Welcome to the third in a series of articles about communication skills for new parents. Having a new baby can be a source of limitless joy but it can also be a source of tremendous stress. Sleepless nights, new financial demands, and post-partum depression (female or male) can leave any new parent feeling stressed out and needing support. In these times, new parents need to be able to support each other and connect more than ever and their baby needs this too. A peaceful family makes a happy baby.
In previous posts we discussed John and Julie Gottman from the Gottman Institute and their concept of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, the four most damaging relationship dynamics that they studied. In this installment, we will look at what they term “accepting influence.”
The first part of accepting influence is the recognition that every issue can be seen from multiple perspectives and thus can have multiple interpretations. Many of us come into a conflict with the intent of convincing our partner of the merits of our argument. We try to persuade our partner rather than take the time to truly understand their perspective. We half-listen as we are forming our rebuttal, then become defensive when our partner does not “get it” or disagrees. We even end up repeating ourselves in what the Gottmans term “summarize yourself syndrome.” “Maybe this time he’ll get it,” we imagine. Citing the work of social psychologist Anatol Rapoport, the Gottmans suggest:
- Postpone persuasion – Each party must postpone their impulse to persuade their partner and instead focus on the other’s point of view, to the extent that they could restate it. When each party is able to state the other’s point of view to their satisfaction, this reduces defensiveness and improves cooperation. To do this, the Gottmans recommend open-ended questions. In other words, questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no but require some elaboration.
- Assumption of similarity – We naturally assume that we are right and others are wrong. We need to be more open to possibility. Gottman calls this “giving our partner the benefit of the doubt.” When we notice our partner being rigid or angry or acting negatively in some way, it helps to recognize those traits in ourselves and acknowledge our own tendencies to act in those ways.
- Validation – This can be as simple as saying “OK, that makes sense,” or “I see.” We are not immediately changing our point of view but simply acknowledging what makes sense about our partner’s statements. If this is difficult, Gottman suggests trying the phrase “Your views make sense to me because…” We are trying to see the world from our partner’s eyes to see how it makes sense to them.
Through this process, we are now accepting influence from our partner rather than reinforcing a head to head, adversarial conflict. This give and take in a relationship is what leads to respect, closeness, intimacy, and overall a happy family.