John Gottman is widely considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of our time and is known for his research on what makes relationships (particularly marriage relationships) work. He is probably most famous for his newlywed study which led to his ability to predict divorce with 90% accuracy. I believe it doesn’t work much differently for professional relationships.  

Gottman identified four main relationship killers that he refers to as the “Four Horsemen” of relationship destruction. They are 1) criticism, 2) defensiveness, 3) contempt and 4) stonewalling. See if you recognize any of these behaviors in your team dynamics. 

Criticism:  Gottman is not referring to a critique of results or even actions but rather the criticism of the person.  Criticism becomes destructive when it’s targeted or perceived to be targeted at a person’s character. People feel personally attacked and become defensive.  We see this surface in a professional setting when people want something to be different, but instead of making their request clearly and unemotionally, they criticize the person and spend a lot of time talking about what they don’t like rather than making a clear request.  

Defensiveness:  This is destructive when defensiveness is used to deflect blame and therefore never accept responsibility or apologize for a mistake. It creates a vicious cycle of criticize/defend/criticize/defend.  

Contempt:  This is one I see a lot in teams, and I feel it is the most dangerous of the four horsemen because it makes people feel inferior (and often infuriated). I observe it as eye-rolling, mimicking, name calling, sarcasm, passive aggressive behavior, and ridicule.  It is our way of making ourselves feel superior to others and is highly destructive to trust and any kind of resolution.   

Stonewalling:  This is when an individual shuts down completely and refuses to engage in the conversation or leaves the environment completely. When people give the cold shoulder, walk out of meetings, or refuse to communicate in other ways, it stalls the ability of anyone to reach a resolution.  

We can all see why these behaviors could sabotage a marriage but what about at work? Of course, they can and will if team members aren’t committed to a higher level of communication. Here’s what you and I can do to build better relationships at work and at home:

  1. When you want something to change, make a clear request and avoid criticizing the person or their character.
  2. Look for and speak to any part of the conflict that might be your responsibility and take ownership of it. 
  3. Make a promise to never engage in negative body language, sarcastic remarks, name calling or any other passive aggressive behavior. Be a better person than that.  
  4. If you need some time to cool off or delay a conversation, make sure the other person knows that you are still sincerely interested in resolving the issue. Remind yourself that giving the cold shoulder is a child’s game and an immature way of punishing someone with whom you’re upset. A mature professional will take the time to gain control and then reengage the conversation in a healthy way.  

This week, consider these four horsemen of relationships and stay vigilant to avoid them. Instead, create healthier ways to build trust and solve issues.  

“Criticism, like, rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”
– Frank A. Clark

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