The Fundamental Component of a Relationship

When two people interact, what is the interaction made of? Strip the conversation of its content, and what are the fundamental elements? What are the building blocks of connection?

John Gottman, one of the most influential researchers into marital relationships uses what he calls “the love lab” to study couples. The lab is an apartment fixed with two-way mirrors and cameras, where married couples come and spend the weekend while being filmed and observed, and then these films are analyzed carefully. After 25 years of this kind of painstaking analysis of hundreds of thousands of personal interactions, Gottman discovered an elemental core of connection. It’s something he calls “the bid.”

In an interaction, one person “makes a bid for connection.” The other person responds to that bid in one of three ways: Turning toward, turning against, or turning away.

These are the fundamental components of connection — between anyone. This is what connection is made of: The bid, and the response to the bid.

This understanding removes the complication and confusion from relationships. Each subject and interaction may be different, but underneath it all are these basic components.

People are bidding and responding to bids all the time. But without seeing what is happening, the responses to bids can shut down any further bidding. And the bids people make to others can be made in a way that doesn’t encourage good responses to the bids. Fully understanding the concept of “the bid” can greatly improve your capacity to connect with people.

So what is a “bid?” It can be anything:

  • “Can you tell me what time it is?”
  • “Hey, Joe, how’s it going?”
  • “You look great in that color!”
  • “Are you hungry? Do you want to get a pizza?”
  • “What are you doing tomorrow?”
  • “I just saw a great movie called Date Night. Have you seen it?”

And the response to a bid can be turning away, turning against, or turning toward. The responses of turning away and turning against tend to discourage further bidding. For example, you say, “You look great in that color!” The other person could turn away by completely ignoring your statement as if she didn’t hear it, or responding with something like, “Do you know what time it is?”

Or the person could turn against it by saying, “I hate this color,” or “What do you know about color matching?”

Or the person could turn toward your bid by saying, “Thank you!” or “Oh I’m so glad you said that; I don’t usually wear this color but I really liked the dress.”

Every interaction we have with someone else is a bid and one of those three responses to bids. That’s all there is. These simple building blocks are the foundation of all relationships.

You want to know how to connect with someone. Here’s how: Respond to other’s bids by turning toward those bids. And learn to be good at making bids for connection.

Okay, what makes a good bid? The most important element in making bids is to understand that the point of all the bidding and responding is to give and receive emotional information. This is so important, let me say it another way just to be crystal clear: To connect with people, the important thing is to transmit and receive emotional information. So a bid would invite the other person to give you some emotional information. Volunteering some emotional information about yourself is also a good way to bid.

Not all bids or responses might seem like emotional information. If I ask you what time it is and you respond “12:30,” it may not seem to deliver any emotional information. However, the way I ask and the way you respond can indeed give each of us emotional information about each other. I can ask you what time it is in a commanding way, in a friendly way, and many others. You can respond to me in many ways too, while technically giving the same information.

The important principle is that you begin to see your interactions with others as bids and responses to bids. This will give you a whole new way to view what’s happening and it will make it easier for you to connect with someone.

Notice the way you bid, and notice the responses you get, and you will naturally get better at connecting.

Don’t focus on what’s complicated about it. You are a human being, a social animal, and your brain is exquisitely engineered to learn social information, and will learn all by itself. All you need to focus on is making good bids, and responding to others’ bids by turning toward them. This is how to connect with people.

Read more at the Gottman Institute:

Testosterone is Like Cocaine

Women and men both have testosterone. Men have 10 to 20 times more of it though. And testosterone has strong effects on muscle growth, feelings of confidence, and mood (among other things). When people are given extra testosterone, they feel more energetic, more confident, and more aggressive. 

One of the things about men that exasperate women is that he is "overconfident," which, in a technical sense, he is. He feels more certain about what he's doing and the decisions he makes than she does, generally speaking. He's more likely to feel he's right and he's more likely to be wrong than she is (click here to read more about these differences and why they exist). 

This overconfidence seems like a flaw, but it is also an advantage, and that's why evolution selected for it. To see how it's an advantage, check out an article by two women in The Atlantic: The Confidence Gap. Basically, if someone has more confidence, he's more likely to speak up, to put his ideas forward, to act on his ideas, etc. It adds up to greater success, even though he's more likely to make mistakes, more likely to be wrong, and more likely to pitch dumb ideas.

There is a benefit to you if you understand this. If you're a man, it can help you make better decisions to realize your feeling of confidence isn't necessarily correlated to how right you are. And if you're a woman, it's in your best interest to understand that the man you're talking to is under the influence of a very powerful cocaine-like substance.

Adam Khan is the author of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About ItPrinciples For Personal GrowthDirect Your Mindand co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English)Follow his podcast, The Adam BombYou can email him here.