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.