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.

Fight or Flight = Bad Communication

Once your nervous system gets escalated and moves into fight/flight/freeze response, it’s next to impossible to have a useful discussion. And for many of us, we don’t even know when that response has been triggered in ourselves let alone in our partner. So we continue trying to communicate with little success. This state of nervous system arousal causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival – we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. You both may still be engaging with words, but at the core all you can focus really on is self-protection – its pretty hard to be curious when your nervous system thinks you are under attack. Our hearts are closed. Our prefrontal cortex – related to empathy, is disengaged. Our systems become focused on fear and self-protection, not love and connection.

Because nervous system arousal can happen so quickly an important aspect of improving communication is to become more aware of when your nervous system has escalated into fight/ flight/freeze.

Here are some of the signs that the nervous system is in fight/flight/freeze:

  • We experience an adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol surge
  • Breathing rate increases.
  • Awareness intensifies and our impulses quicken.
  • We become hypervigilant, “looking for the enemy”
  • Fear becomes exaggerated and thinking becomes distorted as we see everything through the filter of possible danger.

Dr. Dan Siegel offers a nice demonstration that can help to make this brain process more concrete. Once you start recognizing some of the signs that you have moved into fight/flight/freeze you can start to experiment with ways of calming your nervous system before continuing a discussion with your partner. More on some of those strategies in the next post.

Healthy Conflict = Healthy Relationships

Client: hello, my partner and I are interested in couples counselling
Me: I’m glad you guys are looking for some support – that takes courage. What’s led you to seek counselling?
Client: hmmmm it’s hard to put into words….ummmm….I guess communication….

Communication difficulties are cited by 90% of people who contact me for couples counselling. Couples know that something isn’t working and can give me lots of examples of communication going sideways. While hearing about the content of their conflicts is a starting place, in order for insight and change to occur it’s necessary to go deeper and that takes some dedicated work. How does each person view conflict? What is happening in her/his nervous system? How was conflict handled in his/her family of origin? How well can each person regulate his/her own emotions?

Conflict is a natural and needed part of building and maintaining an intimate relationship. So the goal isn’t to get rid of conflict but to help couples to find ways of engaging in and repairing conflict in order to increase feelings of safety, connection, and intimacy.  That can sometimes feel like a tall order! But luckily there are lots of amazing tools and strategies for helping people change how they communicate.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about some of the tools the couples I work with have found particularly useful: Stop-Replay, Regulating your Nervous System, and Emotional Bids.

Communication Going Sideways? – Take Two!

Do you ever wish you could rewind a conversation and say something differently to get a better outcome? Changing communication patterns can be quite difficult since our nervous systems can become so primed to react and move into a state of defensiveness based on our reactions to what we hear our partner saying.

In order to start shifting those communication patterns couples require space to experiment. How does your partner want to be communicated with? How do you prefer to be approached? One tool that couples often find useful for experimenting with conversations that are going off the rails is to stop and replay. This technique may seem awkward at first, but if you and your partner can agree to experimenting with it you will likely be surprised with what you learn both about your partner and yourself.

Here is a video by Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson from the Couples Institute demonstrating this technique: