The day I accepted the position of Director of Professional Development at the Gottman Institute late last month, I gave two weeks’ notice at the Microsoft agency where I had been a Senior Project Manager for the past two years and anxiously awaited my Gottman start date of February 22nd. That date coincidentally came the day after a weekend couples workshop presented by Drs John and Julie Gottman, which I had wanted to attend for years, and to which Tom and I were now graciously invited to attend.
I had heard for years that the couples workshop, called The Art and Science of Love (so called because it’s based solidly on scientific research by Dr. John Gottman) was life altering -- or at least relationship altering -- and I was excited to now have the opportunity to experience it for ourselves.
It’s true. By the end of the second day we had been given both the tools and the vocabulary to strengthen our relationship in the most profoundly simple, yet absolutely effective ways.
Dr. Gottman speaks of seven principles that can be used to strengthen relationships. Taken together, he calls these principles “The Sound Relationship House,” and this theory forms the basis of the Gottman Approach. Briefly, the seven principles, which are not independent, but rather, which build sequentially on one another to form a strong relationship, are (in Dr. Gottman’s words):
- Build Love Maps. The foundation of the house, The Love Map, is a road map of one's partner's inner psychological world. The fundamental process is asking open-ended questions. It involves the couple knowing one another and periodically updating this knowledge.
- Share Fondness & Admiration. The second story of the house is The Fondness & Admiration System, which is the antidote for contempt. The fundamental process is changing a habit of mind from scanning the environment for people's mistakes and then correcting them to scanning the environment for what one's partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect.
- Turn Towards. Turning towards your partner involves bids for emotional connection. The fundamental process is building awareness of how one's partner asks for connection and expresses emotional needs, and deciding to turn toward these bids rather than turning away or against them. (The movie "Sliding Doors" is about how small choices can hugely affect the course of a couple's life. Life is full of these "sliding door" moments, which are opportunities to turn toward one's partner.)
- The Positive Perspective. These three stories build the fourth story, which is basically a free add-on when the other layers are strong. If the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House are not working, then even neutral or positive messages are perceived as negative and the person is hyper-vigilant for negativity. (There is a "chip on the shoulder.")
- Manage Conflict. The next story of the house consists of two parts of conflict regulation. Couples need to identify the core issues and the anatomy of repeating negative cycles in their relationship. Couples need help to understand what triggers escalation (e.g., defensiveness, criticism, contempt, belligerence), and what the story is of these triggers in each person's past history (either within the relationship or not). Conflicts are one of two types.
- Make Life Dreams and Aspirations Come True. What is the basis of a continued positive emotional connection even during conflict? Therapists once believed that if conflicts were resolved, positive affects or feelings of all types would rush into the couple's world by themselves, like air rushes into a vacuum. Not true. Positive affect systems need to be built intentionally. This includes play, fun, and exploration/adventure. This level of the Sound Relationship House is also about helping one's partner realize important life dreams and making the relationship, in general, effective at Making Dreams and Aspirations Come True. This aspect of relationship is the basis of unlocking conflict gridlock, in which the couple's values within a position in the gridlocked conflict are explored and understood.
- Create Shared Meaning. Finally, we have "the attic" of the house, where people either intentionally create, or do not create, a sense of shared meaning in their life together. A relationship involves building a life together, and that life is full of meaning. In the way the couple moves through time together, in how they prioritize their time, and their resources, in the stories they tell one another about their lives, their ancestors, their culture, their beliefs, and their legacy, in the way they decide to have things and events in their lives have meaning, they create this shared meaning system.
For couple problems that are resolvable, there are Four Parts of Effective Problem Solving. These are Softened Startup, Accepting Influence, Repair and De-escalation (including physiological soothing), and Compromise.
For couple problems that are perpetual and probably not resolvable, in order to avoid couple "gridlock," it is necessary that the couple establish what we call a "dialogue" with the perpetual problem. This involves a great deal of positive affect (interest, affection, humor, empathy, excitement, softening) even when discussing a disagreement. There needs to be a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative affect for this to be really effective.
Pretty cool, eh? It’s amazing how powerful it is to have the vocabulary and the tools to make simple adjustments to how we approach each other and how we deal with conflict. Tom and I have had a relatively strong relationship for30 years, but had we known back then what we learned this weekend, we could have gone into our marriage having the tools to deal with conflict much better.
With the impact of the weekend couples workshop still fresh and strong, I arrived at my the Gottman Institute offices yesterday for my first day of work, absolutely honored and thrilled to be there. During the one-on-one morning orientation with the wonderful operations manager, I was given a document which began with “we are a team, working together towards a common goal.” If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know that this is exactly how I feel a work environment and work relationships should be approached, so you can imagine how reading these words made me feel.
Schmaltzy as it sounds, I immediately felt that I had found exactly what I’ve been looking for! I immediately felt at home.
The document went on to explain that Dr. Gottman’s seven principles of a strong relationship apply to our work relationships and environment as well and that we practice what we preach. Specifically, we are encouraged at work to:
- Build awareness (building maps) of what is happening in our co-workers’ worlds. This basically comes down to (my read on it, anyway) caring about those you work with, not just as co-workers, but as people.
- Demonstrate appreciation (admiration) for our co-workers’ contributions, accomplishments, efforts, talents, etc., and letting them know. This is so important at work, especially between strata of a hierarchy!
- Pay attention and initiating contact (turning towards) to strengthen work relationships beyond simply accomplishing tasks together. My favorite line here is “this could be spending an extra couple of minutes at the beginning of a business conversation to check in with one another or express appreciation.” This effort and this time is anything but wasted!
- Understand that a positive perspective helps in every aspect of our work lives and work relationship. How can it not?!
- Use the same principles of managing conflict the Dr. Gottman speaks of to couples -- softened start-up (in other words, being gentle and kind with each other), accepting influence, effective repairs, and respecting perspective reality – to manage conflict in the work place when (not if) it occurs.
- The document states here simply that “in the big picture, our organizational mission is to better the human condition by helping people strengthen their relationships through improved skills. On a small-picture basis, this translates into working together…” This is a huge “DUH” that I believe so many companies, big and small, don’t pay enough attention to!
- Create shared meaning at work by supporting each team member’s individual positive contributions (creative and task-oriented) and understanding that all of our contributions support both each other and the organizational mission.
So everything that we learned over the weekend about strengthening personal relationships applies as well to strengthening work relationships and thus the influence and impact we have as an organization. It’s such an obvious connection, but one that I think far too few businesses really get!
Don’t worry – this won’t now become a “Gottman Blog.” But I did want to write about my “lessons learned” both at the couples workshop and on my first day of employment there! It is truly an extraordinary organization filled with extraordinary people!