values we share with our families, friends, work groups, or a larger community. They provide a focus whenever two or more people come together around a common activity, belief system, or cause. People may profess to believe in the same things, but rituals give them a way to put those shared beliefs into action.
Rituals ensure that people take time for emotional connection. Lack of time is one of the most common reasons people say they don’t form deeper connections with their families, friends, and communities.
When we make a commitment to participate regularly in some form of ritualized connection, we’re less likely to lose touch with the people who matter most.
adds the elements of predictability and intention to our lives. When we make a commitment to participate regularly in some form of ritualized connection, we’re less likely to lose touch with the people who matter most.
Some rituals help us to process our feelings as we move through life’s transitions. The transition may be a minor one, like Mom’s daily departure from the day-care center, or it may be a major one, like a wedding. Either way, rituals give us a way to acknowledge that things are changing and to express our feelings about it.
Small, simple rituals of transition—such as saying good night to coworkers or tucking a child into bed—may seem inconsequential at the time. But they can give people an extra feeling of trust in the relationship
Rituals can help us to stay connected despite our conflicts. Have you ever had an argument with your spouse, your child, or your parent just a few minutes before you had to leave for the day? With your feelings still stinging from the fight, you faced a choice: Did you (a) offer the hug or kiss that’s always been a ritual of departure in your relationship; or (b) just walk away without a gesture or word?
Our culture is filled with examples of other rituals that help to bridge the differences of opposing factions. Think of the way sports teams shake hands at the end of a game. Or the way disparate factions of a church community might come together to share communion. Athletes from around the world compete in the Olympics despite their political and cultural differences. In U.S. political races, when the election is over, the losing candidate typically delivers a concession speech in which he pledges to help citizens come together in support of their new leader.
Consider Emotional Command Systems As you think about rituals you’d like to have in your life, keep in mind that different kinds of rituals may appeal to different people, depending on the emotional command systems they rely on most. The Nest-Builder, for example, might best enjoy rituals that involve outward expressions of belonging and support. A game that explores what everybody has in common comes to mind, or an exercise in which people share compliments with one another might be appealing. The Commander-in-Chief, on the other hand, might prefer rituals that help the group move closer to achieving some collective goal. Many work groups, for example, hold annual retreats at which they review the group’s mission statement and then set the next year’s objectives, goals, and strategies, based on that assessment. Those with a highly activated Commander-in-Chief might appreciate rituals that move this task forward. The Jester might like rituals that provide entertainment and diversion, while the Explorer might enjoy those that help the group discover new realms of adventure. The Energy Czar might appreciate ritualized relaxation exercises, while the Sentry prefers rituals that help the group feel safe and secure. The Sensualist? Activities such as massage, aromatherapy, or hands-on art projects come to mind. The point is, if you’re creating rituals of connection to use in your family, work group, or circle of friends, it may help to consider the types of command systems that are prominent in the group, and plan accordingly.
Re-create and Update Rituals in Healing Ways Rituals have the potential to be an extremely positive force in people’s relationships. But they can also have a negative power—particularly if somebody uses rituals to manipulate others unfairly, or to cause a rift.
Building Better Emotional Connections in Marriage Step
- Look at Your Bids for Connection with Your Spouse My research clearly shows that if you want to improve your marriage, you should work on improving that fundamental unit of emotional connection, the bid.
- Discover How the Brain’s Emotional Command Systems Affect Your Marriage.
- Examine How Your Emotional Heritage Affects Your Relationship with Your Spouse In chapter 5 we explored how a person’s emotional past can impact current relationships.
- Sharpen Your Skills at Emotional Communication with Your Spouse
- Find Shared Meaning in Marriage
Things to Do for Your Friends
- Ask “How are you?” in a way that shows you’d really like to know.
- Listen to their stories and jokes (even if you’ve heard them before).
- Return the things you borrow.
- Say “thank you” for favors.
- Offer spur-of-the-moment invitations to coffee, dinner, or drinks (but don’t be hurt if your friends can’t come).
- Accept spontaneous invitations when you can. (But don’t feel guilty if you can’t make it.)
- Ask for advice, but don’t feel obligated to take it.
- Ask friends if they’d like your advice before you offer it. If they say yes, share your wisdom. Don’t be disappointed when they don’t do what you suggest.
- Know when what you’re asking for is too much.
- Ask your friend about his or her childhood. Listen.
- Remember his or her birthday with a card or a gift.
- Nod in agreement when your friend says good things about his or her spouse or lover.
- Notice and say positive things about your friends’ children.
- Ask your friend about his or her dreams, goals, and visions. Listen.
- Offer compliments.
- Accept apologies.
- Ask your friends about their life stories. Listen.
- Ask your friends about their parents. Listen.
- Tell them it’s okay to call anytime.
- Let them off the hook when they say, “I can’t do it. I’m exhausted.”
- Drive them to the airport when they’re going away on a special journey or a difficult trip.
- Let them be as upset as they need to be.
- Support their efforts at health improvement.
- Encourage their efforts to build skills, learn more, become more.
- Offer to help out when your friend is stressed.
- Ask for help.
- Let them help you.
- Monitor your friend’s well-being, and be there in good times or bad.
- When you lose track of each other over time, try to pick up where you left off.
Things to Do Together
- Visit one another.
- Share gossip, jokes, and news via e-mail.
- Phone one another often.
- Form a group of friends who share a common hobby or interest. Meet regularly. When you can’t get together, discuss your common interests online.
- Confide in one another and keep each other’s secrets.
- Swap baby-sitting, pet-sitting, house-sitting.
- Trade big favors like helping one another paint the house, move residences, or build a deck.
- Celebrate one another’s successes.
- Host a party for a mutual friend.
- Share hugs, handshakes, pats on the back.
- Cry together.
- Be there for the big events in one another’s lives—kids’ weddings, parents’ funerals, serious illnesses.
- Collaborate on a project.
- Show one another your baby pictures.
- Pray or meditate together.
Support groups, book groups, and more. Find some friends with whom you share an obsession, a problem, a craft, or a hobby, and form a group that meets regularly to pursue your interest.
Commuting time. Board a ferry in the Pacific Northwest on any weekday morning and you’ll find them—the “ferry friends.” They’re people whose bonds are forged by saving seats for one another on the crowded boats that carry passengers from their island homes to Seattle each morning. I know of one woman who passed up a higher-paying job for one reason: Her new schedule would prevent her from visiting each morning with three women who always shared her booth on the boat.
business is all about—relationships. Building long-lasting, trusting relationships.”
Things to Do for Your Coworkers
- When you go for a snack or a cup of coffee, offer to bring something back for someone else.
- Say hello and good-bye each day.
- Share information that’s vital to both your jobs.
- Be open to laughing at your coworkers’ jokes.
- Turn away from your computer (or other equipment) and look at the person who’s talking to you.
- Say thanks when somebody does something for you.
- Return favors.
- Return things you borrow.
- Minimize distractions when your coworker needs to concentrate.
- Turn down your music if he or she asks.
- Refrain from wearing perfume or cologne if he or she is allergic to it.
- Look for things to appreciate in others, creating a climate of appreciation on the job.
- Remember his or her birthday with e-mail or a card.
- Send a note of praise to your coworker’s boss acknowledging a job well done.
- Offer similar praise at staff meetings for hardworking peers.
- Notice photos, signs, posters, and other personal expressions in your coworker’s environment. Ask about them. Listen.
- Decorate your own environment with things that interest you, if possible. Let these things be a way of helping others get to know you.
- Take photos at work just for fun, and post them, if possible. Make copies for people who appear in the photos.
- Ask your coworker about his or her weekend, holiday, or vacation. Listen.
- Be sympathetic when folks are sick. If they come to work feeling lousy, tell them to go home and rest.
- Ask your coworker why he or she chose this job. Listen.
- Ask your coworker about his or her goals and aspirations. Listen.
- Remember personal things about your coworker, and refer to these in future conversations.
- If you have resolved a conflict, recall the resolution in the future.
- Pay attention to your coworker’s special interests and needs. Honor them. Things to Do Together
- Go to lunch.
- Take a coffee break.
- Host a potluck lunch.
- Take walks.
- Join a gym.
- Go out for drinks or coffee after work.
- Swap recipes.
- Swap information about other shared interests (music, politics, sports, etc.).
- Take a class or workshop relevant to your job.
- Take a class or workshop on stress management or healthy lifestyles.
- Take a class or workshop that’s just for fun.
- Volunteer for a community project.
- Join a professional association and go to meetings and conferences together.
- Start a group at work related to a common hobby such as hiking, theater, or bowling.
- Plan your work group’s holiday party.
- Plan a celebration for another coworker who’s retiring, having a baby, getting married, or has won an award.
- Swap resources for child care or elder care.
- Go get a flu shot.
- Go shopping at lunch.
- Organize a blood drive.
In his book Principle-Centered Leadership (Summit, 1991), author Stephen R. Covey expresses how important it is for people to believe that their jobs are worthwhile. “People are not just resources or assets, not just economic, social, and psychological beings,” Covey writes. “They are also spiritual beings; they want meaning, a sense of doing something that matters. People do not want to work for a cause with little meaning, even though it taps their mental capacities to their fullest. There must be purposes that lift them, ennoble them, and bring them to their highest selves.”