In an article early last year, I referred to articles in the Australian Financial Review’s Boss Magazine and Harvard Business Review about Dr. John Gottman’s work and how it can be applied to work relationships. Gottman recently visited Australia to run workshops. In the positive psychology world, he is well-known for his 5:1 ratio of positive to negative language and how it can predict successful relationships. But actually, much more than the 5:1 is important. More generally, John Gottman is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature (see Note 1).
John Gottman Workshop – Sydney, May 2009
Earlier this year, I attended John Gottman’s one-day workshop in Sydney “The Art and Science of Love.” He was entertaining, informative, funny, engaging, and knowledgeable. We were all absorbed every moment of the day, partly because in all his examples and anecdotes, we could see a little bit of our own lives. And he didn’t use a single powerpoint slide.
“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.” John Gottman, May 2009
In this article, rather than summarise Gottman’s work, I have provided quotes and reflections gathered during his presentation. Here are some highlights.
1. It’s more than 5:1
From the printed workshop notes: “Couples who were in a stable, happy relationship – couples who reported liking one another – had a ratio of positive to negative interactions of 5:1 when discussing an area of disagreement. Even when talking about an area of continuing disagreement, their relationships demonstrated a rich climate of acceptance, humour and interest in one another. In the Love Lab, [for] the relationships that were happy, the ratio was 20:1 of positive to negative expressions when simply conversing.” Gottman also pointed out that in relationships which are not going well, the positive to negative ratio is just 0.8:1.
2. What’s going right?
“Contempt is like sulphuric acid. Anger has to be channelled from the very beginning. It cannot be ‘catharted.’ In anger, you need to be very, very gentle.”
“Most arguments are about absolutely nothing.”
“When one is looking for mistakes, there is no such thing as constructive criticism.”
“Respect, gratitude, affection, friendship, and noticing what’s going right is a ‘habit of mind’ which creates a culture of appreciation.”
“Scan for things which go right, notice them more. This leads to more searching for positive things, to positive feedback, and therefore positive actions.”
3. Physiology and health
“When people stonewall, their heart rate goes up, and if it’s above 100 beats per minute, you can’t listen even if you want to. There is a shutting down and narrowing of attention. You can’t be empathetic and compassionate, can’t be creative or a problem solver. The physiology is restricting you. Soothing is essential to reduce the heart rate.”
“Relationships which work well lead to: healthier people who live longer and stronger; people who can cope better with adversity. Their well-being is higher.”
4. Mission, meaning and purpose
“Make it intentional how we move through time together. Those actions are about working towards shared meaning. The rituals of connection are very important.”
“Support each other’s roles, e.g. role of mother, father, friend. Let each other be who they are: this is what’s meaningful to them. Do we know our partner’s mission? Does the relationship support our separate missions in life?”
Gottman explained that the basis of great relationships is a friendship built on strong emotional ‘bank accounts,’ fondness and admiration, and knowing one another. He emphasised the importance of knowing what is right about the partner, and showing an interest in them (“interest is the lowest level of positive affect”). Open ended questions are critical. Friendship is critical for repairing things after ‘regrettable events.’ How the receiver views her partner is critical when that partner makes attempts to repair the relationship.
6. The workplace
We can learn from Gottman’s work and how to apply it in the workplace: “We should build on what’s working well, rather than creating cultures which results in competition.” He also commented on the wonderful work of Marcial Losada: “Losada’s Lab is so much better than mine!”
We learned that people need to enhance their sense of awareness and presence. Listen, tune in. Sometimes when people turn away, it can be because they lack awareness. Mindfulness enables people to become more aware of the other person’s needs and what it takes to bring out what is best in their partner:
“Every relationship is a cross cultural experience. There are two valid perceptions and realities which make a difference.”
8. Moving beyond gridlock
And finally some great words of wisdom: “Many problems are not solvable, some are perpetual. They are inherited, they come with the relationship. We need to make relationships safe enough to move beyond the gridlock. Find the dreams within the conflict. Move from gridlock to dialog, but not to solve the problem. The problem is still there, but at least we’re now talking about the meaning behind the problem.”
A graphical version of this article first appeared here in Positive Psychology News Daily.
John Gottman, Ph.D. is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature. He is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, and with his wife Dr. Julie Gottman now heads a non-profit research institute. Dr. Gottman found his methodology predicts with 90% percent accuracy which newlywed couples will remain married and which will divorce four to six years later. It is also 81% percent accurate in predicting which marriages will survive after seven to nine years.