Here I explore four habitual ways of engaging that shut down communication and can destroy your relationship. If you want better conversations, I will show you what to do instead. This is part of the Better Conversations Series.
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You are listening to The Happiest Lives Podcast with Jill Lillard—episode #11.
Hey everyone. Today we are talking about four mindsets that will kill your conversations. I am basing these on the four communication habits identified by Dr. John Gottman, which he calls The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. According to his research, these four habits are considered predictors of divorce.
The way I'm looking at them today is not just the act of being or doing, but I want to look at the mindset, the heart behind the action that leads to the destruction of not only a conversation but of a relationship.
If you are familiar with Gottman’s 4 Horsemen, you know they are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Now, if you're not familiar with John Gottman, he is a psychologist and scientist. He and his wife Julie founded the world-renowned Gottman Institute, which has done over 40 years of research on relationships. Gathering biofeedback in their Love Lab in Seattle, Washington, they articulated concepts that help us better understand healthy relationships.
I am proud to say that I am a Gottman-certified therapist, and I had the privilege of doing the last leg of my training in person with John and Julie Gottman. And so, I have studied and applied this work for over 20 years. Identifying these four mindsets helps teach a couple to pause and take a break when their conversations aren’t going well.
In analyzing relationships, Gottman developed the Sound Relationship House Model, a paradigm for looking at relationships, assessing them, and knowing what to do differently.
Now the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse occasionally rear their head in every relationship. So don’t be alarmed if you see these from time to time in your own marriage or other relationships. Just because you see one does not mean that your relationship is doomed to disaster. However, depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration, we can assess if these have become habits. And if they are habits, you want to get in front of them and see where they are coming from so you can stop them from ruining your conversations.
We do this by capturing the thoughts and feelings leading to these destructive ways of interacting and replacing them with a mindset that serves the relationship.
As I coach a couple, if I notice criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling, I will interrupt the conversation, help them step back, and look at what is happening beneath the surface. Doing this will require processing the emotions driving the words or actions.
Let's look at each of these horsemen, so you can better understand the mindset behind it and consider how it may play out in your conversations. You can then ask, what else is possible? What else could I think about my partner that helps me show up more effectively?
So, the first horseman is Criticism. This pastime is when you find fault and bring judgment against someone else. If a conversation starts critically, we would say it has a harsh startup. There may be a sense of superiority or a belief that somebody has done something wrong or should do things differently. When we habitually critically approach another person, it doesn't usually end well. It wears down the fabric of positive feelings setting a negative tone for interacting.
Feelings of superiority, judgment, dissatisfaction, and discontentment drive critical words. Those thoughts are created when we think our way is better, or I am better, something is wrong with you, things should be different than they are, someone shouldn’t have done something, or someone or something is not good enough.
Suppose you tend to be a critical person who's always finding fault. In that case, you want to be aware of the energy you bring into the conversations because it's not serving the relationship. It's not bringing you joy and connectedness if that's what you really desire. Being critical doesn't build others up.
Now, this doesn't mean we can't have complaints. It doesn't mean that we won't have opinions and preferences. But if you tend to find fault primarily, then you want to own it; you want to notice it and look at the result it is creaing in your relationship.
The antidote to criticism is to soften the startup. Don’t lead with negativity. Take ownership of your preferences and opinions, creating space for another perspective and way of seeing and doing life. And if you are going to complain, ensure you have given equal air time to what is good and right, acknowledging another's good intentions and alternative reality. Cultivate empathy, grace, and consideration for another’s point of view.
Now I am not telling you to censor your words or pretend you aren’t feeling critical. It's okay to feel critical; you just want to be able to pause the feeling and not become critical.
Let the Lord search your heart, revealing your thoughts and attitude. Only then can we soften how we see things. If you look at things rigidly and often feel superior, critical, or judgy, be willing to slow down and let the Lord show you a new way. You may have to let go of perfectionistic standards and embrace imperfection.
The second horseman is defensiveness.
People become defensive when they feel attacked or criticized. Now, I've also seen people become defensive when I don't see the other person being critical. That may be because of a history of having felt criticized. However, let's not put our energy into the person or the past that we can’t control; instead, consider how we filter someone else's words.
Gottman tells us that the antidote for defensiveness is to take responsibility. Now we don't have to take responsibility for what someone else thinks or feels or someone else’s actions; however, we can and should take ownership of our actions.
So if you did something or decided about something and someone is critical, you might start feeling defensive. Because you think the other person disapproves of you, you may defend why you did what you did rather than just taking ownership of what you did and not finding fault with their assessments.
If someone is upset that you didn’t clean out the toaster, for example, you can agree, rather than feeling defensive about it and making excuses, “You're right. I didn't clean out the toaster. I know that's frustrating, and I promise I am not trying to make life harder for you.”
We don’t have to take ownership of their dissatisfaction, but we can create space for what they think and feel as we take ownership of our actions. We may disagree on what we believe the action meant, but when we separate the facts from assessments, we can let people have their opinions without feeling threatened or unsafe.
It's better to say, “Hey, I'm feeling a little defensive right now,” than to become defensive, which will quickly shut down your conversation. So, take a pause and deep breath before you respond, and try to sit far from what is happening to see what you are thinking and feeling and make room for the other person’s reality.
If you tend to feel defensive often, just get curious about what you believe that makes you feel that way. What do you think when someone else says words?
I have a particular person in my life who I feel defensive when I am around them. Now they aren’t making me feel that way; my thoughts are. The thought that I have identified that triggers this is “I am not good enough.”
Now I believe that I am good enough. I think my best is enough; still I believe this person always sees all my shortcomings.
I make that mean, “He sees me as flawed, and that's not okay.”
The fact is he does find fault in me.
He tells me about the things he thinks should be different.
Even though I disagree with the standards he sets, on an emotional level, I get reactive sometimes. If I slow that down and look at why I get emotional and react defensively, it is because I think he should not find fault with me.
And yet he does. So he should. However, that's not about me. I don’t have to find fault with him for finding fault in me. Because then I become critical of him being critical of me.
When I am mindful of what is going on and take ownership of my actions, thoughts, feelings, and reactions, a thought that helps me is, “He finds fault with me, and that's okay.” When I think that, I relax. I listen to his perspective without taking it personally. And the result? I am okay.
The third Horseman is contempt. Contempt is a deep hatred or dislike for somebody else. It is criticism taken to a whole new level. People express contempt through criticisms, sarcasm, eye-rolling, or other facial expressions. When we start villainizing our partners, then we aren’t going to feel close or connected. Once contempt has set in, it's hard to return from it.
The antidote for contempt is fostering an atmosphere of admiration and fondness. Tune into the things that you appreciate about your partner. What do you enjoy? What about them is good? Instead of constantly thinking about what is wrong, look for evidence of what is right.
For every one negative, you can foster five positives.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. This habit is when we shut down, withdraw, or check out. We may buffer our emotions by being busy, getting on our cell phone, tv, substances, working a lot, or other distractions.
We stonewall, not because we don't care, but because we are becoming physiologically flooded. Not only are we becoming emotional, but our body is physically shutting down. We go into fight, flight or freeze mode when this happens.
When someone's stonewalling, the partner may assume they don't care. They may think, “Oh, they're just detached. They're indifferent.” And so they become louder. They may turn up the volume and pursue the person, seemingly trying to distance themself.
If you tend to Stonewall, you want to become more self-aware of what you think and feel that is leading to this. Chances are you feel overwhelmed, powerless, or ineffective.
Saying a sentence to yourself can help you validate your thoughts and feelings, and take ownership of how you show up, and stay connected.
An example would be, “Hey, I'm feeling overwhelmed because I am thinking this is too much.”
So notice, I identified a feeling, overwhelmed, and then I asked myself what thought was causing that. It was my thought, not the situation.
Another example would be, “I feel scared because I think this won't end well.”
We stonewall to neutralize perceived dangerous situations. If you tend to stonewall, the antidote for this is to stay connected and physiologically self-soothe.
Emotional flooding can happen quickly, so if you know this is a habitual way of reacting, devise a plan to change things. I call this having a flood plan. A flood plan is essential before getting into a situation where you are shutting down.
Talk to your partner about this plan, letting them know the goal is to have better conversations that aren’t reactive.
My 3-Step Flood Plan includes Take A Break, Reroute, and Redo.
To take a break, use an agreed-upon hand gesture, code word, or simply say, “I am flooded and need a break.” You are indicating that the other person and the conversation are too important to treat as an emergency. If your partner needs a break, you may need one as well. Support each other in self-soothing by creating physical space between you, agreeing to come back and resume the conversation in a new way.
The next step is to reroute your energy. You are feeling upset because of what you are thinking and feeling. So taking time to become aware of why you are flooding and processing emotions is crucial.
Inside my coaching program, Clarity+Courage, I have a course, How to FEEL, which shows you how to find your emotion, experience it, explain it, and let it go. If you want to learn more about that part of it, you can join my coaching program anytime, and when you do, you will get immediate access to this concept.
As you reroute your energy, you will use the Heart Scan process to validate your thoughts and feelings and determine how you want to turn toward your partner. As you invite the Lord into this place of emotion, you can ask him to comfort you, to search your heart, and to expose any offensive way in you. After you do this, you will want to be willing to let go of what you are holding onto, and it will be much easier to do when you take the time to first sit with it and feel it.
The last step is to redo the conversation. This simply means coming together in ideally 5 minutes to 24 hours. The goal is to deepen understanding, repair, and move forward by having the conversation differently. I share tools and interventions in my coaching programs to help you do this.
We have looked at Four Mindsets and Habitual ways of relating that can kill your conversations, and we have also looked at their antidotes.
Remember The Four Horsemen exist not because of your circumstance but because of your mind. What you're thinking about your circumstance is totally valid. Your thoughts and feelings are valid. You just want to see if they're serving you, and that's the work I love to help you with.
Well, that's all I have for you today. I hope you have a great week, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.