Are interpersonal skills universally transferable across different types of relationships? Specifically, can what you learn in a marriage or a committed partnership* be applied with a professional colleague? That's a question being raised in my Group Facilitation Training Program, which watched a video of John Gottman talking about The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work.
I'm condensing heavily here, but Gottman's basic ideas are:
- There are four types of behavior that are particularly corrosive in a marriage:
- Criticism: Presenting a problem as though the other person has a defective personality. (Note that criticism is different from complaining, which reflects your unhappiness without attributing it to the other person's personality.)
- Defensiveness: Denial of responsibility for any part of a problem.
- Contempt: The suggestion that you're superior in some way to the other person. (This is frequently manifested in a very specific facial expression—one side of the mouth is drawn further to the side, creating an "unhappy" dimple—and often accompanied by a roll of the eyes.)
- Stonewalling: A refusal to engage and provide feedback.
- All of the behaviors above appear in good marriages, but they're balanced by a substantial number of positive interactions. The ratio of positive to negative interactions is typically 5:1, even during times of conflict.
- Couples in a good marriage work to repair the damage, and repair efforts don't have to be skillful or timely--just accepted.
- The likelihood of acceptance (and success) is based on two factors:
- A "soft startup," i.e. initiating the discussion gently and compassionately, rather than leaping to harsh, critical comments.
- The quality of the friendship in the marriage.
- There are seven dimensions to marital friendship:
- Feeling known by the other person; a sense that they are interested in you and your world. (Involved spouses actually create what Gottman calls a "love map" to give them a detailed--and current--conceptual perspective of the other person's reality.)
- A "culture of appreciation" that nurtures mutual fondness, admiration and respect.
- Sensitivity and responsiveness to even the most minor bids for attention, i.e. a pattern of actively "turning toward" each other, rather than ignoring each other.
- The degree of mutual influence.
- Accepting that some problems are intractable and simply can't be solved right now.
- An awareness that inside those intractable problems is often a deeply personal dream, a willingness to share those dreams, and a commitment to honor them together.
- The creation of shared meaning. (Gottman describes every marriage as a "cross-cultural experience," and notes that each person brings a different set of culturally determined meanings to the relationship--"What does it mean to eat together? What does it mean to take a vacation? What is the meaning of our lives?" Ultimately those distinct meanings need to be integrated and shared by both people.)
Having been married for 14 years, Gottman's ideas resonate deeply with me. I don't know much about the research underlying his work, but it certainly feels right. And I can easily see how many of these concepts would be applicable to my professional relationships as well.
I know it's a two-way street; I've used David Bradford and Allan Cohen's concept of Supportive Confrontation in my marriage, and it's made me a much better communicator with my wife. It'll be interesting to see how successfully we can apply Gottman's ideas running in the other direction.
*Although Gottman's book title and most of his remarks are focused on marriages, in the Q&A he noted that his research indicated that the same principles apply in committed partnerships, both straight and gay. People who were living together in a romantic relationship without some type of formal commitment ultimately did not behave the same way, no matter how long they were together.