How Do You Build Relationships?

Take This Waltz Still

How healthy are your relationships? At work, at home, with friends, with relatives, with neighbors? The ability to develop strong relationships is the final reward in becoming emotionally intelligent. It flows naturally out of the first steps: be self-aware; regulate and motivate yourself; and exhibit empathy. With those in place, you are ready to benefit from strong relationships.

We can learn much about building healthy relationships from the research conducted by relationship expert John Gottman, PhD. Although his work focuses on couples, his findings can be mapped to any relationship, from coworker to friend to parent.

In his lecture Making Marriage Work, Gottman summarizes the key discoveries made during three decades’ worth of studying more than 3,000 couples with collaborator Bob Levenson.

Gottman and Levenson can predict the likelihood of divorce with 94% accuracy. How? By studying how a couple argues.

The Four Horsemen

Gottman contrasts how masters (successful couples) and disasters (those heading for divorce) handle conflict in a relationship by examining what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse:

1) Criticism

Disasters: Complain in a way that suggests their partner’s personality is defective (“You did this terrible thing. What is wrong with you?”).

Masters: Discuss how their partner’s behavior makes them feel (“You did this thing, and it made me feel this way.”)

2) Defensiveness

Disasters: Meet a complaint with righteous indignation (often delivering a counter-complaint) or play the innocent victim (whine that they didn’t do it).

Masters: Accept responsibility, even if it’s only for a small part of the problem.

3) Disrespect/Contempt

Disasters: Feel superior to their partner and regard them with contempt, usually practicing name-calling and insulting.

Masters: Feel respect for their partner; they thank their partners for small things with affection and appreciation. Instead of scanning the environment for things to criticize, they scan for things to praise.

4) Stonewalling

Disasters: Withdraw emotionally from conflict (no eye contact, facial movement, or vocalization); the speaker doesn’t think they’re getting through, which intensifies the conflict.

Masters: Base their relationship on friendship and intimacy.


How does a couple establish a healthy friendship? Gottman outlines three critical factors:

1) Love maps. Masters spend time enhancing their internal roadmaps to a partner’s inner psychological world, getting to know their loved one’s dreams, hopes, values, stresses, and fears by asking thoughtful questions.

2) Fondness/admiration. Masters communicate affection and respect in small ways (“Thank you”; “I’m proud of you”; “I respect and admire you”), and they express appreciation for specific behaviors and traits.

3) Bids for emotional connection. These subtle calls for attention can result in a turning away (disasters give little or no response) or a turning toward (masters may offer an enthusiastic response that reciprocates the bid for connection). As bids for connection are rejected, the bidder doesn’t rebid. This painful lack of connection leads to gradually diminishing communication and levels of trust.

Just because the masters practice the above behaviors doesn’t mean they don’t argue. They do, however, experience a positive sentiment override when conflict does arise, so they are more likely to respond with humor and understanding in situations that would make disasters (negative sentiment override) react defensively.

Practicing gentleness in presenting concerns to the partner (softened startup) is another key to successful relationships.

For the marital conflicts that are unresolvable (69%) due to fundamental personality differences, masters can move past gridlock to dialogue by examining the subtext of what they’re arguing about. When they understand the life dream and personal philosophy that lies behind each position, partners can come to appreciate and empathize with the other’s perspective.

Physical abusers always reject their partner’s observations and never accede a point, whereas masters graciously accept influence from their partner.

Calming down is another habit masters practice during conflict. When tempers flare and your heart rate exceeds 100, your body pumps out adrenaline, your arteries constrict, you start sweating, and your blood pressure increases. All of these physiological changes prevent you from processing information clearly, being creative, and solving problems. By stepping away and self-soothing, you can return to the conversation with a cooler head and increased chances of reaching consensus.

In a 2010 blog post, Collaborative Couples Therapy developer Dan Wile gives some wonderful examples of how couples bid for emotional connection in their daily lives. As I suggested to my Working with Emotional Intelligence class, you may wish to read this piece and then take notice of your pattern of bidding and response. How do your patterns serve you? Your relationships? Are you surprised?

I encourage you to take stock and make the changes that will serve you and all those you are in relationship with. Be self-aware, be self-motivated, practice empathy and develop stronger relationships. Life’s better that way.


  1. This all holds true for business relationships as well. If the idea of love in the workplace seems odd, take a look at “Love Works, The Seven Principles for Effective Leaders” by Joel Manby. It’s a favorite of Norm Kester, president, Quantum Innovations (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *