Communication Habits That Destroy Relationships Part Two

Earlier this month we introduced the first of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen – or communication behaviors that lead to failure. Gottman’s claim to fame is his ability to predict divorce with a 91% accuracy rate, and he bases these conclusions on the communication practices of married couples. The tricky thing about communication is that we must communicate with people all of the time, and in every situation. Applying the lessons Gottman offers about marital communication to all of our relationships not only improves our personal relationships, it improves our professional relationships and personal perceptions of self-worth. Last month we covered the first two horsemen, criticism and contempt and this month we cover the final two, defensiveness and stonewalling. Take the time to review all four and discuss your communication with someone you trust. If you recognize your relationships in any of the four horsemen behaviors know that if you want to keep the relationship, the communication has to change.


To be fair, when we get defensive it is usually because we feel criticized or like our partner has been holding us in contempt. It seems innocent, just a desire to make our own voice heard and to not take insults lying down. When we get defensive, what we actually just want our communication partner to back off and perhaps apologize. Interestingly, we keep wanting that every time we get defensive even though it never works that way. Defensiveness does not serve to cool an argument down, rather it heats it up. In practice it places the blame on our communication partner and escalates the conflict. Many times defensive communication is actual a means of deflecting the issue and turning the argument into one about your partner.  Be aware of the problems with getting defensive and know that if your real goal is to end the criticism you feel you are on the receiving end of, getting defensive will not make your communication partner see things from your perspective.


Stonewalling is pretty much that – making one’s self a stone wall and refusing to enter into any productive communication. This is the completely disinterested listener who often just looks away instead of being interested in the conversation, or being interested in the argument. In the mind of the person stonewalling the action is simply one of avoiding the fight, but in the bigger picture the action is one of avoiding the relationship.

While the other three horsemen can waltz into a relationship at any time and in no particular order, stonewalling generally comes last. This is because the person engaging in stonewalling has become overwhelmed by the first three horsemen that seem to inevitably come to play whenever there is an argument. The relationship has been in a negative spiral long enough that the emotional and physical impact of the arguments is just too harsh. If you recognize yourself or someone who you care about doing this in a relationship it means that it is time to get back to basics if you want to save the relationship. Consider Edge of Change for one-on-one coaching or group coaching to improve the communication within the relationships you want and need in your life.

Will You Be My Valentine?

Every day I give thanks for this business that brings me in contact with smart, passionate, committed, supportive, creative, appreciative people like you! You make me love my job, and with that in mind I’d like to give you a token of my appreciation this Valentine’s Day.

I put together this fun book of quotes that regularly inspire me to perform at my best while remembering what matters most in life. It’s a short read that I hope you will print out and keep close by for any time you want or need some words of wisdom.

Download the book here

With all the love in my heart, Happy Valentine’s Day

Communication Habits That Destroy Relationships Part One


If someone who could predict with 91% accuracy whether or not your communication habits would lead to failure in your business and personal relationships, you would probably give them your undivided attention, wouldn’t you? Luckily, a scientist by the name of John Gottman has made that claim. Through years of systematic study, he has discovered four communication habits that will destroy relationships. Gottman calls these traits the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and according to him they normally appear in this order; criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This month we take a deeper look at the first two horsemen, and next month we examine the last 2 horsemen and how they all work together to destroy relationships.


I am betting that we all know what this looks, sounds, and feels like. At some point or another every single one of us has been criticized and has criticized others. We know that it is criticism because it goes beyond talking about a single behavior and into global terms. Instead of, “You didn’t respond to that email in a timely fashion” it’s “What is wrong with you? I don’t know why I bother sending you email, you never respond.” The difference in impact between these two ways of addressing the same issue is the difference between a healthy interaction and one steering us on a negative course.

In order to free your communication from this horseman, focus on one behavior at a time and give specific information on how that behavior has affected you instead of resorting to blame and character assassination. Criticism is not the most lethal of the 4 horseman, but it is the gateway horseman to the behaviors that will kill a relationship and habitual monitoring of your behavior in this area will save you stress and heartache by preventing the other horsemen from getting a foothold.


Of the 4 horsemen, contempt is the most poisonous to relationships according to Gottman. Contempt conveys disgust with another human being and while I am not sure about you, I know that I shut down if I am getting the message someone is disgusted by me. You may be wondering what contempt looks like. I like to think of it as criticism on steroids. It includes sarcasm, cynicism, sneering, mockery, and eye-rolling – along with any other similar behavior.

Taking a single issue and blowing it up into proof that one partner is better than the other partner or giving one’s self the moral high ground and demeaning another person seems so awful that we can’t ever think of ourselves doing it – yet this interaction occurs hundreds of times a day in workplaces, marriages, and friendships. Contempt takes hold after negative thoughts about another person have had time to simmer in our brains, so if you have an issue with someone you work with, live with, or want to continue being friends with it is important to carve out time to resolve that problem in a respectful manner before contempt canters in and puts this relationship in front of the firing squad.

Check back with us later this month for more information on the last two horsemen, defensiveness and stonewalling.