red-scribble-heart(part of the Valentine’s Day series)red-scribble-heart

Every semester teachers are subjected to course evaluations, also known as “inviting a group of young adults to take anonymous pot-shots at you for how you do your job.” Eighty percent of the students take this seriously and provide helpful feedback, and most of the rest are at least civil. But for a handful, providing this venue is roughly equivalent to handing a loaded assault rifle to a 5 year-old  and reminding him to “be a good boy.” We all know how that’s going to end.

In any given semester I receive around 150 evals from different students and I can tell you which ones I focus on: the negative ones, which make the whole process dreadful. (Best/worst one ever: “Dr. Phillips should avoid behaving like a horse’s a** whenever the urge strikes him.” This one was so over the top that I posted it on my door with the comment, “Another satisfied customer.”) That old line about needing ten positive comments to offset one negative one is actually not far off: research at Harvard University, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, found that the most effective work teams shared about six praises for every one criticism, while the worst performing teams reversed it, with three critiques for every single praise.

John Gottman studies relationships. Back in the 80’s he started bringing newlywed couples into his lab and hooking them up to electrodes so he could shock them into behaving better. Just kidding. The electrodes measured their emotions and reactions as they answered questions about their relationship. Then he sent the couples home while he chilled at Starbucks for six years, earning mega-platinum status in the process and developing a nasty caffeine habit. He then brought the couples (not all of whom were still couples) back in for another session.

Gottman placed each couple in one of two groups: Masters, whose marriages were healthy, and Disasters, whose marriages were tense and stressful or no longer intact. He found that his lab instruments had predicted relatively well which couples would make it and which would not. In the initial lab session, the couples who experienced physiological arousal (the same fight-or-flight response I get when reading my course evals, or you get when a leopard attacks you or your child asks “Are we there yet?”) usually failed to make it work. The Masters, in contrast, showed very low arousal when discussing their relationship, even when addressing conflict. Like any good scientist, Gottman wanted to know why this was happening, and whether there was anything the rest of us can learn from the Masters of Marriage.

Here is what he found. In the course of daily life, couples re-connect multiple times. The wife says, “What a beautiful sunset,” a strikingly insignificant observation that she shares with her husband in what Gottman terms a ‘bid’ or a request for connection. The husband can respond positively (a ‘turn-toward’), creating a momentary connection, or he can choose to ignore her implicit request for contact (a ‘turn-away’). Note that the real communication is all implied and taking place below the surface; it has nothing to do with the sunset, and everything to do with interest and respect. Also the husband’s lack of response could indicate hearing loss, either real or faked, which is a separate issue that may need attention. And it’s not just husbands who fake deafness…

Guess what? The successful couples ‘turn toward’ far more often than the unsuccessful ones. Couples who had divorced during the six years of the study responded positively to bids only 33 percent of the time, meaning that two of every three requests for connection were shunned. In contrast, the still-married couples responded positively to bids 87% of the time, well above the 6:1 ratio identified at Harvard. Gottman says the data is so consistent that by simply watching a couple for a few hours and observing how often they respond positively to partner bids he can predict with 94% certainty their relationship’s health several years down the road. The pivotal role of these interactions, and what they implicitly communicate, demonstrates why the silent treatment communicates so clearly and can be so destructive; the silence speaks volumes.

So much of life happens in the little things. So much of how we show respect to our partners happens in the micro-interactions that occur each day, often without us even realizing what we are doing. But each time you turn the cold shoulder, or snub the request, or give the silent treatment, all in all, it’s just another brick in the wall.


To get word of new posts, Follow this blog or send a friend request to Mark Phillips on Facebook.

John Gottman is the ultimate relationship scientist. Read the really long version of his work here.