Dr. John Gottman has been studying couples for four decades. He has dedicated his life to figuring out what separates healthy relationships from unhealthy ones, and he's written more than 40 books on the subject. This guy knows relationships.
Most of his research is primarily focused on romantic relationships, but one of his findings can help you in friendships, too. It relates to something Gottman called "bids for connection." If you figure out how to recognize bids for connection and respond to them appropriately, you can supercharge your ability to connect with others.
Bids For Connection
When someone wants to connect with you, they rarely explicitly say "Hey, I'd like to connect" or "Let's share a moment together." Instead, they'll use what are called "bids for connection." A bid for connection is an action that tries to get your attention and indicates a desire for connection.
Bids for connection can be verbal, like saying:
- "You would not BELIEVE the day I've had today."
- "Wow, look at that sports car!"
- "How was your day?"
Or they can be nonverbal, like
- Touching the other person
- Sitting next to the other person (when there are other seating options that are closer.)
- Sending the other person a link they might like.
The important thing about bids for connection is that they all have a hidden message -- and the hidden message is "I want to connect with you, so please give me your attention." When someone makes a bid for attention, they are looking for a positive response where you show interest in them.
The thing is, many people miss this hidden message, and the bids for connection go unanswered. Unfortunately, when you fail to answer a bid for connection, you send a hidden message of your own -- that you don't really want to connect with the other person.
Let me try to make this more clear by using an example. Imagine you are getting lunch with a friend, and both of you are studying the menu. Your friend says "I wonder why they call them french fries. Were they invented in France?" This is a bid for connection, since they are trying to start a conversation with you. What's the best way for you to respond?
- Grunt and keep reading your menu
- Say, "That's stupid -- why would you care about that?"
- Say, "Huh, I don't know either. French fries don't seem like a French kind of food, but why else would they be called French fries?"
If you picked answer three, you're right. Answer one ignores your partner and answer two attacks your partner. Both signal that you're not really interested in connection. But answer three shows your partner that you are interested in connecting with them. Even if you're not particularly interested in the origins of French fries, answer three lets you share a moment with your friend.
Gottman designed an easy way to think about this. He said that when someone gives us a bid for attention, we can respond in three ways. We can turn away, turn against, or turn towards. Turning away is answer one -- you are saying that your friend is not important enough to pay attention to. Turning against is answer two -- you are attacking your friend for trying to connect. And turning towards is answer three -- you are giving your friend the connection they desire.
Here's one more illustration. Let's say your friend is still studying the menu and says "I can't decide what to order." Your responses might be:
- Turning Away: Shrug and change the subject.
- Turning Against: Say, "You're so indecisive! What's wrong with you?"
- Turning Towards: Say, "Hmm.... what are you stuck between?"
If you're not sure how to turn towards, just follow the golden rule -- do to others as you would want them to do to you. In other words, give the other person the same kind of response you would want.
So what's the takeaway here? Simple.
When someone makes a bid for connection, turn towards them. In other words, if someone is seeking your attention, give it to them. If someone tries to share a moment with you, don't shoot them down. If you notice that you've "turned away" or "turned against" a bid for attention, make sure that you "turn towards" for the next one.
If you do, you might find that many of your interactions go more smoothly. You'll be encouraged by noticing the ways that people try to connect with you. More than anything, you'll show the people you're with that they are worth your attention and interest.
Dr. Gottman knows what he's talking about. Start turning towards bids, and I think you'll start to see a big difference in your ability to connect with others. Good luck!