Improve Your Conflict Management in 2021
Has your communication with your partner or loved ones been impacted over the past year? Have your old ways of resolving conflict not been working lately? Have your conversations involved criticism, defensiveness, disrespect, and numbing out, leaving you feeling disconnected from your partner? If so, these can be indicators of what Drs. John and Julie Gottman, renowned relationship counselors and researchers, call the Four Horsemen. Maybe you’ve heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor for the end times? Well, the Gottman’s posit when these communication pitfalls are foremost in your relationship, it will end in similar fashion. The Four Horsemen are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling and their presence in your communication will serve to further alienate you from your loved one.
This is different than offering a critique or constructive criticism or bringing up a grievance. This is more of a verbal attack on you or your partner’s character, usually when they did not meet an expectation. These are often in the form of “you” statements. These statements do not offer any vulnerability or space for understanding.
As mentioned above, criticism attacks a person’s character, while contempt presumes a position of superiority. Contempt often appears in communication when there are persisting negative thoughts about your partner. Name calling and disrespect are often present when contempt is evident.
Defensiveness is typically a response, usually when criticism or contempt is present and then mirrors a similar reaction. This will propel the cycle of communication that is problem focused rather than solution focused, and refuses taking responsibility and often reverses blame.
This pitfall occurs when one partner “shuts down” in the conversation. Usually following criticism or contempt, one partner will emotionally withdraw and eventually physically withdraw, by either not responding or walking away.
You may be reading these and recognizing some patterns in your own relationship. The good news is these patterns can change over time. Acknowledgment is the first step. Simply identifying them is not enough to eliminate these patterns, but they must be replaced with healthier communication skills. Below are what the Gottmans call the “antidotes” for the Four Horsemen, and these are what you can challenge yourself to use instead.
The Gentle Start-Up
The antidote for criticism utilizes “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. It challenges partners to share their own feelings and experiences rather than describing their partner’s. A rule to be mindful of while practicing this, starting with “I feel like…” is often going to turn into a criticism and describing your partner, be diligent to state a personal feeling, “I feel frustrated…”, etc.
Appreciation and Respect
Because contempt is focused on the negative and void of respect, the antidote is to create a culture of appreciation for your partner. Challenge yourself to think about three positive things about your partner for every one negative thing. Take it a step further and actually voice these positive things to your partner.
Taking responsibility can be difficult, but it forces you to look at yourself, when all you are tending to do is look at what your partner is doing wrong. Rarely, is it ever fully one person’s fault when a heated argument ensues. Slowing down, recognizing where you could have done better, and voicing this, can disarm you and your partner to have much more productive conversations.
Physiological Self Soothing
When stonewalling occurs, it is usually because you or your partner is “flooded” or overwhelmed and triggered by emotion. This causes anxiety and the freeze and flight response to kick in. To combat this, first recognize you are shutting down and then voice you need a break from the conversation. Breaks are recommended to range from 20-30 minutes, and this time is meant for self-soothing, not for ruminating on the argument. Make a list of easy ways to soothe and distract yourself for when the need for a break arrives, and then return to the conversation.
If you need further assistance in understanding the Four Horsemen and the antidotes, below are some resources you can look into, or you can also reach out to us at SureHope to get in touch with a counselor to come alongside you and your partner as you navigate through healthier conflict management and communication.
What Makes Love Last: How to Build Trust & Avoid Betrayal – Dr. John Gottman & Nan Silver
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work – Dr. John Gottman & Nan Silver