I’ve been thinking a lot about communication within families lately. My kids are still at camp, so I don’t talk to them every day except to send them cat pictures and what I hope are encouraging words via Google Hangouts. This process has provided me with an opportunity to examine how well (or not well) I do on my end of it. Frankly, and a bit uncomfortably, I admit I feel like I’m struggling, and more so as they have grown up and entered their teen years.
Family communication now is not the same as it was for me growing up. The most obvious change from back then is the widespread use of social media and the plethora of distractions we all have these days. But the uncomfortable silence, the misunderstood joke, the taciturn teen, and even the distracted “mmm-hmm” uttered while staring at something else entirely, were not invented by this generation.
Way back when, before my current family even existed as such, to help me with relationships I read some of the work of marriage and family therapist John Gottman. Gottman’s approach to relationships appeals to the scientist in me because he observes people interacting, collects data, and formulates hypotheses. He’s even got an Institute. I found his books, such as The Relationship Cure, and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, to be a refreshing change from other popular relationship advice books of the day, such as those by John Grey of Mars/Venus fame (I was always convinced that Grey was from Uranus, but that’s just me). The downside to Gottman’s approach at that time seemed to me to be that it was so cerebral and complicated that while it looked great on paper, it was hard, at least for me, to put into practice in the moment.
I came across Gottman again recently, through this article, “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits.” It was making the rounds of the internet a while ago. And now I think I have a better idea why I’ve had so much trouble putting Gottman’s advice into practice.
Early in his career, Gottman coined the term, “bids for connection,” which are requests by one partner to another to connect emotionally. The definition is given in the article in this way:
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.”
Okay, sure. I remember this and get it as far as it goes. But this time reading through the example, I was floored by the one-sidedness of what comes next.
“The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.”
Now, I still think Gottman is one of the best around when it comes to this stuff. But–and this is a pretty big but–there’s a side of it that I think he simply misses, and which I think is incredibly important. In his analysis, he puts all the responsibility for the quality of the interaction on the person receiving the bid for connection and none on the bidder. Even the tagline of the article says, “it has to do with HOW PEOPLE RESPOND to their partners’ “bids”.” (Emphasis mine)
My beef is, is that the only question? Isn’t there also the wife’s side here? Maybe she’s legitimately busy with something else and he’s being inconsiderate by making her drop what she is doing and look at a bird instead. Turn it around: she thought what she was doing was important enough not to interrupt to look at a bird, and the question is whether her husband recognizes and respects that. I think that’s an equally important question.
Later in the article, the phrase “stop interrupting me, I’m reading” is characterized as “overt hostility.” Really? I think it totally depends on the context.
In the context of other research about speech, and especially gendered speech, I think Gottman’s approach here is particularly problematic. There are statistics showing that women are interrupted by men much more often than vice-versa, and interrupted more often generally. Interrupting someone can just be a style difference, but it can also be a power play or a method of control. If someone says, “stop interrupting me, I’m reading” she may just be setting a healthy boundary and trying to get some work done. It’s not fair to call that “overt hostility.”
So I think Gottman needs to look at the other side too, at the quality of the bids, not just the quality of the responses. Are the bids offered in a kind, respectful manner? Or are they obnoxious, intrusive, or controlling? Then one might be able to start to untangle what goes wrong in response.
It turns out that Gottman has written about improving the quality of bids. He even has a chapter in one of his books called “6 Bid Busters and How to Avoid Them.” But even this list doesn’t include bad timing as a “bid buster.” I think it’s a huge one. Interruptions and demands for attention and connection at bad times can feel really disrespectful.
The reason I’m thinking about this now is that I deal badly with interruptions of all types. Badly-timed interruptions cause me to lose my train of thought and to forget what I was doing. When it’s important to me, I find the intent to be almost secondary to the fact of the interruption. It doesn’t matter how kindly it was meant, or if it was “just” a bid for connection, it still derailed me and it becomes hard for me to get back on track again. My reaction to those bids has consequences, and it does affect my personal relationships. It’s a sobering realization, but more sobering still is trying to figure out what to do about it.
How do you cope with interruptions and poorly timed bids for connection? And do you ever modify your own bids to make them more palatable to the person receiving them?