Tag: Sebastian Bailey

How People Make Big Decisions

We all go through psychological steps when we make big decisions. Some people call this the “existential cycle,” which really has four stages: doing, contemplating, preparing, and experimenting.

***

Echoing Tolstoy on regret avoidance, Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently:

These four stages are much like exercises in risk management. No one wants to look back on his or her life at some point and say I wish I would have or If only I had.

While there are other ways, the existential cycle helps us make life changing decisions — like who to marry, where to work, and where to live.

The first stage, “doing,” is where you spend most of your life: It is your settled, equilibrium position. The doing may be all sorts of things— writing emails, riding horses, reading books, washing up, going to meetings, listening to lectures, cooking, dancing, running, sharing stories with friends, telling jokes, or making love. Of course, these are not done all at the same time (not unless you’re really talented). Whatever the activity may be, and however enjoyable or dull it is, you are doing it and it tends to keep you occupied.

Sometimes we get to “contemplating,” where we consider whether or how things would be different. What would life be like if you move to California? (Hint: It won’t make you happier.)

Then occasionally we move to “preparing.”

You search on the web for real estate agents in San Diego or Key West, find out what property prices are, check weather patterns, possibly even visit your preferred destination on your next vacation. You have moved beyond imagining how things could be different to investigating the practical options for how to make them different.

Finally you make the change.

You leave your job, buy a house, and move all your possessions. This stage is called “experimenting.” After you’ve settled in and started the beachside bar you’d dreamed about, this becomes your normal way of living, and you are once again in a state of doing.

The process isn’t overly complicated or hard. The challenge becomes moving through it at the right pace in a way that aligns with your principles.

How-People-Make-Big-Decisions

The Doing Magnet

As you travel around your cycle, you will have conversations with yourself that stop you from moving on to the next stage and instead take you back to doing.

Sometimes these thoughts can be very sensible and prevent you from wasting time or following the wrong path. But sometimes, unfortunately, they prevent you from both spotting and taking opportunities that could dramatically improve your life. The trick lies in recognizing the internal conversations and being able to make an informed decision about whether to listen to them or to ignore them and move on.

When the Doing Magnet is Weak

Irrational exuberance are those people who are forever saying things like I wish I hadn’t rushed into that or If only I’d thought about it first. Rather than never crossing the Rubicon, they’re happy to head over far too easily— without ever considering the size of the army on the other side. In terms of the existential cycle, their doing magnet is relatively weak— the centrifugal momentum of the next new thing is stronger than the gravitational force of the status quo.

If you find that you can’t hold down a job, you can’t keep a relationship, you spend money on a whim, or you haven’t gotten around to making your home into a place you like living in, and you regret it, then you may be suffering from a form of irrational exuberance. The best advice in this situation is this: spend longer at the preparing stage before wading across your Rubicon.

For example, consider one of these choices:

  • Think through all the possible disadvantages of taking this course of action as well as the advantages— really make an effort to present the case for caution on this occasion.

  • Contrast the allure of the new situation with how your existing life might improve even if you don’t make this big change. People who are always moving on to new jobs often fail to consider how their current jobs could get better. A new job may be attractive, but it is wrong to assume the old one will stay the same. New possibilities could open up. What happens when your boss moves on?

  • Contemplate the bigger and better gains and pleasures you could have if you didn’t always go for instant gratification. Could the gratification get more gratifying?

  • Consider any decisions you made in the past that led to situations you later regretted. What can you learn from these that will help you make a wiser decision this time.

If you Want to Improve, you have to Cross the Rubicon

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

You have a choice in how you run your life. There is no “can’t,” only “will” and “won’t.” The trick is knowing why you are, or aren’t, moving around the existential cycle and, in particular, crossing your Rubicon. Like we’ve said, the right thing isn’t to always cross or always not cross. The right thing is to understand why you want to cross or don’t want to cross, and then make your decision.

Nevertheless, none of us want to live our lives in a constant state of doing. I might not be in good enough shape today to swim 2.4 miles, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future. Plus, our reasons for remaining in one state may not be strong. At some point, in certain aspects of our lives, if we want to progress, we must cross the Rubicon.

A decision to not cross the Rubicon based on the wrong reasons— when catastrophic fantasies rule our mind-sets— is what causes people to look back on their lives and think If only. … All of us who have looked back and been proud of what we have done have crossed the Rubicon at least once and maybe many times.

There’s a famous Latin maxim, carpe diem, which translated means “seize the day.” The question you have to ask yourself is, When it comes to crossing Rubicons, just how much of a Caesar am I prepared to be?

The Four States of Mind

The truth is, you have control of your thoughts, reactions, and responses. And once you understand how powerful that choice can be, you’ll be able to change more aspects of your life than you can imagine.

We’re busier than ever. We’re often on autopilot.

We “go through the motions” without really paying attention to the decisions we’re making or the implications. This is often where we go in the wrong direction and our view becomes narrow – we miss the bigger opportunity.

Sebastian Bailey elaborates on this in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently.

We can focus internally or externally.

Internal Focus

When your focus is internal, it’s much like you’re having a conversation with yourself. Consider the voice you hear in your head as you read this book. Even while you’re reading our words, another dialogue might be asking if it’s worth continuing to read this chapter or if now is the time to have a cup of coffee. … When your focus is internal, you are conscious of the fact that you are thinking; you can hear and pay attention to the running commentary in your head.

External Focus
Where are you right now? What’s happening? What noises do you hear? Who is close to you?

External focus is an awareness of the things outside your own head. And when you focus in this way, you aren’t aware of what you’re thinking. Your attention is on what is going on, not on what you think about it, how to interpret it, or whether it could have an impact on your future.

When you are really caught up in something, whether it’s the thrill of a football game or the latest twist in your favorite reality show, you are externally focused. And when you find yourself thinking, Why am I wasting time watching this ridiculous reality show? you have returned to an internal focus.

Where should your focus be?

Your mind is always occupied in one of two places: what is going on inside your head or what is going on outside your head. It is impossible to focus at the same time on both what’s internal and what’s external, just as it is to focus on neither. What is possible, though, is to switch between them, which, with a little mental discipline, you can do pretty much whenever you want.

The truth is we need to alternate between being internally focused and being externally focused.

The Four States of Mind

When you combine the types of focus (internal and external) with the ways we focus (helpful and harmful) you get four distinct states of mind: autopilot, critical, thinking, and engaged.

We want to be in the helpful states. And we want to flip between thinking and engaged.

The Four States of Mind
First things first, we need to recognize what state of mind we’re in.

Autopilot: Recognizing Habits of the Mind

Autopilot kicks in when you allow what was once exciting and challenging to become boring or mundane. You stop thinking about the situation and, instead, respond in preprogrammed ways.

This happens in several ways. What turns autopilot on (and turns the thinking mind off)?

The Familiarity Trap

We label things and experiences to help us understand how they fit with the world around us. For example, you see someone crying and automatically think, Crying equals sad; therefore, that person must be upset. Your automatic response prevents you from considering alternative explanations. The person crying could be acting, chopping onions, or laughing so hard that tears are streaming down his or her face. But when you are caught in the familiarity trap, you are unlikely to consider these alternatives. The familiarity trap explains, say, why security officials at the airport rotate roles. If a person looks at an X-ray screen for long enough, a nuclear bomb might go through without that person noticing. Some pianists learn their pieces away from a keyboard so they won’t become too familiar with it and fall into autopilot when they perform.

The Single View

Of course, we all see the world through our own eyes. My eyes are different from your eyes. But when we try to consider an issue or solve a problem, we tend to assume that the way we see the world is the right way to see it. Why wouldn’t we? And yet our view isn’t always the right one. Thinking creatively demands that you look at a familiar problem with fresh eyes— using a perspective different from your own. To actually achieve this, you need to recognize that your mind is functioning on autopilot, temporarily fixed by your worldview and your life experiences.

Pressure

To demonstrate that pressure often leads us to behave in autopilot mode, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson asked a group of seminary students to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan parable. With the parable at the forefront of their minds, the seminarians were then asked to walk to the location where they were expected to deliver their talk. So far, the task seems pretty straightforward. However, this is where the cunning psychologists made life difficult. They had arranged for the seminarians to come across someone lying in the road, coughing, spluttering, and calling for help. To make matters more difficult, the psychologists had told half the seminarians that they were late for their talk and the other half that they had plenty of time. How many would stop to help the injured person? And which ones? Of those who were told they had plenty of time to reach their destination, 61 percent stopped to help, but of those who were told they were late, only 10 percent stopped. According to the observations of the psychologists, some seminarians literally stepped over the actor pretending to be injured. The slight change of situation moved the rushed seminarians into autopilot, making them forget what had been on their minds just moments before.

There is nothing wrong with letting your autopilot direct mundane activities you have to do and have no desire to change, like mowing the lawn or folding laundry. But as the study just described shows, there are times when you must take control of your thinking or risk missing key opportunities (in the case of the seminarians, the opportunity to put into action the very message they were about to deliver at a lecture).

Thinking: Actively Analyzing Your Thoughts

You are in a thinking state of mind when you are assessing options, deciding on a course of action, working through a problem, estimating the likely consequences or chain of events, or simply organizing your thoughts to make more sense of them. When you’re at your best in this state, your thoughts feel clear, precise, and positive.

This is useful when: solving problems and making decisions, correcting mistakes, making sense of a situation, and reflecting on the past.

One of the most effective ways of improving yourself is to learn from your past experiences, consider what you did well, and decide what you could do better in the future if you were in a similar situation.

So what does it mean to have an engaged state of mind?

An engaged state of mind exists when your focus is external, on something in your immediate environment, and when you’re performing at your best. If you can drive, you might recall the moment when you first drove somewhere on your own without thinking, Check mirror, change gear, right blinker, but instead your attention was completely on the road ahead and the other motorists while you sang along to the radio. Or you might recall the first time you skied to the bottom of a slope and you were not quite sure how you got there, but it felt great.

[…]

When you are absorbed by what you are doing, you are engaged and totally present. By not judging yourself, you interfere less with the task at hand and allow your potential to take over.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

Turning the Autopilot Off

Look for something new.

Practice scanning your environment, consciously looking for what is new, different, and unusual. Ask yourself questions, like How has this street changed since the last time I walked down it? What are the differences between the people on the train? What do I notice today about my colleagues? These questions might seem silly, but they force you to live in, think about, and focus on the present— to become aware of your surroundings and not slip back into autopilot.

Learn that “always” isn’t absolute.

One of the reasons why all of us can get caught in autopilot is that we tend to see the world as a set of absolutes. You are apt to believe that such and such will always happen, because so far it always has. This is a mental shortcut, which saves you from having to think about it again. As a result, your thinking falls into patterns of your own making and you are, in effect, switching on the autopilot.

Accept other people’s perspectives.

Have you ever had a boss or colleague you thought was overbearing, dogmatic, aggressive, or rude? Do you think they saw themselves in that way? Surprisingly enough, they might not. If they were asked to describe themselves, they might say they were assertive, direct, honest, and candid. One of the reasons why conflicts can get so ugly is that it’s easy to fall into a state of autopilot and respond to others without thinking or without considering others’ perspectives. By staying alert to other people’s perspectives, you can move out of autopilot and into a more constructive state of awareness.

Another tip, build reflection into your routine. Check out this guide on meditation to get started. You also want to focus on process not outcome.

By focusing on the steps you need to take to get where you want to go, rather than on the eventual outcome, your mind switches from critical noise to being engaged.

The Ideal State of Mind

An ideal state of mind fluctuates between thinking and engaged— whatever a current situation demands of you. There isn’t a formula that dictates when you should be in one state and when you should be in the other, but much like dancing, you need to find a rhythm and delicately move as the situation (or music) requires.

Try listening to your thoughts without critiquing. Attempt to stay neutral. Once you’ve mastered that try to consciously notice more, make an effort to practice and be present in the moment.

***

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of mind-expanding content.

The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others

Mindgym the Nine Influence Tactics

The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

“When you try to influence others,” Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in their book Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, “it is essential that you understand the other person’s reasons so you can use tactics that will work to persuade them, as opposed to tactics that would work on you.”

Okay, with that said, here are the nine primary tactics to influence others.

1. Reasoning

What Is It?
“There are three excellent reasons why contemporary art is a worthwhile investment. First . . .”

The tactic we call reasoning, at its best, is the process of using facts, logic, and argument to make a case.

Give Me an Example
“You should run the marathon next year. The training will make you fitter and healthier; it will give you something to focus on outside work, which you said you wanted; and you will raise money for a good cause, maybe that hospice you gave all your old clothes to for their fund-raising sale. It just makes sense.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is useful most of the time. Reasoning is the bread and butter of influencing. The challenge is to support your views with relevant information and a coherent argument. Although reasoning requires more effort than some of the other tactics, it is much more likely to create your desired effect.

Warning
When you present a view or position as if it is a fact (e.g., “This problem is going to take a long time to solve”) but without any evidence to back it up, then the reasoning is weak. Weak reasoning is the most common influencing tactic people use, but without the evidence to back up your view, it is far less effective.

2. Inspiring

What Is It?
“Imagine a world where …”
Almost the exact opposite of reasoning, the inspiring tactic focuses on the heart rather than the head. It appeals to emotions and suggests what could be possible, if only the other person were persuaded.

Give Me an Example
Some of the most well-known uses of the inspiring tactic can be seen in political leaders’ speeches. Great examples are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Shakespeare’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech given by Henry V. These speeches don’t just ignore logical argument but defy it. Take this excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s speech about putting a man on the moon, with commentary from a skeptic in brackets.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard [Yeah, like that’s a good reason for doing something ; hey, I reckon we should paint the garden fences with a toothbrush and nail varnish because it’s really hard], because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills [How so? Why wouldn’t feeding the starving in Africa or increasing world literacy do it just as well if not better?] . . .

For all the skeptic’s heckling, this speech helped mobilize a nation. The magic about inspirational appeal is that it touches our hearts by appealing to our values and our identity. Like falling in love, when the inspiring tactic works, nothing can beat it (certainly not a cynic).

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is especially useful when your rational argument is weak or unclear and you want a high level of emotional commitment. The inspiring tactic doesn’t tend to be used much in daily life, especially in the workplace, which is a shame because it’s a powerful way to persuade and excite.

Most of us have been seduced by this tactic as children (e.g., “It’ll make you big and strong when you grow up”), when watching TV (e.g., advertisements with young, sexy people having wild times drinking a particular brand of soda), or when we’re with friends who are hooked on a new craze (e.g., “You have to check out dune bashing: the surge, the speed, the heat, the views”).

Warning
It is not just what you say but also how you say it; the inspiring tactic demands conviction, energy, and passion. When deploying this tactic, a dreary demeanor will leave you floundering. Deliver inspiration like it matters more than life itself and you’ll be pretty much invincible.

3. Asking Questions

What Is It?
“Would you like to be rich?” Asking questions encourages the other person to make their own discovery of your conclusion (or something similar).

Give Me an Example
I am walking through the airport when a woman with a clipboard approaches me from in front of a large advertising board and asks, “Do you have a credit card?”

I utter a dismissive “Yes” and keep walking.

“Do you get airline miles with your card?” she persists.

“Yes, I do,” I reply, slightly irritated, and carry on walking.

“Do you use your airline miles?” The truth is I don’t, but I’m not going to get caught up in this conversation.

“A bit,” I reply, but my walking slows.

“Would you rather have cash?” I stop, turn, and look at her for the first time.

“Do you have five minutes to fill in a form to get a credit card that gives you cash?” she asks.

In five questions I have been persuaded to do something I haven’t done in over a decade: switch to a new credit card.

When Is It Useful?

This is a great tactic when it is important that the other person feels responsible for the outcome. In coaching and counseling, for example, a course of action or therapy is much more effective when the other person believes it was their idea rather than when they grudgingly give in. Asking questions is also useful when you’re trying to persuade someone who has more power than you— maybe your boss (“Do you think I’m overdoing it?” “Do you struggle with work– life balance? How do you deal with it?”) or your client (“Are you happy with the gold service? Or do you ever wish you had the platinum?”).

Warning
This is one of the hardest tactics to use because it is impossible to know how the other person will respond. If the questions are too broad, then you are likely to veer off course; if they are too narrow, the other person will spot what you are up to and may refuse to cooperate. But while most of the other tactics get weaker if they’re used too much, asking questions is a tactic that has an extended battery life— it’s effective time after time.

4. Cozying Up

What Is It?
“You’re a smart guy.”

If you feel positive toward someone, you are much more likely to agree with them, and you almost always feel positive toward someone who makes you feel good about yourself. This is the cozying up tactic.

Give Me an Example
“Hi, Sandra. You’re looking well. I heard from Mark that you did a great job on the Johnson case. Not an easy situation— well done. I have a challenging case coming up in October and am pulling together a top-level team to work on it. Would you be interested?”

When Is It Useful?
Cozying up is a particularly good tactic to use when you’re trying to influence people with less or the same level of power as you, because they are likely to value your views. Many of us use it on our partners (“Darling, you look like a million bucks”), our friends (“I know you are someone I can trust”), and our clients (“You’re the sort of person who will really appreciate this— because you’re smart”).

The danger with cozying up is that if you’re too obvious when using this tactic, you’ll have the opposite effect (“You’re only saying that because you want me to do something for you”). As a result, some people avoid it altogether. They are missing out. A less risky approach is to leave time—sometimes even several days— between making someone feel good about themselves and trying to persuade them.

Warning
Using cozying up on someone who clearly has more power than you can look like sucking up. So, unless you know what you are doing, be mindful about how much kudos you’re sending out into the world.

5. Deal Making

What Is It?
“If you pick me up from the airport, I will . . .”

Deal making is when you offer or give another person something in return for their agreement with you. It may be explicit, but it doesn’t have to be.

Give Me an Example
“I promised a friend I would walk his dog while he was on vacation. Then tonight I was offered Beyoncé tickets at the last minute. I’ll buy you dinner if you come over and watch the dog while I’m at the concert.”

When Is It Useful?
Deal making is useful when you want to increase the odds in your favor and don’t mind giving something away in return. Sometimes it is necessary to be up front (“If you help me paint the bathroom, I’ll cook dinner every night next week”). At the same time, the deal can work better when the connection is only implied (“Sure, I’ll introduce you to my sister,” and then twenty minutes later, “Can you really get me into the VIP section at the golf tournament?”). Often deal making is most effective when the connection is all but invisible, like it’s something you would have done for one another without a deal.

Warning
This tactic works by appealing to a desire for fairness. Some people can “take, take, take” without feeling any remorse or indebtedness (or they may just think you’re a generous fool). Deal making won’t work with this type of person unless you are very up front about the terms of the exchange.

6. Favor Asking

What Is It?
“Can you help me out?”

Favor asking is simply asking for something because you want or need it, but you’re not offering anything in return.

Give Me an Example
“My guest speaker has just pulled out of the event I’m organizing next week. All I can say is that I’d be eternally grateful if you’d be willing to step in and give a speech to my group.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic works well only when the other person cares about you or their relationship with you. If used sparingly, it is hard to resist.

Warning
The person you ask for a favor might feel that you owe them one in the future. If you think they do, make sure you “pay back” the favor or you won’t get such a positive response next time.

7. Using Silent Allies

What Is It?
“Everyone who has read this book so far …”

The use of silent allies invokes other people, who are generally similar to the person you are trying to persuade, to make your case (“All professional runners train this way, so you should too”).

Give Me an Example
The advertising slogans “Nine out of ten dentists recommend …” and “America runs on Dunkin’” are classic examples of this tactic. Movie reviews and quotes from satisfied customers are also common examples . Outside of advertising and marketing, the silent allies approach is often used in the workplace, where you might hear comments like “All the best graphic designers use a Mac.” In social situations, you might hear “All the cool kids are wearing these jeans, and they’re the top-selling brand.” The best silent allies are those whom the person you are trying to persuade naturally associates with, such as professionals in their own industry or people with similar interests or beliefs.

When Is It Useful?
One of the most powerful ways to persuade teenagers to do anything is to show them that their peers, especially the cool ones, are doing it already. The silent allies tactic also works in business by, for example, referring to best practice models or a list of past clients. If the person you are trying to influence is concerned about risk (and most people are, deep down) or is anxious to fit in, then this can be your winning tactic.

Warning
Some people actually prefer to be contrary (“I only like underground bands”). Entrepreneurs, for example, are rarely dissuaded from trying something because no one has done it before. They actually see it as a potential benefit.

8. Invoking Authority

What Is It?
“It’s our policy not to refund cash.”

The invoking authority tactic is used from a position of power or by appealing to a rule or principle. It doesn’t matter whether the authority invoked is formal or implicit, so long as it is recognized by the person you are trying to influence.

Give Me an Example
“I won’t work for you unless we sign a contract” is an explicit approach to influence that not only appeals to the rules but also creates them.

“I won’t take business calls between the hours of five P.M. and seven P.M. because that is dinnertime with my family” is an approach to influence that creates boundaries based on principles.

When Is It Useful?
The advantage of invoking authority is that the tactic is quick and straightforward . The downside is that it is more likely to lead to compliance than commitment. It’s better to invoke authority as a last resort rather than use it as your opening gambit, unless you are in a rush. Authority can, however, make a positive impression on someone who abides by similar rules or lives by similar principles.

Warning
If you try to persuade using this tactic and don’t succeed, then you don’t have many other options left (mainly the forcing tactic, detailed next). You are also likely to have damaged a relationship. And like using silent allies, this tactic can have the opposite effect from the intended one. Think of Dirty Harry being told he is being pulled off a case, only to carry on his investigations anyway. Or Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich refusing to bow down. If the person you’re trying to influence doesn’t agree with your rules or principles, using authority can have a quick and extreme impact on your relationship. Be warned, this tactic is a bit like drawing a line in the sand.

9. Forcing

What Is It?
“Do it or else.”

The forcing tactic involves engaging in assertive behavior, such as threats and warnings.

Give Me an Example
“Eat your vegetables or you’ll be going straight to bed.”

“Love me or leave me.”

“The last person in your job didn’t last very long; we wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake.”

“The more time you spend arguing about it, the less time you’ll have left to do it.”

When Is It Useful?
Forcing is used when you want something done fast. Therefore, it’s ideal in emergencies.

Warning
Because forcing is relatively easy to adopt and usually delivers short-term results, like compliance, it gets used a fair bit, especially when combined with using authority. However, relationship breakdowns can often be traced back to uses of the forcing tactic. Almost like smoking cigarettes, the immediate damage appears minimal, but the long-term effects can be terminal; and even if you give up using this tactic, it could be too late, so it’s probably best not to start. Using the forcing tactic can also be quite addictive, because it gives the user a sense of power when it gets results. Only employ forcing when everything else has failed.

Remember people change their mind for their reasons not yours. If you’re not effective, it’s probably because you’re looking at things through your lens and not theirs. Continuing to give the same arguments in the same way only solidifies resistance even more. So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something you’ve already tried to change their mind on, trying picking a different approach. Better yet, pick three or four and use them in combination. Tactics work better when employed together.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of interesting and insightful stuff you can use every day.

The Powerful Predictor Behind Successful Relationships

When does a broken relationship start to go wrong?

mindgym

Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.

These seemingly big moments are not the defining ones that make or break relationships. Rather it’s almost always the small things, like that time two weeks ago when your friend asked you if you wanted a cup of coffee. How you responded to that question may have influenced the relationship more than you can imagine.

These apparently inconsequential moments determine the fate of relationships more than arguments. Psychologist John Gottman can determine the fate of a married couple with an accuracy rate in the 90s.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, a fascinating new book, explores his research. Gottman looked at those “seemingly meaningless and inconsequential exchanges between people.”

As meaningless as they seemed on the surface, at a deeper level, the exchanges were highly nuanced, emotional signals, …

These emotional signals are what Gottman called “bids.” And it turns out that how we respond to bids is the key to successful relationships.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Picture this scene: Your boss is sitting in front of her computer. She’s working. Or perhaps she’s pretending to work when in fact she’s updating her Facebook page or reading her emails— you know her better than we do, so you choose.

Now imagine yourself entering her office and asking her “Do you want a cup of coffee?” Your boss could choose to respond in one of three ways:

1. She could acknowledge your offer in a positive way: “That’s really nice of you. I’ll have cream and sugar.” Or “Thanks, but I’m okay right now.” In psychologists’ speak, this is called a “turning-toward response” or a “toward bid.”

2. She could acknowledge your offer in a negative way: “Your coffee is disgusting. I’ll get it myself.” Or “You want to get me a cup of coffee? What do you want in return?” This is called an “against bid.”

3. She could just stay silent or change the subject: “There’s this new film out about the life of the flamingo.” This is called a “turning-away bid.” By replying, she acknowledges that you’ve spoken, but she doesn’t engage with what you’ve said. In effect, she ignores your bid.

Whatever response she chooses determines what you do next. Consider this for a second. Only the first, the “toward bid,” is likely to encourage you to make another of your own bids. Faced with an “against bid” or a “turning-away bid,” you’re more likely to make an unconscious mental note not to bother offering her a cup of coffee next time.

Positive bids create a virtuous cycle. When you respond to someone with a toward bid, the person feels good about him- or herself. As a result, that person is more likely to make more positive bids, which, in turn, lead to more positive interactions (and more offers of coffee).

When you use plenty of bids that move you toward one another, research shows that you laugh more, support each other more, dramatically reduce the odds of divorce, and you get more sex. (That alone makes this post worth reading, right?).

Couples that make more bids toward each other, rather than against or turning away are more likely to stay together.

Gottman discovered that there is a magic ratio: Couples who manage a ratio of five positive (toward) responses to one negative (turning away or against) response are more likely to have a healthy, long-lasting partnership.

Men who ended up divorced generally turned away from their wives’ bids 82 percent of the time, “whereas men in ultimately stable relationships only ignored their wives bids 19 percent of the time.”

Women use turning-away responses slightly less often. The women who ended up divorced had ignored their husbands’ bids 50 percent of the time, as opposed to those in ultimately stable relationships, who had ignored their husbands’ bids 14 percent of the time.

Bids are present in every relationship.

At work, the ratio of positive to negative bids will affect the quality of your relationship with your boss, your peers, and those you manage. The bid ratio is likely to reflect the difference between those customers or suppliers you look forward to seeing and those you don’t. If you’ve ever had a customer who didn’t seem to care, you know exactly the feeling of a turning-away bid.

How can we make more effective toward bids?
Positive bids could be as simple as a laugh, a smile, a touch. The point is acknowledging.

[W]hatever form it takes, this positive response reassures the initial bidder that you have heard and accepted what they say (even if you don’t necessarily agree with it).

Psychologists have identified four types of positive bids. Healthy relationships have a mixture of these.

Nearly Passive
A friendly grunt, an affirming “uh-huh,” or a gesture of acknowledgment: a nod or a smile. (Note: This is a friendly grunt, not the “Go away and leave me alone” grunt favored by moody teenagers.)

Low Energy
A few words of acknowledgment—“okay” or “sure”— or a question to clarify the bid: “Sorry, what did you say?”

Attentive
Now you’re getting involved. These responses indicate sharing opinions, thoughts, and feelings. They include an offer of empathy, insight, a joke, or a question. Actions like a good-night kiss or a handshake are also attentive responses.

High Energy
Attentive responses, but even bigger— with more energy, complete attention, and full eye contact. These are usually enthusiastic responses (“Wow, congratulations!”). High-energy responses are often physical (big hugs, sloppy kisses) and loud (hearty laughs, giggles). They also have the most positive impact— when you get this kind of reaction, you really know you’ve been heard. But remember the experience of being greeted by a sloppy dog: too much of this kind of positive attention can be exhausting, particularly if the recipient is a rather shy person.

Most healthy relationships have a ratio of five positive to one negative response. There are three simple tips for keeping your approach moving toward, rather than away, from someone.

1. Always respond by showing that you’ve heard what has been said, even if you want to change the subject: “I’m so glad that you’ve found a flat that you like. That must be a weight off your mind. I’ve just finished a new draft of the report, so if you have a moment . . .”

2. Open every conversation with a positive bid. In his research, remember, Gottman found that he could predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, the outcome of a relationship based on what he heard in the first fifteen minutes of a conversation. In many cases, the first three minutes gave a strong sense of whether the relationship was going to survive. If those first minutes are full of negativity, blame, and criticism, the outcome will be negative as well.

3. Even when you vehemently disagree with a person’s suggestions, say what you like about those suggestions first. Establish common ground (e.g., “I like the fact you’re being totally up front”; “I appreciate how passionately you feel about this issue”) before presenting your case.

Against Bids
This is when people respond to you but you wish they hadn’t. Responses in this category include “mocking, ridiculing, belittling, and making sarcastic comments about a bid or bidder.” These are the responses that make the other person feel bad and they are the virus of poor relationships.

Here are six against responses. If you’re like me you winced reading these, with my last relationship in mind.

Contemptuous
A contemptuous response to “Shall we ask for directions?” would be “We wouldn’t need to if you could just read the map.” Ouch.

Belligerent
Someone is spoiling for a fight. If a person asks “Do you want to see a film?” and the response is “Do you really think I have time for a movie? Don’t you realize how busy I am?” it’s pretty obvious where the conversation is going.

Contradictory
These responses are designed to get a reaction— ideally “I’m sorry; you’re right” but usually something rather less savory. The following are all contradictory responses: “I think you’ll find there’s a better way to tie a garbage bag,” “Leave it alone; let me do it,” or the supremely irritating “Actually, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced . . .”

Domineering
These responses assert authority and attempt to force the other person to withdraw, retreat, or submit. For example, a daughter might say, “My dream is to be on America’s Got Talent.” A mother might respond, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not nearly talented enough.”

Character Attack
“I didn’t quite understand what Michael meant in the meeting today” gets the against response “Of course not. You weren’t paying attention, as usual.” “You always,” “you shouldn’t have,” or “you never” are early warning signals that a load of negative bids is on its way.

Defensive
Me: “I can’t find my book.” My spouse: “Well, don’t look at me!” Here, the respondent— even though no blame was being apportioned— is on the defensive.

What happens when someone moves away from you with one of these responses is that you feel undervalued and unappreciated. If you stay in the relationship for years, it sows the seeds of resentment and eventually you stop making toward bids.

If the other person is in a position of power (like an aggressive boss), you may suppress your emotions to avoid conflict, and the relationship will become one based on fear. But if you are the one responding against others, understand that these negative bids seriously undermine your relationships. It’s critical that you change your bids to positive ones.

I’ve been working hard recently on changing my against bids. I find that sometimes, especially when I’m busy, my default is to reply with a negative bid. To counteract this I’ve been doing a few things. First, I try to count to 3 before responding. This helps me ensure the other person is done speaking and gives me more of a chance to consider the impact of what I’m thinking of saying. Along the same lines, active listening is a great tool to help ensure you’re understanding what other people are saying. Finally, the book recommends one that I’ve just implemented, which is basically trying to step out of the situation and name what’s going on. Something along the lines of “I notice we’re not having a productive conversation right now and we’re both raising our voices, how can we approach this in a better way?”

Turning-Away Bids
This is when you ignore someone outright or act uninterested.

There may be a reason why you are being unresponsive; you might feel irritated or your attention may be elsewhere. But whatever your conscious motivation, turning away from a bid indicates that you have disengaged from the relationship. The outcome is not going to be good.

When you repeatedly ignore or dismiss the bids of another person the situation escalates. They often become hostile and defensive. Most of us turn away without even knowing that’s what we’re doing.

What do turning away responses look like?

Silence
Let’s say you’re searching the Internet or cooking or driving. You’re engrossed and, to be honest, you’re not really interested in whatever’s going on around you. So, you zone out and try to ignore any bids coming your way. No one wants the “silent treatment”; if someone is with you, that person may feel this is a snub. The trouble is that if this person keeps trying to interact with you, you’re just as likely to respond against (“Can’t you see I’m busy?”) as toward (“Sorry, I was completely away there; what did you say?”).

Dismissiveness
You ignore the substance of what the other person is saying and either focus on some incidental detail (“She had nice fingernails”), reframe the issue (“Yes, yes, but the real issue is . . .”), or minimize the importance of what’s being said (“Does it matter?”).

Changing Lanes
In the middle of a conversation, you change the subject, either by announcing a new and irrelevant piece of information (“It says here that penguins can do elementary algebra”; “I feel like going for a walk”) or with a deliberate non sequitur (Dad: “Did you finish your homework?” Son: “What are you cooking for supper?”).

Gottman’s research indicates that turning away bids are more prevalent than against bids. The effects of both are disastrous.

Gottman found that during a conversation at dinner, stable couples engaged each other as many as a hundred times in ten minutes, whereas those headed for divorce engaged each other only sixty-five times.

What happens in stable relationships when one person is met with a turning-away response is that they rebid about 20% of the time. In couples headed for a divorce, re-bids were rarely attempted. It should come as no surprise that turning away bids increase conflict.

If a bidder is repeatedly ignored, he or she is likely to become angry and critical of the respondent. As a result, the emotional temperature goes up and small incidents become big issues. A small dismissal today can lead to a relationship meltdown next year.

A lot of us stonewall. We turn away and disengage, which has a disastrous effect on relationships. A better way to handle the situation is to accept the bid and “explain to the other person that you feel the need for space.”

Here are three ways to help you avoid turning away:

1. Observe yourself for a day and find out how many bids you ignore—accidentally or deliberately. Most of us turn away more than we think (though we are much better at judging how many times others turn away from us). Once you’ve learned to spot your turning-away behavior, you’ll almost certainly reduce it.

2. Are you turning away to avoid an argument? It’s often the case. We don’t want to attack (in effect, to turn against), so we avoid or deny the situation by turning away instead. Unfortunately, the impact is not so very different. You might try to discuss the issue or even just acknowledge the issue and delay a deep conversation until later, so you eventually understand more about the other person’s underlying concerns. Simply say, “I know this is on your mind, but I’m worried it’s going to lead to an argument now. Can we discuss it another time?”

3. Fill the silence. A good proportion of our bids that involve turning away happen when we feel we can’t be bothered to make the effort to listen fully. A genuine “uh-huh” will usually be enough to do the trick.

If you’re like me you’ll spend a bit of time reflecting on past relationships and think about your bid patterns. “With a little mindfulness and attention, you can change your patterns and get the relationship back on track, usually without the other person even noticing.”

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is designed to give your brain a workout.