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The Gottman Method and The Power of Storytelling

Our stories are critical pieces to understanding and being understood

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gottman storytelling

As a Clinical Psychologist who has worked with families for more than 20 years, I was immediately drawn into the Gottman Method because it aligned with my strong belief that our stories are critical pieces to understanding and being understood.

Griots: The storytellers

In African traditions, storytellers were called “Griots,” and they were often the most important people in the village.  They ensured that lessons were learned, history was passed on, and that people were entertained, often because of the connection and interrelatedness that stories can bring.  

The Griot of my family was my Grandma Edna. She was a loving, gregarious woman who raised seven children while serving every week as a Sunday School teacher and church deaconess.  I would sit by her side for hours as she put together jigsaw puzzles and told me stories about her father who was once enslaved, her childhood, and the many eccentric people that made up our family who had long passed on.  

Her stories were peppered with laughter and songs as she reflected on a life of many trials and tribulations mixed with joy and triumph.  These stories shaped my childhood as I listened during our Saturday night press and curl beauty sessions, our Sunday morning walks to church, and our early mornings on the fishing pier.  

Storytelling with the Gottman Method

Forty years ago, around the time that I was listening to my grandmother’s stories as a little girl, Dr. John Gottman was figuring out some stories of his own.  Just as I was curious about my grandmother and all of her adventures, he was curious about relationships and how some broke apart and others stayed together.  It appears that the stories that he heard led him to hear even more stories.

He wanted to encourage couples to tell their stories to each other.  Because of this curiosity—along with the science that stated that sharing in relationship matters—stories became a cornerstone to many of the pivotal exercises that we use to move couples forward in therapy. Stories help them through their difficulties and differences.  These stories take center stage in three interventions.  

Listen and learn

As a trainee, the first Gottman exercise that I learned was the Gottman Rapport.  Now let’s be clear, I did not love this exercise right away. Initially, it was painful watching a partner ask probing questions that were seemingly just answered but required more depth.

You see, in the Gottman Rapport, couples take turns as the speaker and listener. The listener is prompted to ask a question, after question, after question to understand the heart of their partner.  There is no problem solving, no immediately fixing the issue, no arguing your point, no persuasion. They can only use just questions—questions to open the heart.

How did that make you feel?

When have you felt that way before?

Tell me a story about that.

The Gottmans tell us that a big part of listening is witnessing and being present for your partner so that your partner doesn’t feel so alone.  This process can be started through a good storytelling session where you listen and learn. The understanding that I see manifested following this exercise quickly turned my uncomfortableness to complete appreciation of the time we spend going deeper into each individual’s world.  

Telling your dreams

In the “Dreams Within Conflict” intervention, we delve into even more storytelling, but this time to work through a gridlocked or perpetual problem.  We have a dreamer and a dream catcher. Once again the speaker is encouraged to tell their story about their dream and its source so that the dream catcher can understand where their partner’s dream comes from and what it symbolizes.  The listener asks more questions, but with a goal of making their partner feel safe enough to share their story.  These stories are used to strengthen the friendship and understand the meaning of their partner’s dream with no judgment and no arguing a point of view. Understanding and connecting dreams is truly a hallmark of a healthy relationship. 

Storytelling in conversation

Lastly, we explore stories once again in the Stress-Reducing Conversation.  These stories are extremely important because, as Drs. John and Julie share in their workshops, of all of the exercises that we use, regular implementation of this conversation has been found to be the most enduring, long utilized intervention that we teach. 

The Stress-Reducing Conversation can help couples shield their relationship from the outside stressors of work, society, and extended family so that they can be more available to focus on their family and home life.  In this exercise, each partner makes space for 15 to 20 minutes of what…..yes, of stories.  Stories about their day including frustrations, irritations, ups, and downs. They are stories that bring about connection and understanding of their lives apart from each other.  The listener renders no judgment, advice, never sides with the enemy, and doesn’t try to problem-solve.  They just provide a listening ear full of empathy, support, and validation. 

This daily exercise strengthens the relationship by providing a connection, insight, and a safe space just to vent and process the events of the day.  Couples repeatedly report that knowing that their partner is there for them, having their back is a relationship strengthener.  

So there you have it, whether you consider yourself a world-class griot or someone that has great fish tales, learning to tell your true, authentic story and learning to deeply listen to the stories of your partner is the root of understanding, compromising, managing conflict, healing, and strengthening both your love and your friendship. 

Watch Dr. Streeter Corbitt discuss storytelling on the fifth episode of The Gottman Concept Corner on Instagram.

The Gottman Concept Corner on Instagram

Are you currently looking for a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist to use research-based approaches to help your relationship? The Gottman Institute is seeking couples to participate in an international outcome study on Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Learn more here.

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Dr. Satira Streeter Corbitt is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Gottman Therapist, and the Founder and Executive Director of Ascensions Psychological Services, Inc.  She has vast experience in working with individuals and couples and has specialized in teaching and implementing effective, culturally responsive techniques in her community. In 2004, Dr. Streeter Corbitt founded Ascensions to serve the needs of families in Anacostia, the most poverty-stricken area of Washington, DC. Ascensions provides therapy, advocacy, and therapeutic groups for couples, parents, and women. She also facilitates monthly psycho-educational workshops on trauma, effective discipline, and protecting our youth from sexual predators.

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