Being in Relationship

Published in Womeninc, April 2008

by Diana Gabriel

In the last issue, we talked about “spring cleaning” – decluttering your life in terms of letting go of the things that were negative and holding you back, and moving into all that is possible for you. As you move into living a more fulfilled, intentional life, a new question arises about relationships. How you are going to be in relationship with the people you have chosen to share your energy with? What do you need to put in place to nurture and sustain those relationships, in an intentional way?

One of my all time favorite researchers and authors on relationships is John M. Gottman. Gottman has done the most significant research on marital relationships, working with 3,000 couples over a 35-year period. He can predict, in a very short amount of time and with a high degree of accuracy, whether a couple will stay together and have a healthy relationship or not.

What does it take to be successful in relationships? Gottman has found that successful couples actually look for ways to accentuate the positive in the other. He believes we need to find as many ways of saying “yes” to people we care about as possible. For example, acknowledging another’s thinking in conversation with a simple, “Yes, that’s a great point. I never thought of that.” is a way to say “yes” to another. This approach is actually a way of looking for, and nurturing, the positive in each other.

Sharing power is another critical component of success. Successful couples embrace conflict and are committed to working through it in a respectful way. It is essential that all of us find ways to process through our regrettable moments. Gottman says that we also need humor, affection, playing, silliness, exploration, adventure, and touching. These are the things that build trust and connection. Most of all it takes intentionality, time and work to nurture our relationships.

I think it is helpful to consider these principles as we reflect on our own relationships. How often are we positive with those we care about? How often do we take the opportunity to nurture the wonderful qualities in our companions, friends and loved ones? Gottman has found that relationships are very resilient and can withstand a lot if we avoid several toxic behaviors, which he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. He has found these behaviors to be the “best predictors of breakup or continued misery”. He considers contempt to be the worst because it, by its very nature, destroys the heart and soul of relationships. Resolution of issues is nearly impossible if you can not stand or respect the other person.

I was very excited to discover an article about Gottman’s work in the December 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review. The piece discussed Gottman’s work and the relevance of his research as it applied to making all relationships work – not just our primary or love relationships. We can apply these principles in a work or business setting to relationships with colleagues, supervisors, co-workers or anyone we come into relationship with. In my experience, relationships are relationships. Whenever we are relating to another human being, regardless of the context, our needs are basic and very similar, and the disruption the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can cause applies equally to both our personal and professional relationships.

As the publication of Review article – in a high-profile business journal – suggests, it is becoming more common for leaders in the work place to be aware of human relationships and to take seriously that how we are in relationship with others is critical to ensuring outstanding performance and commitment to our work. I would also argue that this is true for all of our relationships – with our siblings, our partners, our friends. What would it be like if we applied these principles to all of our relationships, across the board?

Gottman’s research has given us a head-start. In embracing his concepts, trial and error in relationships is all but eliminated. In coaching terms, we can be in choice about how we show up, and we can intentionally create the meaningfulness, safety, depth, and longevity we desire in our most important relationships. His work can provide the structure for making your important personal and professional relationships work for you long term. As you apply this to your own life and relationships, consider the following resources:

  • Making Relationships Work by John Gottman, Harvard Business Review, December 2007
  • The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and Lovers by John M. Gottman and Joan DeClaire Crown
  • Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John M. Gottman
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