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Applying the research of the wonderful John Gottman and crew to Youthwork

Think about this: For every 1 negative comment or action that comes our way we need 5 positives. John Gottman says that the ratio is like this because of the power of negativity to harm, to cause damage, to cause pain. He also says, from the huge amount of research that he and his team have done over decades, that they can now predict with 90% accuracy which couples will separate and which will stay together. And they have been able to identify what ingredients lead to separation and what ingredients lead to ongoing ‘togetherness.’ So, inspired by John and his colleagues I have adapted these principles to the notion of engaging with young people, and what might consolidate that engagement, and this is what I have written about below, but if you would rather watch a video than read, then just click here. Or of course you’re welcome to do both.

Oh! And remember the 5 to 1 mentioned above? A few years ago, ie pre COVID19, I listened to John talking about the Apartment lab when they did their first research where couples were in lock-down for 24 hours, and where they were videoed, and lived with microphones and had monitors on their bodies measuring blood flow, pulse rate and various other forms of physiological functioning. And in his presentation, John in passing, said that under those conditions, the ratio probably needed to be more like 20 to 1. Interesting observation for those of us right now; that is, everybody, living in a COVID world.

I am always talking, training and writing about the pivotal Youthwork idea of ‘Engagement’  because it is the starting point of any connection, any relationship with a young person. And if you want to take a look at more at specific engagement strategies you will find 30 videos here on my website with 30 strategies that you can use to engage with young people. Feel free to experiment with them and see what works best for you and the young people you work with.

While initial engagement is essential in our work, in this post I am focusing more on borrowing and applying the ideas from John’s work in terms of ongoing Engagement, Relationship and Connection. And while this relationship is a professional one, it is also deeply human, compassionate, caring and authentic, and so it is in relation to maintaining and developing this ongoing Connection that I apply below, John’s ideas. Big thanks and respect to John Gottman and his crew, team, family

Once we engage with a young person, connect with them so that we now have a relationship, how do we then maintain and strengthen this connection? And this is where I borrow from John’s work in what follows. To strengthen connection, John says we need to do a number of things.

1. Understand the internal world of a young person:
We need to understand the internal world of the other, and the way to do this is by asking questions. What does this person care about? Who do they care about? What do they enjoy? Really don’t enjoy? What are their values and beliefs? Their concerns, their fears and worries? Their hopes and dreams? Having some sense of the internal world of a young person can give us what John refers to as a kind of road map, and with this map in hand, we can, together, start to navigate and explore this internal world.

In the context of connecting with young people, and especially with those who seem to be ‘disengaged’ and who may be guarded, withdrawn or even hostile, the asking of questions needs to be non-intrusive yet inviting. And this may mean inviting responses which are unvoiced but simply held in the mind and heart of the young person. Or conversations that invite responses via writing or drawing or a hand gesture. And because having some control, some agency, is an essential part of growing and growing well, a young person choosing their answers and choosing whether to voice them or not means a young person having some sense of agency or control, within the conversation. And this process may also be reciprocal, where we invite a young person to ask us questions. Fair, democratic and appealing.

2. Noticing the value, the worth of a young person:
This is something we generally do well in Youthwork. And it’s a genuine strengths-based approach. What are this young person’s skills, strengths, talents, qualities? And how are they shown, demonstrated through their actions? And then how do I respond to what I notice? How do I let the young person know what I have observed in how they have contributed to their own life and to the lives of those around them? Because we need to give voice to what we see, respect, admire and value within a young person. And they need to hear that from us, genuinely, authentically and consistently.

3. ‘Turning towards…’
This is a lovely way of describing how we might respond to a young person, both literally in a physical response, as well as emotionally. If I’m in the middle of something (important!) and a young person wants to talk (and it’s not urgent), and I turn towards them physically and say genuinely and warmly: ‘Be right with you.’ And then a moment later turn back towards them and say something like: ‘Okay, so what’s happening?’ I am letting them know that they matter, and they matter to me. I have ‘turned towards’ this young person both physically and emotionally. Over time this may mean being prepared to have the hard conversations with them, go to court with them or be with them during the tough chats at school. Equally importantly it means doing lots of simple, ordinary things like cooking together, playing video games, shooting hoops or kicking a ball together. Lots of small, yet meaningful, moments of ‘turning towards.’

4. ‘Positive sentiment over-ride’
This is also a lovely way of presenting a concept. If we strengthen our connection through continually ‘turning towards’ the other, both physically and emotionally, we build a kind of ‘bank’ or ‘reservoir’ of good will, of ‘positive sentiment’, which ‘over-rides’ or lessens the potential destructive impact of a moment of tension or conflict. We are still in good shape, still warmly connected. The momentary experience of something negative, cranky or even with some young people, explosive and even destructive, is out-weighed by the positive connection within the relationship.

5. Sorting it out
A fabulous bonus of ‘positive sentiment over-ride’ is that it provides a strong basis for sorting out the moment of tension, because the value of the relationship is felt by those within it and this valuing strengthens the commitment to working through the slip-up and getting the relationship back on track. There is a good, solid, proved-by-experience, relationship. And especially for young people who have experienced trauma/hardship, and who have an expectation that we will quit on them, this reservoir of positive sentiment stands as evidence that we are still here, still committed, still going to ‘stay.’ This is in itself, powerful.

So there you go. My adaptation of what John Gottman, his life partner Julie, and his colleagues have offered the world. Thanks to all of them for the inspiration and I hope I have done justice to their wonderful work. They’re easy to find on google, so go check out the original.

I hope this has been useful. I’m always happy to hear your thoughts, and you can get in touch with me via this website Until next time. Go well.

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