There’s one tool that will improve your relationships. It’s not hard to do and it creates emotional connection and trust in seconds. It’s all about something called “bids.” Today I’m going to teach you what they are (your partner, kids and friends have been making bids and you don’t even realize it) and my top tips for show to use them to create a deeper connection in any relationship.
What’s a bid?
I talk about the awesome work of marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, quite a bit. You know I love anything that has actual research behind it and Gottman always delivers. Relationship “bids” is a term he coined, and I’ve found in my own work (and personal life) that, not only does it work to improve your relationship with your partner, but it works as an effective tool for all your relationships!
For the record, answering bids is a whole chapter in my book, Be Happily Married Even if Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing.
Bids are basically an effort to connect. Gottman calls them the “fundamental unit of emotional communication.” Once you understand what bids are, you’ll realize that they’ve been happening all around you but you haven’t understood their significance and how they irmprove your relationships.
Here are quick examples of bids:
- Your kid yells, “Mommy look!”
- Your partner holds your hand
- Your friend asks, “How did your conversation go with your boss?”
- Your coworker asks you to drinks after completing a big project
- Your partner asks about planning a vacation
- Your kid gets upset and throws something
All of these asks or gestures, no matter how big or small, verbal or nonverbal, are attempts to connect with you. Your partner, kid or friend is asking for your attention. When your partner sighs aloud when looking at their emails, they’re looking for your interest or support, hoping to connect with you. When your mom comments that your dad is eating too much red meat, she’s looking for a connection about something that’s worrying her. When my man, Gary, comments on a workout video he’s watching, he’s looking for me to show interest in this thing that interests him so he can feel closer to me.
Bottom line: No one is ever simply commenting on what they’re looking at or asking you a question; they’re looking to engage with you. And because people are doing the best they can with the tools they have (and often their tools suck), it’s not always clear that they’re looking to get closer. Many times these bids might seem like they’re trying to push you away – even criticizing you (or at least what you take as criticism) in an effort to connect. Complaining is an effort to connect. Nagging is an effort to connect. These are all bids in their way so it’s what you do with it that counts.
And you’re likely making bids yourself and you don’t even realize it! You send your mom an article to read, you send your best friend that funny YouTube video, you make a move to have sex or cuddle on the couch with your partner or you suggest to a coworker that they should take an anger management class.
The big issue with bids is that we don’t usually understand we’re making them or that we’re receiving one. We don’t understand that they’re closely linked to trust and safety with the other person. We don’t understand how important they are!
Because most people hate being vulnerable, bids are often pretty subtle or indirect. You might not even realize you’re looking to connect, so you don’t realize you’re making a bid. However, when you ask your partner a question when they’re watching TV and then they dismiss you or even get angry (“Why are you always bothering me when I’m watching the game?”), you can get very upset, disappointed, frustrated or even depressed. That’s why you often end up with an outsized response – it’s because of the true intention and meaning of the bid. You’re looking to connect, and you feel rejected by your partner.
Of course, the same thing happens when you’re watching your favorite show and your partner decides it’s a great time to have sex. You might make a joke or get angry (“This is my only time to relax today!”). You end up being the dismisser of the bid.
Most people (including you) either don’t realize they’re looking to connect or feel self-conscious and vulnerable so don’t want to ask directly for time and attention. So, we share a story about what happened at work or ask the other person to go for a walk. We’re really saying, “I’m feeling the need to connect with you” and it hurts when that’s not reciprocated.
How bids work to improve your relationships:
In Gottman’s research he talks about three things you can do when someone makes a bid:
1. Turn towards the bid.
This is when you lean in and engage with the other person.
2. Turn away from the bid.
This is when you either didn’t realize a bid happened and you miss it, or you ignore it.
3. Turn against the bid.
This is when you get mad, defensive or argumentative in some way when a bid is made.
For example, let’s say you’re engrossed in something on your computer and your partner walks in the room and asks what you’d like to do for dinner.
Here’s how you could respond to the bid – you could:
1. Turn towards the bid.
This would mean stopping what you’re doing and then giving your partner your full attention and having a back and forth about dinner ideas. Or you could tell your partner, “I definitely want to talk about dinner, give me five minutes to finish up and I’ll come find you.”
2. Turn away from the bid:
You’d ignore your partner completely and don’t answer them. Or you don’t stop what you’re doing or look up and say, “Whatever you want is fine.” Another way to turn away from the bid is if you allow your attention to be easily diverted. If you’re in a conversation with your partner and then your kid walks in, and you allow the interruption or maybe you’re talking to your sister but then your phone dings and you look at the notification.
3. Turn against the bid:
“Why are you always bugging me when I’m right in the middle of something?” or maybe you give a heavy sigh and eye roll and then say, “Whatever you want is fine with me.” It’s also turning against the bid if you interrupt or change the subject.
When you turn towards someone’s bid, you’re telling them you value them. One of the top complaints I hear in relationships is that someone doesn’t feel heard or seen. What they’re really saying is that they don’t feel connected. When you turn towards or lean into a bid, you’re connecting.
Gottman says: “These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had ‘turn-toward bids’ only 33% of the time.” In other words, only three out of every ten bids for emotional connection were met with support, interaction and intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87% of the time. In other words, these couples were getting their emotional needs met nine times out of every ten bid attempts.
Bids are in every relationship
Bids aren’t just for couples. When your friend asks you a question, they’re making a bid. When your boss asks you to look at something, they’re making a bid. When your kid mentions that their friend Jeremy’s dad was at the game (and you weren’t), they’re making a bid for your attention. Again, people don’t bring things up for no reason.
Now, with your kid, you might have been out of town or couldn’t get out of work and that’s why you didn’t make the game. But lean into this bid and ask questions. Don’t just explain why you couldn’t be there (that’s defensive and in the “turning against the bid” category). Express your feelings, “It hurts me when I miss things like your games. What do you think when I’m not there? Is there anything I could say right now to help you feel better about me missing? Is there anything we could do right now to help you see how important you are to me?”
When your mom calls to tell you that she saw an article about kids’ safety and says that you shouldn’t let your daughter walk to school anymore, she’s making a bid. Don’t turn away (“Everything’s fine mom; it’s one block and she’s perfectly safe”) and don’t turn against (“I’m not having this conversation with you again. You’re too paranoid. This is why I don’t take risks – you worried about every little thing when I was growing up!”).
Turning towards a bid does not mean you agree with the content!
It doesn’t mean you agree that your partner should buy a Porsche or that your teenager should go backpacking this summer if that’s what they want to talk about. It means that there’s something that’s important to the other person and they’re looking to engage with you about it! Sure, they’d love you to agree but that’s not the only way to lean in. In fact, if you just say “sure” to the Porsche without any conversation, it’s dismissive!
Even if you agree, it’s great to get excited with the person and maybe offer to go shop for cars with them or to look at all the pictures of their dream car on their computer! But even if you disagree, it’s time to lean in, ask some questions and look to connect. Be curious: what’s really going on here? Why is the other person interested?
But They’ll Never Stop!
One of the worries I hear is that the bids will never stop. In other words, you might think, “Oh please, if I looked up and engaged every time my five-year-old said, ‘Mommy look!’ I’d never get anything else done!”
Or, I had a client once whose husband was more religious than her and he was constantly sending her scriptures and things to read or watch that she had no interest in. “Am I supposed to sit around and waste my time with this stuff I hate?!” she asked.
There are a couple of comments I’d like to make about this. First, your kids are going to get older, and the bids will stop so try to enjoy that they actually want to engage with you right now. But as a mom myself, I also understand how exhausting it can be. So, you can set up boundaries around the bids. For example, you could set up times that you’re working or relaxing when you need to be left alone from requests, questions or comments. I used to set a kitchen timer for an hour and the kids knew that once it dinged they could chat, but until then, they needed to leave me alone.
When it comes to your partner or someone else who has something you’re not interested in, I want to say this. They’re looking to connect and you’re not, so they feel disconnected and then look to connect more. In other words, they’ll keep making more requests because you’re refusing to engage. Again, make some boundaries around the engagement on certain topics and you’ll see that things loosen.
With my client, she set up a time each morning to pray with her husband (which they both liked). She also asked him questions about his interest in getting her to read all the things he was sending and it turned out that he was worried about their kids and their spiritual life. They ended up having great conversations about how, as a family, they could instill spiritual principles that weren’t just about doctrine.
Turning away from bids equals disconnection and distrust
What you don’t realize is that every time you turn away or turn against a bid, the other person remembers. Whether they realize it or not, they’re keeping score of all the dismissals and rejections. They feel frustrated, angry and afraid.
When this happens, you might find that they start criticizing you or complaining about how you “always X” or “never Y.” Trust weakens and the disconnection deepens.
In Gottman’s research he found that when couples break up, it’s not because of the big things like cheating or who’s doing more work around the house. He found that it’s because of all this distrust, resentment and distance that’s been building up with every bid that’s turned away or turned against over the course of their relationship.
There are a few things you can do to get into a habit of answering and leaning into bids:
1. Be mindful!
Oy, I don’t care how sick you are of hearing me say this but if you don’t slow down and notice that bids are happening, you won’t be able to acknowledge them! Being mindful is the secret sauce to answering (and making bids). Get my mindfulness starter kit!
2. Now that you’re mindful, set an intention to look for bids in all their shapes and sizes.
If your kid heaves a big sigh while doing homework, engage. If your partner pats your ass as they walk by, engage. If your coworker asks for feedback, engage.
3. Make bids yourself (no matter how small), every day, all day.
Greet your partner at the door with a big welcome home hug and smile. Sit down with your kids and play a game or watch a favorite show together. Text your best friend that you’re thinking about them. Make plans with your mom for lunch.
4. Pick someone to say “yes” to for one week.
Make a commitment to say “yes” to whatever your partner, kid or brother asks for the next week. You’ll notice more intimacy and connection right away.
Successful, emotionally close and fulfilling relationships are all about your full attention. Put your phone down, close your laptop, make eye contact and set an intention to fully connect with your undivided attention. Making and answering bids consistently will improve your relationships!