Trust Lessons from the ‘Love Lab’

| By TMA World


I was recently asked to lead a commitment ceremony for a couple of dear friends.  They had officially married a few months before, but the room in City Hall where the wedding took place was miniscule.  Holding a commitment ceremony in a restaurant at a later date enabled many more family and friends to celebrate and show their support for the happy couple.

I had never done anything like this before so I went to the Internet to seek advice.  Luckily, I stumbled across the work of John Gottman, a professor at Washington University, who for years has studied what makes marriages work. 
In 1986. Gottman and a colleague, Robert Levenson set up what journalists called the ‘Love Lab’ into which newlyweds were invited to speak about their relationship, e.g. how they met, a conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had.  Each couple was hooked up to electrodes (not very conducive to romance); Gottman and Levenson then monitored their physiological responses while they talked – blood flow, heart rates, and how much sweat they produced.  Afterwards the couples were sent home, hopefully still speaking to each other.

After a period of 6 years, the researchers followed up with the participants to see which couples were still married.  Two types of marriage relationship were identified from the data: Masters and Disasters

The Disasters looked calm during the experiment, but their physiological data indicated a state that was far from calm: their heart rates and blood flow were faster than the Masters, and their sweat glands were more active.  The more physiologically active couples were, the greater the likelihood the relationship would end in divorce.  To the researchers, the Disasters were always in fight or flight mode – always ready to attack or be attacked.

The Masters in the experiment demonstrated low physiological arousal.  They were calm and felt connected which resulted in warm and affectionate behaviors (even when they were in conflict).  In short, the Masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made them very comfortable with each other. 

To dig deeper, in 1996 Gottman created a lab on the university campus designed to look like an attractive bed and breakfast.  One hundred and thirty couples were invited to spend a day in the B&B being observed while they cooked, cleaned, listened to music, had a meal, chatted, and just relaxed.   What Gottman noticed was that throughout the day the couples would make ‘requests for connection’, or what Gottman called ‘bids’.  If, for example, a husband was interested in art and said to his wife, “This is beautiful, come and take a look,” he is not just asking her to look, he is looking for a meaningful, emotional response – a connection.  She has the choice to ‘Turn Toward” his bid by engaging with him, or to ‘Turn Away’ by ignoring him or responding in a dismissive, sarcastic way (“Sure, real nice.”).  She could also respond more aggressively by saying something like “Oh leave me alone.  I’ve had a hard day.” By turning toward his bid in an engaging, connective way (“Let me see.  Oh yes!) she would acknowledge what was important to her husband and give it respect.  Our days are full of these bidding interactions at work also, and how we respond is a critical factor in creating a climate of trust. 

When Gottman followed up with couples who had separated after six years, he found that the Disasters only turned toward each other’s bids 33 percent of the time.  Couples who were still together after six years turned toward each other’s bids 87 percent of the time. 
Reading Gottman’s work, I not only thought of my marriage (40 years and counting), but of work relationships.  These relationships – except in ‘extraordinary’ circumstances – won’t have the same level of intimacy as in a marriage, but they are still subject to the turning-toward and turning-away dynamic. 

When looking at how the Disasters communicated, Gottman and his colleagues identified what they called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – indicators that a relationship is likely to fail.  Gottman says he can predict 94 percent of the time if a marriage will succeed or not after observing the partners having a three minute conversation. 

Think about whether you demonstrate any of these Four Horseman of the Apocalypse communication styles at work and what you could do to countermeasure them  – we must never underestimate the destructive power of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse, at home or at work.


Communication Style Description Countermeasures
Criticism Communication comes across as attacking someone’s personality. It often is stated in universal terms – “You never,“ or “You’re too lazy.” Usually results in defensiveness or stonewalling by the recipient. Describe what you are feeling as neutrally as possible while still making your point. “Can you tell me why you chose that approach.”
Contempt Any statement or non-verbal behavior that tries to elevate you to a higher ground; it is the epitome of disrespect, e.g. put downs, mocking, rolling your eyes, sneering. Also likely to result in defensiveness or stonewalling. Avoiding sarcasm, even if meant humorously. Communicating appreciation and respect in small ways, every day. Not waiting for a formal review. We all appreciate appreciation.
Defensiveness Countering a perceived attack often with a defensive counterattack. The negative communication is escalated and spins out of control. When we become defensive, we don’t take any responsibility for the part we play in the negative communication. Taking responsibility by openly acknowledging our part in creating negativity. “Let’s start that again. I might not have expressed that thought very well. I apologize.”
Stonewalling Avoiding contact and engagement with a colleague so that he/she feels ignored or invalidated; often results in non-cooperation. Take a break and come back calm and refreshed. Reflect on what is the true cause of your stonewalling. At least acknowledge you are listening to understand, even if you don’t agree.

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