Discovering Dr. Gottman as a Conflict Resolution Professional

When you are trying to get your point across, it is not helpful to scream louder or longer. That is a waste of time and energy—time and energy better spent reviewing the perspectives of both parties involved.

When you are trying to get your point across, it is not helpful to scream louder or longer. That is a waste of time and energy—time and energy better spent reviewing the perspectives of both parties involved.

When you are trying to get your point across, it is not helpful to scream louder or longer. That is a waste of time and energy—time and energy better spent reviewing the perspectives of both parties involved.

I’m not sure how I came to be a devoted fan to the podcast, The Armchair Expert, but I am happy to declare it nonetheless. For over a year, I have been listening to Dax and Monica lovingly bicker back and forth, as best friends do, while they interview interesting and unique folks from divergent backgrounds. I excitedly check my phone each week when they drop episodes on Mondays and Thursdays. I have to admit that I tend to be more eager on Monday mornings because they usually have a juicy celebrity guest like Gwyneth Paltrow or Will Ferrell. However, despite my predilection for salacious Hollywood gossip, I am also someone who appreciates knowledge and the motivation to better oneself and the relationships we keep. 

On February 28th of this year, I plugged in my headphones for the Thursday session, Experts on Expert, and learned Dr. Gottman was the doyen du jour. I was immediately smitten with his messages and his deep-rooted expertise as both a researcher and therapist. I was specifically struck by his research surrounding marriage and divorce. His explanations and reasoning touched me on an intellectual level but mostly my reaction to his content was visceral. 

I was a child of divorce in the late 1990s and saw firsthand how quickly an amorous relationship can turn acrimonious. It was a painful experience to witness and as I developed into an adult, I realized there had to be a better way for a married couple to separate than the proverbial mudslinging back and forth that I witnessed between my parents. 

Fate intervened when I set out to earn my Bachelor’s degree in Communications (with the eventual goal of morning TV à la Katie Couric). I had to attend an Interpersonal Communications class to meet the graduation requirements which is where I was blessed to have a professor who was also a trained mediator. She introduced me to the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and I was hooked. I was elated with the revelation that this area of study existed and could assist other families and couples who could avoid the rancorous stage of uncoupling. I reflected back on my own situation and thought that if my parents had found a mediator to manage their divorce, it would have helped lessen their tensions and could have empowered them to make better decisions for our family as a whole. I was even more excited to learn that it was an expanding discipline and that I could then go on to garner a Master’s degree as well.  My hope in pursuing ADR was, and is, to provide people with the tools to successfully navigate through the storm of interpersonal problems that we are constantly thrust into. 

Throughout my journey as a Conflict Resolution professional, I have held various jobs and volunteer positions.  But the gig I enjoy the most, the one that inspires me to follow my goals, is that of an instructor for the Continuing Education program at a local university. Even though I am still somewhat terrified by the thought of speaking in front of large groups of people for three straight hours, I am always able to push past the fear by reminding myself that relationships are important and everyone could use a maintenance refresher every now and again. The participants are usually unaware of how to manage conflict and hoping for ways they can improve their work lives. Because most often, we were not taught in school how to peacefully resolve quarrels on the playground. And furthermore, most people do not pursue a career that provides proper ADR training. But as someone who is passionate about changing that, I was lucky enough to be virtually acquainted with the esteemed Dr. Gottman.

When Dax began his interview with Dr. Gottman, I knew instantly that he was not a person seeking scholarly fame and glory but rather one who espouses the beliefs and values he speaks about publicly, but also when no one else is looking. As the interview progressed, I found myself filling up with validation. Dr. Gottman’s explanations and thoughts directly paralleled the content I have culled together for my workshops. Overall, the interview was a Master Class in how to be a good partner, a good parent, and a good human but there were particular instances though that truly resonated with the subject matter I focus on as an instructor. 

For example, with regards to conflict, Dr. Gottman spoke about delaying the persuasion of your opinion until each side of the argument is satisfied that their viewpoint has been articulated well and fully understood by each person. Then, and only then, can you try to persuade your opponent to join you on your side of the fence—a point I not only fully believe in but one I communicate to the students in my classes. And for most people, it is an eye-opener. Unfortunately, most of us never learned this lesson in school or in any other educational arena before. When you are trying to get your point across, it is not helpful to scream louder or longer. That is a waste of time and energy—time and energy better spent reviewing the perspectives of both parties involved. 

The idea of delaying persuasion is incredibly impactful because oftentimes with the sessions I lead, the participants come with a difficult person in mind they are trying to make peace with. Or they are trying to reconcile a situation that’s causing them great strife. They are hungry for answers and solutions on how to bridge the personality gap and communication breakdown they face every day with their coworkers. And I find that when they are made aware of how helpful this notion is, their confidence increases that there is hope for a resolution. Plus, this tool is not only effective and applicable in the workplace, but it’s also a technique that can be used with our friends and loved ones. Which makes it an extremely valuable lesson to learn and one that resonates tremendously with the participants. 

He also clarified a point with Dax, and for me, that I’m extremely grateful to have learned. Until I listened to Dr. Gottman that day, I used to share with people that the number one killer for relationships was allowing resentment to creep in and find roots. And although resentment is not something you should invite to the party either, Dr. Gottman explained to Dax that contempt is a far worse guest and something we need to avoid. He shared that contempt encompasses a feeling of having moral superiority over your partner. Contempt is not alone, however, in its destructive capabilities. It is part of Dr. Gottman’s metaphorical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Prior to being made aware of the Four Horsemen, I would speak anecdotally about how detrimental just resentment can be for two people. Then I would observe the interest from the class when the realization set in that this damaging emotion is something we all deal with. It’s not a concept most people often stop to ponder but once they do, there is an element of self-reflection and inventory that occurs. 

We are fortunate to live in an era that affords immediate answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Simply pop your query, “how to better my marriage?” into a search engine and you have book suggestions and blog articles aplenty. Yet, it takes time to sift through and weed out the superfluous sources that are attention-seeking. Sometimes, though, the answers and support come to you in the oddest of places, which is how I found the work of Dr. Gottman. It is those instances that you remember the most and the ones that foster a curiosity to learn more and to share what you have uncovered. And that is exactly what I did. I happily amended my presentations but I also made sure to tell my friends. I coerced them to carve out two hours of their time to listen to Dr. Gottman’s episode because like myself, they will be better people for listening to it. 

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Natalie Smith is a Certified Florida Supreme Court Mediator trained specifically in Family and County issues. She has an undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Geneseo and a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has been an online Mediation Instructor for over ten years and more recently has been teaching live Conflict Resolution workshops for local universities.