How to Use a Marriage Method to Strengthen Work Relationships

AdVance Leadership » How to Use a Marriage Method to Strengthen Work Relationships

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #026. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll understand how establishing emotional safety not only strengthens community but also increases engagement and productivity.

1 Insight

One of the critical responsibilities of a leader is to develop Community based on safety, trust, individual growth and collaboration. An effective method of enhancing a marriage relationship can also guide interactions of people who work together.

Dr. John Gottman, considered one of the most influential therapists of the past twenty-five years, has dedicated his career to researching love. His methods can predict which newlywed couples will divorce or remain married within four to six years with 90% accuracy.


Whether a relationship is a marriage or work partnership, interactions with other human beings require honor, dignity, and respect. At AdVance Leadership, we spend a lot of time observing relational dynamics within teams and organizations. Too often, the interactions do not demonstrate honor, dignity, or respect. The way some of these workers are treated and spoken to, it makes sense why 51% of employees who leave a job quit because of their boss.


Those in leadership also set the tone for how relationships function within their team. How team members treat and respond to one another serves as evidence of the health of the team and of how well it is led. Dr. Gottman’s research, though primarily focusing on marriage relationships, can teach a lot about leadership.

Emotional Bids

Dr. Gottman has found that conversations are more than just the exchange of information. Often, conversations are “emotional bids.” When someone seeks attention or support, they are making an emotional bid. Frequently, the receiver of the bid misses the underlying need that the sender is communicating. The receiver takes the words at face value and ignores the emotions underneath them.

Imagine at your next staff meeting, Carol points out that unwashed dishes are piling up in the break room again. Compared to other lofty responsibilities, this issue may seem insignificant to you or others. But it is not insignificant to Carol. If it was, she wouldn’t have taken the risk of bringing it up. And if it was worth it to her to take time out of a staff meeting to point it out, you can bet its not about the dishes. It is about the way the dishes make Carol feel. Carol is reaching out for attention and support from her team. She’s making an emotional bid.

At this point, Carol’s team could respond in one of three ways:

  1. Turn Against
  2. Turn Away
  3. Turn Toward

Potential Response 1: Turn Against

Turning Against is a straight-up rejection of Carol’s emotional bid. This response could look several different ways:

  • Contemptuous Response
    A Contemptuous Response is characterized by superiority, using insults as the primary tool. The respondent puts Carol in her place by insuring she understands her concerns are not as significant as what others deem as important.

“Sure, Carol. We’ll pause our potential million-dollar proposal to clean out our coffee cups. I wish a dirty coffee cup was my biggest concern.”

  • Belligerent Response
    This respondent is ready for a fight and not afraid to argue. They use a combative tone to belittle or challenge.

“What happens if we can’t get to the dishes by next week? Are you going to scold us in a staff meeting again?”

  • Contradictory Response
    Contradictory Responses are less hostile than Belligerent Responses, but they still block the emotional bid with an argumentative debate.

“Carol, do you really believe we should be worried about dirty dishes with all we have going on right now?”

  • Domineering Response
    The goal of this respondent is to assert their own authority. They may take on a parental tone in an attempt to force the other person into a submissive position. They want to remind the one extending the emotional bid of their place, forcing them to withdraw, retreat, or cower.

Come on, Carol. Is that really something you need our help with? Are you not capable of washing some dishes?”

  • Critical Response
    The respondent uses the emotional bid as an opportunity to stray from the issue at hand and attack the bidder’s character. While a complaint focuses on a particular event or specific behavior, criticism uses global terms like “you always…” or “you never…”

“What is wrong with you that you can’t just take care of the dishes? You always put stuff off on us instead of just taking care of things yourself.”

  • Defensive Response
    The respondent separates themselves from the bidder by removing themselves from the equation. They are innocent and shouldn’t be included in something that has nothing to do with them.

“I don’t even use the dishes in the break room, so I don’t see why I need to be a part of this conversation.”

Potential Response 2: Turn Away

Turning Away can be even more devastating than turning against. This response may look like:

  • Sighing and remaining silent
  • Walking away
  • Ignoring and not responding
  • Shrugging and changing the subject
  • Delaying the subject indefinitely (“Let’s talk about that another time.”)

Carol has extended an emotional bid to her team for attention and support. The message that returned to her is that she is unimportant and irrelevant. The rejection of her emotional bid not only communicates the insignificance of Carol’s issue, but also the insignificance of Carol herself.

Potential Response 3: Turn Toward

Turning Toward communicates:

  • I’m interested in you.
  • I hear you.
  • I understand you (or would like to).
  • I’m on your side.
  • I’d like to help you (whether I can or not).
  • I’d like to be with you (whether I can or not).
  • I accept you (even if I don’t accept all your behavior). 

You may believe that Carol’s issue is insignificant. It may be true that the last thing your team should be concerned with in the middle of a potential million-dollar proposal are dirty dishes piling up in the break room.


Even so, Carol is significant. Carol deserves to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect. Even if bringing up her issue in the staff meeting was poor timing or inappropriate, Carol’s need for attention or support should be recognized.

How Understanding Emotional Bids Can Improve Your Leadership 

When you recognize that people are making emotional bids, not just saying words, you can practice Turning Toward. Even if you can’t acquiesce to the person’s bid, you can still acknowledge the human being behind the bid.

As a leader, every interaction you have with your employees is either contributing to them or taking from them. When someone comes to you with an emotional bid, they are asking for a contribution. When that contribution of attention and support is denied, they are left depleted. Depleted employees struggle with engagement and productivity. If the depletion continues for too long, they may quit altogether. Turning Toward emotional bids leads to workers who feel seen, appreciated, and respected, enhancing the culture and multiplying the output of the entire organization.

1 Action

This week, practice Turning Toward emotional bids. Keep an eye out for employees who habitually Turn Against or Away from their teammates and bring the potential harm they are causing to their attention.


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