Connection: Emotional bids

As human beings we are hardwired for connection to others. We seek acknowledgement as well as to be seen and understood by one another. Sometimes these exchanges of connection are small such as pleasantries between a customer and a cashier. Other times these connections are more weighted like a heart-felt, vulnerable conversation between two friends. All of these exchanges start with what Dr. John Gottman calls “emotional bids.”

Gottman, a psychological researcher and clinician, famously set up a “love lab” where he and colleagues studied hundreds of couples. One of his assumptions was that he would observe deep meaningful conversations between stable marital couples and that these exchanges would be predictors of marital health. While he did observe some deep exchanges, what he found more meaningful and common where the multiple micro-exchanges. The common, daily bids and responses were more predictive of marital health and the depth of emotional connection between a couple. These conversations may be about breakfast cereal or a re-cap of the day, but the indicator was the bid and response.   

It is all about the way in which we pay attention to one another. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Gottman’s book The Relationship Cure that helps to explain these exchanges. 

Bids and responses to bids can be big, overblown, cathartic events such as those we see in the movies:

“Will you marry me, Violet?” 

“I will, Jack, I will!” 

Or they can be the small, mundane exchanges of everyday life: 

“Get me a beer while you’re up, okay?”  

“Sure, do you want anything else? Any chips?” 

Bids allow strangers to get acquainted: “Do you mind if I sit here?”

And they’re essential for longtime friends or partners who want to stay close: “I’ve missed you so much. Let’s go somewhere and talk!”

Gottman developed, from watching these verbal and non-verbal exchanges, that there were three distinct categories of bids and responses: Turning toward, turning against, and turning away. 

Turning toward: A husband places an open hand next to his wife and the wife clasps hands with him. One person makes a funny comment and the other person laughs. A parent asks a child to pass the ketchup and the child does so in a kind, accommodating way. All of these subtle exchanges are examples of positive reactions to bids. As one would predict, “turning toward” one another with encouragement and a favorable reply creates safety, deepens relationships, and builds strong foundations of connection.

Turning against: Sarcasm, minimizing and negativity are often seen in examples of “turning against.” A partner asks for help in the kitchen and the other partner scoffs or says something demeaning. A friend shares a new workout plan and the other friend sarcastically says, “Good luck with that.” These types of responses create distance and can slowly create cracks in relationships. Critical responses can generate hostility and feelings of ingratitude. 

Turning away: In a time of great distractibility due to technology constantly at our hip, turning away in response to emotional bids is very common. Turning away involves a lack of response, no response, ignoring, and/or responding with something unrelated. A very common example is a friend texts another and gets no response. Over time turning away is very destructive in relationships. It completely withers any foundation in a relationship.

Gottman’s book The Relationship Cure not only describes emotional bids, but also gives great lessons on how to improve emotional connections. This book is a highly recommended read for anyone wanting to deepen their relationships with friends, co-workers, children and/or a partner.

The attached video is an adorable example of “turning toward.” This father is not only teaching his child how to have a conversation, but is also lovingly and enthusiastically sharing emotional bids.