Communication Managing Self Problem solving

What tears down relationships – and how to build them up

Written by Julia Menard

Recently, I was reminded of a short two-minute video I show at some of my workshops.  It summarizes decades of research from John and Julie Gottman – two well-respected marriage therapists who run the Gottman Institute.  The video shows four behaviours that destroy relationships and antidotes for each one.

The challenge is – most of us are not even aware when we might be engaging in these behaviours.  So, I’ve outlined them below in more detail along with the antidotes to each one.  I invite you to go through each one and see if you can raise your awareness about whether any of these negative communication patterns are showing up in your key relationships.  And remember,  the relationships needing tending are not just your life partner relationships – key relationships include your dear friends, your important colleagues, staff, your boss.

The challenge is to not let these behaviours slip by, erode the relationship and continue unchallenged – as they can build up to become a habit.  The good news is, whether you might have not noticed some of these behaviours and now do, or might not have known what to do, having a read through this list can raise awareness and give you ideas for how to strengthen them!

1) Criticism – This is when someone disagrees by attacking us as a person, as opposed to discussing a behaviour.  At the Centre for Conflict Resolution where I teach, we talk about the principle of “separating the person from the problem.”  Most criticism starts with “You…”.  Then, adding words like “always” or “never” make the conflict become more negative still:  “You always…”  “You never…”

Starting with a “gentle start up” helps.  Start with putting a small word in front of “You” – that is: “When you…” then describe the behaviour (not the character of the person).  The Gottmans emphasize that the antidote to criticism is to focus on our own experience – to talk about how an experience impacted you (as opposed to describing what is wrong with the other person).  So, the formula can be “When you interrupted my sentence and asked me to stop talking” as a start.  That is the behaviour you noticed. Then talk about how you felt and what you most value instead.  Often our feelings are connected to our needs.  Talk about this instead of demanding how you want things to be different, as the way to start. So the sentence could be: “When you interrupted my sentence and asked me to stop talking, I felt uncomfortable, because to me, respect is being able to finish my sentence first.” This encourages a dialogue of possibilities and an invitation to discuss what could work for you both.

2) Contempt – The second behaviour is the most destructive of all four behaviours and is an extreme form of criticism. Contempt is disdain for someone, an expression of superiority, communicating you don’t see the person as equal, you don’t respect them or see them as worthy.  This can sound like sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling and swearing, eye rolling, sneering, mocking and hostile humour.

The antidote to contempt is a “culture of appreciation within the relationship.”  Gottman’s research shows that thriving couples engage in a ratio of five positive comments to every negative one.  It’s not that healthy relationships don’t have issues; they do.  In fact, too much positivity is also problematic.  But healthy relationships deal with the negative in the context of the positive.   Not surprisingly, this “positivity ratio” has been well researched in other contexts, including teams.  For example, the University of Michigan Business School compared team performance to frequency of praise and criticism and found the best performing teams had an average of six positive comments to every negative one. The worst performing teams had an average of three negative comments to every positive one.  Similarly, Marcial Losada working with high performing teams discovered a five to one positivity ratio. Some of the teams I know who learned of the positivity ratio have started new practices like starting meetings with appreciations.  This enables them to express gratitude for the positive actions of others or acknowledge the positive qualities of others on a regular basis.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of consciously expressing appreciation and positivity to each other. Our brains are built to be Velcro for negative comments (we really remember them!) – and Teflon to the positive ones. So that’s another reason to be intentional with our positive comments.  Here’s a link to dive even deeper into this topic:

3) Defensiveness – The third behaviour that can be a pattern of negative communication is the habitual denial of a topic.  The Gottmans describe defensiveness as “self protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim.”  It’s the “It’s not my fault…” or “Issue? What issue?” kind of response.

The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility for at least part of the problem. Denial says that you can’t have an effect on me, I am not listening to you and you don’t matter.  The challenge is that criticism and contempt tend to trigger defensiveness, so it can become a viscous cycle.  One party criticizes and the other denies.  The outcome leads eventually to the last of the horsemen: stonewalling.

Shifting this response requires us to at least acknowledge that  the other person’s point of view makes sense to them – that you can understand how they would feel or think the way they did.  This is step one.  If we have actually done something that has harmed another (intentionally or not), this would also involve offering an apology as appropriate.  This is taking responsibility – although it’s not taking on blame, shame or a wrong-doing kind of approach.  It’s an art!

4) Stonewalling – When a relationship has gotten to the point that one or both parties is actively avoiding talking it out, withdrawing from the conversation without resolving anything, this is truly the death knell.  The Gottmans say it takes time to arrive at this behaviour, as it often builds up over time and is a response to some of the other behaviours.  It looks like when parties withdraw to avoid the conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation.

The antidote to stonewalling is linked to an important piece of research the Gottmans discovered when they interviewed those who displayed stonewalling behaviours. What they found is that the stonewallers’ heart rates were consistently higher than normal (over 100 beats per minute) in those stonewalling moments. Stonewallers were also thinking these kind of thoughts at the time: “Just don’t make it worse.”   “Shut up and it’ll stop soon.”  Stonewalling behaviours indicate the person is emotionally and mentally flooded and just trying to survive the experience.  To compound things, the usual response to stonewalling is for the other person to escalate. This becomes like the chasers and the retreater.  One person pushes forward and the other runs away.

Given this, the Gottmans suggest taking breaks to deal with stonewalling.  The idea is to stop the conflict discussion with a break before someone explodes (contempt) or implodes (stonewalling) – neither of which advances the conversation.  The Gottmans say to take a break for at least 20 minutes as physiologically, that is a recommended amount of time to calm down.  The break should be to do something calming however, like a walk, stretch, cup of tea (as opposed to simply rehearsing the grievance).  So, taking a break to re-establish the calm and equilibrium can be a real gift to the communication. This does require someone to notice when a break is needed – sometimes a difficult escalation to catch.   It requires someone to notice  their own feelings of being flooded and to ask for a break.  In one longitudinal study from the Gottman Institute, couples were interrupted in their conflict discussions every 15 minutes and told the equipment monitoring them needed adjusting. They were asked not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction more positive and productive.  Taking 20 minute breaks regularly, the more intense, the more breaks – the better.

I hope, as you read these four horsemen, you can recognize some of your own patterns.  Awareness is always the first step.  With the new year upon us, it can help to reinforce what you want to change or stop doing and what you want to start doing.  Join the conversation and add what you’d like to stop or start doing below.

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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