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Four toxic behaviours that ruin relationships and how to prevent them

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Healthy debate is normal, however, it is how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic. This article uncovers the toxic behaviours that spell trouble and suggests a better way to deepen understanding and enable productive relationships.

It is impossible to agree all the time, and not all disagreement is bad. Healthy debate is normal and can generate different perspectives, enable better solutions and generate new opportunities. However, it is how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic.

Research has uncovered four toxic behaviours that can get in the way of communication and derail collaborative relationships if left unchecked. The four behaviours are Blaming, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Relationship expert Dr John Gottman termed these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as they spell disaster for any personal or professional relationship.

In this newsletter, I consider each of the “four horsemen” behaviours in turn. I look at what triggers them, consider the consequences and what you can do to avoid them. Then I suggest a different approach that will foster trust, deepen understanding and enable productive relationships. 

Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners” – Laurence Stern

Blaming. Some forms of criticism are constructive such as providing feedback that is balanced, observed, objective, specific and timely (the BOOST model). Blaming is different as the intention is rarely to make things better but to deflect or punish. A sign that you are slipping into blaming is if you catch yourself using phrases like “never” and always”. For example, “You never get things done on time” or “You are always dismissive of ideas”. Often these views arise from pent up frustration resulting in irritation which can turn to resentment. 

Constructive alternative: If you genuinely want to deliver valuable and helpful feedback to someone, avoid commenting on what type of person they are or what they believe in or value. Keep your remarks factual and focus on their behaviour and the impact this has had on you. Do not be tempted to discuss aspects of personality, intelligence or anything else, only their actions. Stay non-judgmental, be objective, specific and timely. Think out:

  • What happened
  • When and where it took place
  • What you observed
  • What was the impact
  • What was the consequence
  • Any suggestions for how to get a better result next time

Contempt. Arguably the most destructive of the “four horsemen”, contempt involves behaviour that is ripe with disrespect, condescension or ridicule. Contempt is often a bullying tactic. Such behaviour may be disguised as ‘banter’ but can involve scornful sarcasm and cruel mockery. Contemptible actions can include eye-rolling, sneering, gossiping and name-calling.

Such disdainful behaviour happens when a person homes in on the qualities they dislike in another person and builds these up in their mind as worthy of contempt. Sometimes the perpetrator can lack self-esteem and have low self-confidence. In these circumstances, they might seek to feel better by putting someone else down.

Within the workplace, contemptuous behaviour can result from poor communication, personal disappointment or an inability to value diversity and different viewpoints. Whatever the reasons, the result is the same: the destruction of psychological safety, which undermines emotional and physical health.

Constructive alternative: Contemptuous behaviour can become a habit, especially when the human negativity bias is allowed free reign. Our brains are quick to spot potential danger and take evasive action. While helpful when facing genuine threats, this evolutionary quirk can result in ill-judged behaviour. Overfocus on others’ perceived flaws and failures can often be traced back to incidents fuelled by poor communication. Feelings of being wronged can build into unhealthy resentment, which, left unresolved, can turn to contempt. 

Being self-aware is crucial. Know your triggers and manage your emotions by listening carefully, being curious, practising empathy, and seeking common ground. Next time you notice that you harbour unpleasant feelings towards someone, pause and consider the consequences of acting upon these. What would a well-intentioned and thoughtful person say instead? An alternative approach is to consider their positive qualities and the things you appreciate most about them. Perhaps write a list of these qualities and return to it when you need a reminder.

We can improve our relationships with others by leaps and bounds if we become encouragers instead of critics – Joyce Meyer

When managing others, try working with them to create ‘rules of engagement’ that provide a constructive dialogue framework. It can come as a shock to some that you don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree. Focus on the issues rather than personalities and encourage collaboration instead of competition. Communication that is inclusive and respectful will result in better knowledge sharing, new possibilities, effective decision-making, and, ultimately, improves performance results.

Defensiveness. People who feel under attack, unfairly criticised or otherwise embarrassed will often act defensively. This kind of behaviour can include putting up barriers to avoid dealing with complex issues. If you hear yourself making excuses or avoiding taking responsibility for something you did, then the chances are you have slipped into being defensive.

Signs include lack of eye contact, not listening and becoming disengaged from the conversation. These signs will communicate to others that you are not willing to take concerns seriously. Unfortunately, this can spiral into a destructive confrontation with rival grievances aired and any goodwill quickly squandered.

A great relationship is about two things. First, appreciating the similarities, and second, respecting the differences” – Anon

Constructive alternative: Being defensive is a consequence of our normal human need to keep safe and avoid threats. If you find that you behave defensively, take time to explore what triggers that state of mind. Exercise self-compassion as you do this. What would help you feel better resourced and capable of listening with an open mind? If you believe comments are flawed, calmly explain why using ‘I’ statements. Create trust by asking for more information to help you understand the other person’s perspective. Useful phrases include:

  • When I hear XYZ, then I feel …
  • Please help me to understand …
  • When did you notice that I do this?
  • What was the effect upon you?
  • My perspective on this is …
  • What can I do that would improve the situation/issue/result?
  • What are you willing to do that would improve the situation/issue/result?

Take the time to let people air their issues and take responsibility when appropriate. If you are at fault, a simple apology can go a long way. Staying composed, balanced in response and showing a willingness to see a different viewpoint will enhance your ability to build and maintain productive relationships.

Stonewalling. This kind of behaviour involves creating obstacles between you and someone else by withdrawing, disengaging and avoiding interaction with them. You seek to put distance between you, which can be emotional and sometimes physical. An example of stonewalling is ignoring someone or refusing to communicate, aka the “silent treatment”.

Evasive behaviour at work can include continuous scrolling on a smartphone during meetings and reluctance to speak or shuffle papers rather than pay attention. Stonewalling can sometimes result when the first three “horsemen” behaviours accumulate and become overwhelming. The withdrawal becomes the last resort to avoid dealing with a difficult situation. Stonewalling is incredibly destructive to relationships because it increases feelings of rejection, creates mistrust and helplessness.

Constructive alternative: If you find that you are overwhelmed with negative feelings during a discussion, take some time out by suggesting a short break. You might move elsewhere and take a few deep breaths. Use the time to drink some water and collect your thoughts. Taking a break during a heated exchange can transform the situation. It gives time for each person to consider the consequences of their actions. The foundation of emotional intelligence is being self-aware and knowing that we choose how we behave. Thoughts are only thoughts until we act upon them, and they become a behaviour that can become a habit.

So, the next time you find yourself in a conflict with your partner or co-worker, make a deliberate effort to avoid the “four horsemen” and engage in other constructive behaviours instead. Afterwards, make a note of how things went. Did you or your partner or co-worker engage in any of the “four horsemen” behaviours? If so, did you catch yourself and try to take a different approach during the conflict? What went well, and what could you improve for next time?

“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” – Amanda Gorman

Remember, keep practising and be kind to yourself if you slip up. It can be challenging to stay focused during the heat of an argument, and these habits can take time to change. Knowing about the “four horsemen” behaviours and how to counteract them is just the start. It takes effort to learn how to implement the techniques described. However, just like doing any physical or mental exercise, it becomes more natural and straightforward as you build the memory muscle.

If you’d like to receive my monthly newsletter for tips and strategies for navigating modern life more successfully, you can subscribe via this link:

Dr John Gottman, The Gottman Institute, The Four Horsemen Defined,
Greater Good Science Center, Avoiding The “Four Horsemen” in Relationships,
Mary Soo, psychologist, RWA Psychology, The Four Horsemen Toxic Communication Styles And How To Rein Them In,
Carrere, S., Buehlman, K.T., Coan, J.A., Gottman, J.M., Coan, J.A., and Ruckstuhl, L., (2000). Predicting Marital Stability and Divorce in Newlywed Couples, Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 42-58.
Mark Goulston ‘Don’t Get Defensive: Communication Tips for the Vigilant’, Harvard Business Review 2013.

Beverly Landais PCC

Beverly Landais PCC

Certified Personal & Team Coach: enabling people to be at their resourceful best

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