Finding Strength In Discord During These Uncertain Times

A Q & A with the co-authors of The Power of Discord

Dr. Ed Tronick is a developmental and clinical psychologist known for the famous The Still Face Experiment.” Dr. Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician and writer. Their book, The Power of Discord, is original look at how to foster connection, trust, and resilience. They explain why working through discord is the key to better relationships.


Dr. Gold and Dr. Tronick answered some questions about the importance of relationships during these uncertain times.


What is the meaning of the title: The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust?

In our work the term for “ups and downs” is “mismatch and repair.” The core idea of the book is that discord is not only okay but essential because it gives us the opportunity for repair. All interactions are messy. We constantly misunderstand each other’s intentions. When we move through a moment of mismatch to repair, we feel connected to the other person. We grow to trust them. We create something new between us. The experience of repair lets us know that we do not need to get stuck in a negative feeling.


What lessons does your book offer for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic?

In our earliest relationships, we develop trust and a sense of belonging through countless moment-to-moment messy interactions. Now, when the world feels so fundamentally frightening, preserving a sense of safety is paramount. Everyone will find their own unique way to navigate the fear and uncertainty. Some by necessity put themselves and their families at risk simply by going to work. For those who stay home, some stick to rigid schedules while others meander through the day. Some feel better being productive while others surrender to hours of movies and cartoons both for themselves and for their children. It’s all OK. But whatever path we take, we must find a way to connect. In moment-to-moment interactions in relationships with people we love, we can preserve the sense of calm that we need to not only survive, but to move forward to whatever comes next.


We are living in a time when the world feels unsafe. What does your book tell us about finding a sense of safety?

Safety comes in the context of relationships. Spending time with people we trust, whether in person or virtually, can help us to feel calm. This sense of safety occurs not only in our thinking minds, but also in our bodies. Trusting relationships can help us navigate periods of intense stress and uncertainty.


How does your model of development help us understand and treat emotional suffering?

Our culture tends to name various kinds of emotional suffering as fixed entities. But our research shows that our emotional health develops in a process over time. On one end of the spectrum, robust interactions of mismatch and repair lead a person to experience the world as safe and filled with people who can be trusted. At the other extreme, if experience of repair is lacking, fear and mistrust inform a person’s understanding of himself and the world around him. The two extremes help us make sense of the more typical experiences that fall somewhere in between.

And early patterns of relationships are not “baked in the cake.” Our brain changes through a process called “neuroplasticity” throughout our lives. Just as our sense of selves in the world develops over countless early interactions, it takes countless new interactions over time, in a wide range of new and different relationships, to move from emotional suffering to emotional health.


If relationships are so important to our emotional development, how can we stop from placing blame when things go wrong?

Each partner in a relationship has a role to play. We move through moments of “repair” like people in a dance. Only unlike Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it’s more like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. We step on each other’s toes. This issue of blame is particularly problematic when it comes to our culture’s treatment of parents. Parenting comes with a hefty dose of guilt already without a need to blame anyone. We came up with the idea of the “good-enough baby” to pair with the “good-enough mother” to capture the way that parent and baby go through countless messy interactions as they figure each other out. When problems occur, as they inevitably do, it’s no more the parent’s “fault” than it is the baby’s “fault.”


How does the still-face paradigm help us manage our reliance on technology?

Many people who learn of the still-face experiment raise a concern that our cultural reliance on social media has created a prolonged still-face experience for infants and children. But as we explain in the book, the still-face is different from a parent on a cell phone. In the still-face the infant has no way to make sense of the situation, while a parent on a cellphone is distracted as they would be on an old-fashioned phone. What matters is the nature of accumulated face-to-face interactions. The still-face experiment, in which the baby goes from distress to pleasure in an instant in the repair episode, highlights how we can overcome the stress of a moment of disconnection.


What implications does your book have for the tremendous political discord we are currently experiencing in our country?

The divisive and tumultuous last years in politics have arisen out of a deep sense by many in our country that they don’t belong. We develop a sense of belonging by engaging in messy moment-to-moment interactions with people close to us. Development is a lifelong process through which each of us learns to belong to many different groups, including, but certainly not limited to professional, religious, geographic — even the changing culture of a growing family.

People today are dangerously polarized. When we allow for the discord to happen, we can find a way to meet each other. In moving through the inevitable mismatch that differences engender, the power of the repair gives us potential for greatness.