1 Powerful Step to Improve Communication

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most common reason people give for seeking couples counselling is problems with communication. Communication is a pretty broad area and making change generally requires being able to address small pieces at a time.

John Gottman, psychologist and relationship researcher, has done a great job of breaking down communication into smaller, more manageable pieces. An important piece of communication, according to Gottman, is bids. He defines bids as a “fundamental unit of emotional communication” specifically “a question, a gesture, a look, a touch – any single expression that says ‘I want to feel close to you.’

Bids could include:

Verbal Non Verbal
Thoughts Affectionate Touching
Feelings Facial Expressions
Observations Playful touching
Opinions Affiliating gestures (eg. holding door open)
Invitations Vocalizing (laughing, sighing, chuckling)


So making bids and recognizing bids are the first two ingredients, responding to your partner’s bid is the third. Gottman describes 3 types of bid responses:

Turning Towards Turning Away Turning Against
Passive (Nod, uh-huh) Preoccupied (non-response) Contemptuous (put downs, insults)
Low energy (Sure, okay) Disregarding (irrelevant response) Belligerent (provocative, combative)
Attentive (Validation, opinions, thoughts, feelings, questions Interrupting (introducing unrelated info or a counter bid) Contradictory (arguing with or without hostility)
High energy (Enthusiasm, full focus, empathy) Responses may be mindless or intentional Critical (character attacks)
Domineering (control, overbearing)
Defensive (fake helplessness, victim stance)

Gottman’s research findings show some interesting trends:

  • Husbands heading for divorce ignored their wives’ bids for connection 82% of the time
  • Husbands in stable relationships ignored their wives’ bids just 19% of the time
  • Wives heading for divorce ignored their husbands’ bids 50% of the time
  • Wives in stable relationships ignored their husbands’ bids 14% of the time

Experiment: If you are looking to improve your communication, becoming familiar with bids, both how you make them and how you respond to them, is a great place to start. Over the next few days don’t try to change anything about your interactions, just observe when you make bids and recognize when your partner makes bids and notice how you tend to respond.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on bids or your experience with this experiment in the comments section.