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.

How to Change your Brain

In my last post I mentioned the 3-Minute Meditation Experiment which is an experiment with mindfulness. I decided it would be good to talk a bit more about why mindfulness practices can be so useful in relation to anxiety.

Research in neuroscience has identified many areas of the brain that are related to anxiety including the amygdala (hub for incoming sensory signals and interpreting them), the hippocampus (encodes threatening events into memories), and the prefrontal cortex (helps to moderate the amygdala – emotional regulation).  So if the prefrontal cortex is not effectively moderating the amygdala there is likely to be excessive anxiety and events are more likely to be interpreted as threatening and encoded in the memory as such.

Regular mindfulness practices have been shown to help re-wire these areas of the brain increasing gray-matter density in the hippocampus and thickening the cerebral cortex associated with attention and emotional integration.  These changes in the brain are associated with increased feelings of calmness, less anxiety, more ability to relax.

So whatever your thoughts are about mindfulness, if you experience anxiety it might be worthwhile to run your own experiment for a couple of months. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how to do this.

Thoughts on mindfulness? Please share your comments!

3-Minute Meditation Experiment

Once anxiety takes hold, our nervous system escalates and it can feel like being trapped in a tidal wave. Becoming more aware of the thoughts and emotions that can lead to nervous system escalation is a key step in anxiety management.

One tool that can help you to experiment with gaining awareness of your nervous system  is meditation. Now I know that word can set off reactions in people so I’ll clarify what I mean by it. I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness meditation: “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Easier said than done you might think, and for most of us the non-judgmentally part is especially challenging. It can be tricky to simply observe ourselves without evaluating or judging. There is no ‘right’ way to do this, only figuring out what the experience is like for you.

The aim is just to gather data about your experience, not necessarily to be relaxed. The 3 Minute Meditation experiment is a way to help you get more familiar with your interior space which is part of the journey towards figuring out how to manage your nervous system escalation.

Here are the steps:

  1. Get something to write on: journal, notes in iPhone, download our meditation tracking form
  2. Set aside 3 minutes at the same time each day for 5 days
  3. Find a timer you can set for 3 minutes (there is a free Meditation Timer App available)
  4. Sit on the floor or on a chair
  5. Close your eyes and just notice the breath moving in and out of your nose, or notice the sounds around you.
  6. Not to worry when your thoughts wonder, just gently come back to the breath or the sounds around you.
  7. After you sit for 3 minutes take a moment to write down what you noticed
  • What thoughts did you notice? E.g. ‘Is this ever going to end’, ‘I find this relaxing’, ‘I think this is stupid’, whatever you notice
  • Did you notice any feelings? E.g. ‘a part of me is angry’, a part of me is impatient’, ‘a part of me is happy’
  • Where there any sensations in your body? E.g. tingling, tension, relaxation, temperature, itchiness, etc

Feel free to ask questions or to post about your experience with the experiment.