You’re sitting at dinner with your partner and you ask them a question about their day. They don’t really respond and you’re left hanging.
Or you’re telling them about the day you’ve had and from their body language and lack of interest it feels as if they couldn’t care less.
Or you make an effort to organise a special night out and they turn up an hour late.
If it’s an occasional occurrence then we might wonder if something has happened that has caused them to behave in this way.
It’s annoying and unpleasant, but we can kind of brush it off.
But when it happens regularly or even worse becomes the norm then it spells disaster for a relationship.
Why is this?
The key reason is that the vast majority of us humans need validation. There is a kind of myth that we can or should be able to ‘do it alone.’
But this simply isn’t true. We are social creatures and we need to have our experiences and feelings to be listened to, heard, responded to and valued.
When this doesn’t happen we don’t feel good, and our self-esteem and the relationship can start to suffer.
Fascinating research at the Gottman Institute showed that there is a mechanism at play here that is even more important than the actual words that are being said. This is known as the theory of bids.
A bid is when one person makes engages with another through a look, gesture, touch or words. Essentially they are saying ‘I want to connect with you’.
In response to this we can either turn towards the bid, turn away from it or turn against it.
Unsurprisingly turning towards the bid builds and strengthens a relationship and turning away from or against a bid undermines it.
But its not just saying yes to the other person.
The secret really lies in understanding the emotional connection the other person is trying to make and responding to that.
Not always easy, but over time we can start to understand the emotional language of bids that people we care about communicate with. And this creates a much deeper sense of connection.
So maybe you’re already doing this pretty well although of course our skills can always be improved.
But what if the other person is not and does not seem to care about the bids you’re making.
Of course the nuclear option is a possibility as is a forceful argument. But these extreme actions can often take things into a negative trajectory that can just become repetitive and damaging for both sides.
But there is another way that can also be extremely effective.
In his book ‘Never Split the Difference’ former FBI negotiator Chris Voss talks about the importance of mirroring back to the person using the last few words that they say.
The reason is that this allows the person being mirrored- in his case someone who is often highly stressed (the hostage taker)- to start to feel safe.
This then allows some kind of connection and then communication to be made. This is the key to all hostage negotiations ending peacefully.
We can apply something similar in conversations with people close to us who are not responding in the way we like.
This mirroring works great in just about any situation. We engage with the person, create the connection through mirroring and can then use this as a bridge to more connection.
Once you understand the theory of bids it becomes much easier to become a better listener and also start to develop the skill of making your bids more engaging for the other person.
Then mirroring can start to create more connection which you can then direct to an area
You may wonder why you should make all the effort.
The reason is that this way you take the situation into your own hands. This is not only much more creative and satisfying but is a much faster route to finding out whether the relationship is really going to work.
Or whether you should start making for the door.