Emotion-Coaching Parents: Part 4


In The Science of Trust (2011), Dr. John Gottman identified two different types of parents: “emotion-coaching” parents and “emotion-dismissing” parents. This is the fourth blog of a four-part series, and instead of looking at what it means to be an emotion-coaching parent, this last one will address emotion-coaching your significant other.

The Gottman research revealed some interesting data – not only about the parent-child relationship but also about the mother and father’s relationship. Their study showed that “fathers who emotion coached their children were better dads and better husbands. Their children felt closer to them, and moms appreciated them more.”

“During a conflict with their wives, emotion-coaching dads were not contemptuous; they were respectful. They knew their wives well and communicated a lot of affection and admiration to them…” (Gottman, 2011, 188-189).

“Coaching,” by nature, indicates a power imbalance: there’s the coach (the one with all the knowledge, skill, and experience) and there’s the coached (the one in need of knowledge, skill, and experience). So, when talking about couples, we use a different phrase — one that evens the playing field. With couples, we speak of the importance of attunement.

Attuning (just like emotion-coaching) is the opposite of being impatient with, disapproving of, or dismissing negative emotion. Although some emotion-dismissing partners are rude and hostile, we can be warm, affectionate and also be dismissing. “Oh honey, don’t be sad, don’t cry, it will be fine,” inadvertently communicates, “I don’t want to hear about it when you feel this way. Just replace that negative emotion with a positive one.” Or “Stop being such a Negative Nancy! Don’t drag everyone down with your negative mood!”

Attunement is not a complex skill, but it is difficult to do unless we decide to do it.

It requires a shift from taking responsibility for someone else’s emotion, a shift from trying to talk people out of negative feelings and into positive ones… and a shift to genuinely seeking to understand the full range of the person’s emotional experience.

How do you attune to your partner?

Here are Gottman’s 6 keys:

  1. Awareness of the emotion – emotionally aware partners notice emotions and then comment on it, asking something like, “Hey, are you okay?”
  2. Turn toward the emotions – rather than beginning with blaming or criticism, attuned partners talk about their feelings in terms of their positive need. They convert, “Here’s what’s wrong with you, and here’s what I need from you,” into “Here’s what I feel and here’s the positive thing I need from you.”
  3. Tolerate the emotional experience – attuned partners believe that in negative interactions there are still “two different but equally valid perceptions of the event.” They don’t take their partner’s negative emotional state personally, and they tend to believe that their partner’s emotion has purpose and logic. Tolerance doesn’t mean agreement or compliance, it means you believe it’s important to understand your partner’s perspective.
  4. Understand the emotion – attuned partners postpone their own agenda “in a search for understanding the partner’s point of view. ‘Postpone’ is the operative word,” rather than ignore. The only goal is understanding. Not advice-giving, correcting, or guiding.
  5. Nondefensively listen to the emotion – probably the most difficult skill! By focusing on their partner’s perceptions of the situation, by remembering they respect and love their partner, by seeking common ground and by maximizing agreement they can better hear their partner and avoid escalation.
  6. Express empathy toward the emotion – attuned partners see and feel the situation through the eyes of their partner and then validate their experience. “It makes sense that you would have these feelings and needs because…”
When a partner is upset or distressed, there are two ways to respond. We can be dismissive or disapproving of the partner’s emotion – when we do that, disconnection and the erosion of trust are the results. Or we can respond with attunement (emotion-coaching), using a “negative” to build two really important “positives” in the relationship: trust and connection.

Written By: Mindy Pierce, MA, LPC

Adapted from Gottman, J.M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Additional works that support and elaborate on these findings:
  • Havighurst, S., Wilson, K.R., Harley, A.E., & Prior, M. R. (2009). Tuning into kids: An emotion-focused parenting program – initial findings from a community trial. Journal of Community Psychology, 37, 1008-1023.
  • Christina Choi’s Boystown-orphanages experiments on emotion coaching in Seoul and Busan, with approximately 2,000 children.
  • Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (1999). Raising an emotionally intelligent child New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Gottman, J., & Talaris Research Institute (2004). What am I feeling? Seattle, WA: Parenting Press