Communication Ground Rules
As a next step, Mark and Lisa agreed that they needed some ground rules to keep their discussions constructive, respectful, and on point.
- Remove distractions while talking: no phones, TV, or devices.
- No name-calling or profanity.
- Only talk when holding the talking stick.
- If one partner needed a break, the other must respect that.
- The partner needing a break had to give an estimate of how long they’d be gone and when they’d return.
- If both agreed to table the discussion and return to it at a later date, they must put that on their schedules.
- Neither Lisa nor Mark could hold the talking stick for more than two minutes at a time.
- If one made the “T for timeout” sign, that meant a question or clarification was requested, and they’d be given the talking stick for that purpose.
- Stick to the subject at hand.
- Discussions would last 15 to 30 minutes. More time could be added only if both partners agreed to that.
- Reconnect at the end of each discussion. They’d look each other in the eye and say an affirmation about the relationship and the benefits of the dialogue, such as, “I love you,” and, “I appreciate your willingness to listen to me today.”
- Establish regular meeting times to work on the relationship without distractions.
If a momentary break was needed to practice anti-flooding strategies, they agreed to use a take-a-break hand signal (of “live long and prosper”, from Star Trek) when either had trouble returning to a comfortable baseline. They’d take a moment to check in internally, take some deep breaths, and have a stretch before returning to the conversation in a slower and more relaxed way. They were surprised and delighted to find healthy ways to use humor and laugh with each other as a gentle way to de-escalate. This included using Star Trek names for each other; Lisa was “Deanna Troi” and Mark was “Number One”.
Bids and Turns
The next step worked on was called bids and turns. Maintaining a deep and abiding interest in one’s partner is a really important part of emotional intimacy. Research by Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman, two of the world’s leading relationship experts, shows that which couples will stay married and which get divorced can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, based on how they speak to and respond to one another and handle conflict and negative events.
Studies have identified what they call bids and turns as key factors in relationship success. A bid is anything your partner does that asks for a positive connection with you. Turning toward the bid means responding with attention, affirmation, interest, positive action, or compliance with a request. Turning against is responding negatively with rejection, contempt, criticism, or aggression. Turning away is not responding at all. This is when a partner misses a bid because they’re distracted or inattentive, or when they’re so disengaged, emotionally shut down, or avoidant that they don’t even notice bids anymore.
Initial research by the Gottmans suggested that a ratio of five turning toward bids to each turn against a bid was needed for relationship satisfaction. But their most recent research suggests the ratio may be more like 20–1, which might explain why so many relationships are in trouble these days. Lisa and Mark were no longer turning toward each other’s bids. They were so resentful and disengaged that when one made a request for attention or interest, the other ignored it, or responded in a critical or demeaning way.
One important homework assignment for Mark and Lisa was to start paying attention to each other’s bids and make mindful efforts to turn toward them. They were asked to actively reduce the incidence of turning against or away. They initially found this difficult. However, they understood the importance of changing bids and turns as a way to improve their relationship and communication. Eventually, their efforts did pay off.