Gottman’s Four Horsemen

It’s hard to believe we are in the last month of 2020; we have almost “made it” through this difficult year!  I, like most of you, have spent most of my time at home with my family. I am very grateful for this extra time together, in part because it has given me the opportunity to self-reflect. Specifically, how am I really communicating with my husband and children? How well do I communicate to my extended family and friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, people I pass along the way?   You are probably aware that I tend to write a lot about communication, and I do this because IT IS SO IMPORTANT!

Communication is more than the words that come out of our mouths, in fact one of the most important skills of communication is listening.  Effective communication involves maintaining a level of respect throughout the conversation, even when you are not in agreement on the given issue.  Good communicators can accept their part of the conversation, good or bad, and recognize when an apology is needed.  Individuals that excel in good communication can give grace, forgiveness, and compassion when appropriate, and not as a means of manipulation.

Now that we know what effective communication looks like, let us explore some of the tendencies of poor communicators.  Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher and clinician in the area of couple’s therapy, has identified four communication styles that can signal a major issue in a relationship, and even lead to the demise of the relationship. I have found these principles not only apply to couples, but to everyday relationships.  Gottman identifies these communication styles as the Four Horsemen—Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

Criticism is an attack on an individual’s character.   Criticism is not to be confused with a critique or a complaint, as these are usually centered on a specific issue or behavior. A critique or complaint expresses a need; it does not blame.  Instead, samples of criticism include, “You’re always talking about yourself!” or “You never care about what I have to say!”  Words like never and always imply the other individual has a consistent and negative personality flaw.  Individuals who are criticized often feel hurt, rejected, and even assaulted.

Contempt destroys an individual’s psychological, emotional, and physical health. Examples of contempt are: treating the other with disrespect, mocking with sarcasm, condescension, hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and poor body language like eye-rolling.  At the heart of contempt is superiority and disgust, a combination that makes resolution virtually impossible.

Defensiveness is a way of blaming the other individual, through refusing to take responsibility, being unwilling to admit one’s role in the situation, and deflecting the conversation, as in, “it’s your fault.”  As Ellie Lisitsa states, “Defensiveness, which is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood, is an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.”   Many of us have been defensive in our relationships, and if we honestly self-reflect, we can probably say this type of response has not been helpful. This type of communication is rarely effective and can open the door for the other horsemen to enter into the conversation/argument.

Stonewalling looks like the silent treatment, shutting down and intentionally not responding. It is impossible to have a conversation, much less solve a conflict, when one individual blocks the other.  There is no trying to resolve the issue and communication is over.  Stonewalling allows individuals to manipulate or control the interaction, and ultimately showcases their inability to take responsibility for their actions.  Stonewalling is not to be confused with taking a time out to cool off.  Taking a time out involves individuals respectfully stating their intention to come back to the issue in order to resolve it when both are able to interact effectively, and then following through with this commitment.

The first step in becoming a more effective communicator is identifying if any of the four horsemen are a part of your communication style or exist in your interactions with others.  This step can be difficult because it requires an honest self-assessment and a willingness to take responsibility for any ineffective or destructive communication tactics.  Once you have identified any ineffective communication tendencies, it is important to replace them with healthy and effective ones.  Just like with any change that we begin to implement, learning to be a better communicator can be overwhelming; you might be criticized by others and feel a sense of defeat. If you need help in this process, reach out to schedule a 15-minute complimentary phone consultation or appointment today.

I would like to share with you some of my favorite quotes on communication:

“It’s important to make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” – Barack Obama

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” – Peter Drucker

“Families who have strong and healthy communication skills can weather significant challenges and remain intact. Those with limited effective communication skills are vulnerable to the challenges of life pulling them apart.” – Ellen Miley Perry

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” –  M. Scott Peck

Alison Curtis, MS, LPC, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Alison.