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Dr. John Gottman, along with his wife Julie, has been a major influential force in the psychological community. Published in over 200 articles and over 40 books, Gottman is considered a go-to source of information on relationship psychology, including marriage and family counseling. At the Relationship Therapy Center, we use this method in our couples counseling. 

One of the concepts that Gottman presents is a set of conversation and communication styles known as the Four Horsemen, named for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Each negative communication style is unique; however, all can be damaging to any relationship.

In this article, we’ll give you a brief look at each of the communication styles and ways to recognize and correct these habits before they tear apart your relationship. We hope to provide you with a good overview.

First Horseman: Criticism

Whenever we feel hurt, it is a common reaction to lash out at the person who has hurt us. The tendency to point out flaws in another person is a way to make them feel as badly as we do.

What is Criticism?

The definition of criticism involves pointing out disapproval in another person. What sets criticism apart from other judgments is that criticism is based on a perception of a fault or mistake, not always reality.

There are positive feedback types of criticism, called constructive criticism. The difference is that constructive criticism is only offered after careful evaluation and NEVER in anger or the heat of the moment.

Why is Criticism Bad?

Criticism is often expressed as a blow to a personal character. For example, when someone forgets something, a common criticism is to call them selfish or uncaring. When the reality is, they may have just forgotten. Human nature leads us to perceive a situation to revolve around ourselves. The truth is we often consider other’s actions as directed at us, making assumptions that we know their motives.

How to Avoid Criticizing

Gottman offers 5 simple steps to avoid criticizing when confronting an issue with a partner. Referred to as “A Gentle Start-Up”, this is a way to form a habit of expressing your true feelings instead of lashing out.

I Feel…

Always start a statement with an “I”, not “you”. The tendency to make statements about the other person will lead to blaming statements, or criticism

About What…

What are YOU feeling? Focus on the moment and not on any past feelings or behavior. Keep yourself and your feelings as you form your thoughts and statements.

Example: “I feel scared when I do not know if you are safe.”

Instead of: “You never call when you are coming home safe!”

I Need… 

This is when you MUST let your partner know what you need from them. NOT listing what we do not want.

Example: “I need you to let me know when you will be late coming home.”

Instead of: “I don’t want you working late, or I hate it when you don’t call.”

Be Polite

 Even a little bit of kindness and courtesy can go a long way to avoid saying things you do not mean.

Give Appreciations.

Always pointing out negative actions, not only tears down communication but keeps focus on the negative instead of the positive. Making a habit to be thankful and point out positive actions will keep things more pleasant.

Second Horseman: Defensiveness

People naturally tend to be self-preserving. We use self-defense mechanisms to protect ourselves for painful emotions, physical harm, and even perceived or imagined attacks. One of the most commonly used in communication is to “point the finger” at the other person.

Example: “I wouldn’t have to work late if you didn’t spend so much money.”

Avoid using defensive language by keeping the focus on the disruption at hand. In the above example, being late coming home is almost completely missing. A non-defensive response would be, “I am sorry for not letting you know I would be working late; I’ll try to keep you more informed.” The anti-dote to this one is to take responsibility for your part. 

Third Horseman: Contempt

Contempt is directly related to a feeling of superiority, either intellectually or even emotionally. Contempt is the result of repeatedly focusing on the bad and forgetting that someone, or some situation, is not all bad.

The most common ways to express contempt are being rude, sarcastic, or cynical.

Considered to be one of the most damaging forms of communication, contempt can be non-verbal or verbal. We’ve all seen the look of disgust or annoyance, these become habits that we may not even realize we are doing.

Avoid showing contempt by focusing on the positive and your needs and feelings instead of the faults or anger toward your partner.

Gottman refers to this as Building a Culture of Appreciation. The guidelines include:

• Expressing Appreciation

• Expressing Thanks

• Expressing Fondness and Admiration

Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a way to avoid facing the situation. People often withdraw from the conversation even if they do not physically remove themselves. Not listening is one of the most common forms of stonewalling. Sometimes that is because they begin to feel attacked and start feeling flooded or overwhelmed. 

Avoid stonewalling by letting your partner know that you need a break, work on self-soothing and then pick up again when you are able. 

Closing Thoughts

Effective communication is a learned skill that we all have to practice regularly, in order to keep from falling into one of the above-mentioned styles. You must focus on forming positive and effective listening and communication skills. For more information on the Four Horseman or Dr. John Gottman, check out The Gottman Institute.

For more help on communication book an appointment today!