The 4 Horsemen of Negative Communication

Maintaining a positive communication with the people you love is one of the most essential aspects of creating the life of your dreams.

You may feel like the victim of downward headed spiraling negative communication with no end… But the truth is that you are the one in charge, you are the one with the ability to change your patterns and change the eventual outcome of your relationship.

A few days ago, during a few highly enjoyed days off, I was introduced to a book called “Quiet days in Mixing Parts”, by the Norwegian author Erlend Loe.

Erlend Loe is known for creating and writing in the genre Naïve art.

In all of Loe’s novels the jokes and fears of life’s meaninglessness are mixed with a kind of everyday absurdism and low comedy. The result is an entertaining and wildly fabulous style, where the critique of society’s self-sufficiency and materialistic occupation lies like a constant undertone.

“Quiet days in Mixing Parts”, is about a married couple on a vacation in Germany, with the husband being the main character and the center of the dialog and the story.

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Pattern of communication

As I was reading the book, page by page, I started noticing a pattern… a pattern of communication that I find highly alarming, annoying and anxiety provoking… and at the same time extremely funny.

(There’s no doubt that this communication pattern is the main focus and message of the book)

The way the couple communicates is clearly shaped by years of unresolved issues, a lack of proper communication, and marked by a deeply rooted negativity.

Like almost everything else in our life, our habits determine the pattern in which we communicate with the people we love (or hate), and we can all recognize the annoying truth that, once we have established a pattern, it can be teeth-grindingly difficult to get rid of it again…

I recognize myself

Why is it that so many of us end up in a negative communication pattern with the once we love the most?

I’ve seen it time and time again in relationships and people around me… I even see it in myself sometimes… and I don’t like what I see.

As I was reading the book, it reminded me of how utterly uncomfortable and deeply frustrating it is to be witness to negative communication from others and it also dawned on me how scared this tendency makes me.

I was reminded of how fragile relationships can be, how easily we can destroy it with neglect and negativity and how important it is to remain aware of how we communicate with the once we love… To be honest it made me take a good and honest look at myself and my own tendency to fall into the negative communication-trap.

I believe we all have the negative tendency and it all comes down to our own ego, neglect, habits, a lack of respect and often our own insecurities.

To establish a positive and loving communication requires a lot of good intentions and determination, and if we want to do our part to change a current communication pattern or prevent one in the future, we need to understand the 4 main reasons why we tend to end up in this downward spiral of negative communication.

The four Horsemen

Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has identified 4 specific, negative interaction styles that can eat away at an otherwise healthy relationship. He calls them the Four Horseman of The Apocalypse (Gottman, 1999).

Horseman 1: Criticism.

A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I-statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?

Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Antidote: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”

Horseman 2: Defensiveness.

Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood, in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand.

Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for a part of the conflict.

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”

Antidote: “Well, part of this is my problem; I need to think more about time.”

Horseman 3: Contempt.

Some examples of displays of contempt include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.

Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”

Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.”

Horseman 4: Stonewalling.

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction.

The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing. The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere.

The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body physiologically calms down.

It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.

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