How We Connect Emotionally
A work team at one of Seattle's floundering Internet companies has a problem that's common in many workplaces: They can't communicate with their boss. If you catch a few team members at a local tavern after hours, you're likely to hear an exchange something like this:
"Joseph is the coldest fish I've ever worked for."
"I know what you mean. The other day I saw this picture of a little boy on his bulletin board and I said, 'Cute kid. Is that your son?' And he goes, 'No.' "
"And that was it?"
"Yeah. So I'm standing there wondering, 'Well, who is it then? Your nephew? Your stepson? Your love child?' "
"He's just so out of it. And to think we were so jazzed when we heard he was going to head the team, with that vaunted success record of his."
"He's smart, all right. But what good has it done us? We still haven't launched the site."
"That's because he has zero people skills. Have you noticed how all the other managers try to avoid him?"
"Yeah, that's what's screwing us up. We have no real standing in the company. I was hoping he could take our ideas up the ladder and we'd finally get the resources we need. But he never asks for our input. He never even asks if you've had a nice weekend."
"Remember when we moved to the new building and he decided to do away with private offices? He said we'd have an open floor plan to 'enhance communication.' What a crock!"
"Stop it, you guys. I feel sorry for him."
"Sorry for him? Why? He's the one with all the stock options!"
"Well, I think he wants to be a better boss-he just doesn't know how."
"Oh yeah? How can you tell?"
"I don't know. It's just a guess. Maybe he knows how disappointed we all feel in him. And that makes it even harder for him. I can't read his mind, but I bet that's what's going on."
Next meet Kristine, age fifty-four, an advertising executive whose mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Kristine would like to help with her mother's care, but Mom lives several states away, near Kristine's sister, Alice. Here's a typical phone call between the sisters:
"How's Mom?" Kristine asks tentatively.
"She'll be better once the insurance pays her hospital bill," Alice responds. "That's all she talks about."
"But that was last December. The insurance still hasn't paid?"
"No, not that hospital stay. I'm talking about this last time, when she had that seizure."
"Didn't I tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"She was in the hospital last month after a seizure. They ran some tests."
"I can't believe you didn't tell me about this. Why didn't you call?"
"It was just so hectic. And it's impossible to get hold of you with your voice mail or whatever. Besides, there's nothing you can do from the East Coast."
"But, Alice! I've asked you to call me when these things happen!"
"Well, it really doesn't matter now. They put her on some new medicine and she's doing much better. We got through it fine. There's no need to worry."
But Kristine does worry. And she's angry as well. She tells herself that Alice isn't cutting her out of the loop on purpose; she's just caught up in her own concerns. But now that Mom's health is going downhill, Kristine and her sister have got to cooperate better than this. Otherwise, Kristine might miss her only chance to be there when Mom needs help most. And if that happens, she and Alice could hold grievances against each other for the rest of their lives.
Now meet Phil and Tina, a couple in their thirties who seem to have it all. Solid jobs, two beautiful kids, lots of good friends-and they love each other. Trouble is, they haven't had sex in six months.
Seated together on a small sofa in a therapist's office, the couple describes how the problem started.
"Tina's company was going through this big reorganization," Phil explains. "And every day she'd come home exhausted."
"It was a real drag," Tina remembers. "I was spending all day in these long, tense meetings, trying to defend people's jobs. When I got home, I couldn't shake the stress. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I felt so anxious. Phil tried to be nice, but . . ."
"I wanted to help her, to tell her it was going to be okay, but I couldn't do anything right. It wasn't like we had this huge, catastrophic breakdown or anything. It was more about the little stuff. I'd kiss her on the back of her neck or start to rub her stomach when we were in bed-things that used to get her attention. But now I was getting nothing in return. Zip. It definitely threw me off balance."
"And I felt that if I didn't get all hot and bothered the minute he touched me, he was going to be wounded or something," Tina explained. "It just made me so tense."
Phil got the point. "She has all these people leaning on her at work. And then she comes home to this guy who's feeling insecure, who's whining about his needs. It was such a turnoff for her."
So, to preserve his pride, Phil quit trying. "I got tired of the rejection," he explains to the therapist. "I don't know how long we can go on like this. It's tough to keep putting yourself out there only to be shut down all the time. Sure, I love her, but sometimes I'm afraid we're not going to make it."
"It's not working for me, either," Tina says through tears. Then, after a long silence, she adds, "I miss making love, too. I miss the way it used to be."
"Well, maybe that's a place to start," Phil says quietly. "Because you never told me that before. You never gave me that information."
Phil couldn't have said it better. Whether people are struggling to save a marriage, to cooperate in a family crisis, or to build rapport with a difficult boss, they usually have one thing in common: They need to share emotional information that can help them feel connected.
The disgruntled workers at the Seattle Internet company need to know that their boss shares their dream of launching a successful site. They need to know that he appreciates their work and ideas. But when they turn to him for this emotional information, he fails to respond. In fact, he can't even react sociably to their attempts at friendly conversation. He doesn't inspire confidence that they'll be able to achieve their goal. As a result, the team members feel demoralized and they doubt whether they can make the launch.
A similar dynamic is happening between the sisters whose mother is sick. Kristine has asked Alice to keep her informed about their mother's condition. But she's after more than medical information. She wants to feel as though she is part of the family, especially in this time of crisis. By failing to call when their mother is hospitalized, Alice shows that she doesn't really consider Kristine a part of the world she inhabits with Mom. Alice may blame the miles between their homes, but the emotional distance Kristine experiences seems even wider.
Phil and Tina are like many couples I see in marital therapy. Whatever conflicts the couples may have-sex, money, housework, kids-all of them long for evidence that their spouses understand and care about what they're feeling.
Sharing such information through words and behavior is essential for improving any significant relationship. This includes bonds with our kids, our siblings, our friends, our coworkers. But even our best efforts to connect can be jeopardized as a result of one basic problem: failure to master what I call the "bid"-the fundamental unit of emotional communication.
This book will show you five steps you can take to achieve this mastery and make your relationships work:
1.Analyze the way you bid and the way you respond to others' bids.
2.Discover how your brain's emotional command systems affect your bidding process.
3.Examine how your emotional heritage impacts your ability to connect with others and your style of bidding.
4.Develop your emotional communication skills.
5.Find shared meaning with others.
But first let's make sure you understand what I mean when I talk about bids. A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch-any single expression that says, "I want to feel connected to you." A response to a bid is just that-a positive or negative answer to somebody's request for emotional connection.
At the University of Washington, my research colleagues and I recently discovered how profoundly this bidding process affects relationships. We learned, for example, that husbands headed for divorce disregard their wives' bids for connection 82 percent of the time, while husbands in stable relationships disregard their wives' bids just 19 percent of the time. Wives headed for divorce act preoccupied with other activities when their husbands bid for their attention 50 percent of the time, while happily married wives act preoccupied in response to their husbands' bids just 14 percent of the time.
When we compared how often couples in the two groups extended bids and responded to them, we found another significant difference. During a typical dinner-hour conversation, the happily married people engaged one another as many as one hundred times in ten minutes. Those headed for divorce engaged only sixty-five times in that same period. On the surface the contrast may seem inconsequential, but taken together over a year, the additional moments of connection among the happy couples would be enough to fill a Russian novel.
We also found that this high rate of positive engagement paid off in tremendous ways. For example, we now know that people who react positively to one another's bids have greater access to expressions of humor, affection, and interest during arguments. It's almost as if all the good feelings they've accumulated by responding respectfully and lovingly to one another's bids form a pot of emotional "money in the bank." Then, when a conflict arises, they can draw on this reservoir of good feeling. It's as if something inside unconsciously says, "I may be mad as hell at him right now, but he's the guy who listens so attentively when I complain about my job. He deserves a break." Or, "I'm as angry as I've ever been with her, but she's the one who always laughs at my jokes. I think I'll cut her some slack."
Having access to humor and affection during a conflict is invaluable because it helps to de-escalate bad feelings and leads to better understanding. Rather than shutting down communication in the midst of an argument, people who can stay present with one another have a much better opportunity to resolve issues through their conflicts, repair hurt feelings, and build positive regard. But this good work must begin long before the conflict starts; it's got to be grounded in those dozens of ordinary, day-to-day exchanges of emotional information and interest that we call bids.
And what happens when we habitually fail to respond positively to one another's bids for emotional connection? Such failure is rarely malicious or mean-spirited. More often we're simply unaware of or insensitive to others' bids for our attention. Still, when such mindlessness becomes habitual, the results can be devastating.
I've seen such results in my clinical practice at the Gottman Institute, where I've counseled many people who describe their lives as consumed by loneliness. They feel lonely despite their proximity to many significant people in their lives-lovers, spouses, friends, children, parents, siblings, and coworkers. Often they seem surprised and greatly disappointed at the deterioration of their relationships.
"I love my wife," one client says of his faltering marriage, "but our relationship feels empty somehow." He senses that the passion is waning, that the romance is drifting away. What he can't see are all the opportunities for closeness that surround him. Like so many other distressed, lonely people, he doesn't mean to ignore or dismiss his spouse's bids for emotional connection. It's just that the bids happen in such simple, mundane ways that he doesn't recognize these moments as very important.
Clients like these typically have trouble at work, as well. Although they're often skilled at forming collegial bonds when they first start a job, they tend to focus totally on the tasks at hand, often to the detriment of their relationships with coworkers. Later, when they're passed over for a promotion, or when they discover they have no influence on an important project, they're baffled. And they often feel betrayed and disappointed by their colleagues and bosses as a result.
Such feelings of disappointment and loss also crop up in these clients' relationships with friends and relatives. Many describe peers, siblings, and children as disloyal, unworthy of trust. But when we dig deeper, we find a familiar pattern. These clients seem unaware of the bids for connection that their friends and relatives have been sending them. So it's no wonder that their loved ones feel no obligation to continue their support.
People who have trouble with the bidding process also have more conflict-conflict that might be prevented if they could simply acknowledge one another's emotional needs. Many arguments spring from misunderstandings and feelings of separation that might have been avoided if people would have the conversations they need to have. But because they don't, they argue instead. Such conflicts can lead to marital discord, divorce, parenting problems, and family feuds. Friendships fade and deteriorate. Adult sibling relationships wither and die. Kids raised in homes filled with chronic conflict have more difficulty learning, getting along with friends, and staying healthy. People who can't connect are also more likely to suffer isolation, as well as dissatisfaction and instability in their work lives. Any of these problems can create a tremendous amount of stress in people's lives, leading to all sorts of physical and mental health problems.
But our findings about the bidding process give me a tremendous amount of hope. They tell me that people who consistently bid and respond to bids in positive ways have an astounding chance for success in their relationships.
We've written this book to share these discoveries with as many people as possible. We hope that reading it will help you to form and maintain the kind of strong, healthy connections that lead to a happy, fulfilling life.