Conflict is about communication. How do we tell someone that there is a conflict? How do we communicate that there’s a problem? What are the worst things we could do or say in a conflict, and how can we avoid them?
Conflict is a struggle between people (lots of people, or just two) that is expressed in our behavior and/or words. Sometimes this expression of struggle is nonverbal, like avoiding the other person and not responding to their calls or texts. But other times this expression is verbal through tone of voice, words, or the dirty looks. All of these expressions are done to try and affect the other person. Maybe we are trying to make them feel bad, signal to them that we feel bad, or make them feel miserable or to blame for the situation in which you find yourselves.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Dr. John Gottman developed a model of problematic behaviors in conflict that he termed the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (Gottman 1993; Lisitsa 2013). The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Criticism: assigning blame to someone else, questioning the other person’s values or virtues, and complaining about the other person in a conflict. This might sound like
“You’re just so selfish! You never think of me!”
What’s the result of consistent criticism? It makes the person being criticized feel rejected, hurt, or attacked and can lead to negative patterns of communication between people. It also doesn’t clearly state a need or a way to meet that need - there’s no call to action in a criticism. For example, “You’re just so selfish! You never think of me!” is a criticism of a partner’s overtime schedule which takes them away from home more frequently and limits family time. Instead of using the criticizing language above, the speaker could say something like, “I understand you’re working more overtime, but I miss you and I wish that we could spend more time together. Could we sit down to strategize things we could do to help our financial life, but that also give us time together? Or maybe a schedule so that we can protect our time together?” In this version, there is a call to action (to strategize or create a schedule) and a clearly stated need (time together), which makes it much more clear to the other party in conflict what you’re upset about and a path forward to potentially fix the presenting problem.
Contempt: mocking the other person, hostile nonverbals (i.e., sneering, eye-rolling), name-calling, or sarcasm all delivered in ways that insult and attack the other person’s self-worth and show disrespect. For example:
“You’re upset? Oh, please! I’ve been working so hard to make ends meet too, and then I come home and I have to clean and make dinner. I don’t have the time or the energy to deal with your complaints about a couple of overtime shifts! It’s not a big deal, you’re just complaining because you’re lazy. I work way more than you!”
What’s the result of contempt? When someone uses contempt they are trying to appear morally superior to the other person. The result is rampant disrespect, less trust, and pervasive negative thoughts about the other person. In fact, contempt may be caused by consistent and long-simmering negative thoughts about another person.
Defensiveness: denying responsibility for your actions and playing the perpetual role of the victim. This might manifest in a statement like
“Well maybe I made a mistake, but you did that which is way worse!”
Defensiveness is often used to combat criticism. We might feel unjustly accused of something or we don’t want to shoulder responsibility for a mistake made or a valid criticism, so we search for excuses, play the victim role, and hope the other person will just back off. For example, “Yeah, I said I’d pay the bills, but you know how busy I am, why couldn’t you just take care of the bills today? You knew they were due too!” Defensiveness often results in blaming the other person.
Another option to a defensiveness is to admit fault and responsibility. For example, “Yeah, I said I’d pay the bills. I should have asked you to help me out with this task, because I knew I’d be busy, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. I’ll go make the calls right now to pay the bills and see if they will waive the late fees.”
Stonewalling: when someone shuts down and refuses to engage in the conversation or to interact in ways that deal with the conflict. This can happen when someone is overwhelmed and simply unable to engage any longer, or it can be a tactic used to deflect. It is often a response to contempt, but it can become a habit as a response to conflict in general.
If you are prone to stonewalling, it’s okay to take a break from a conversation about conflict. You can say something like “Okay, I know this is important, but I’m feeling very overwhelmed and angry right now. Could we take a break and come back to it in an hour? I want to talk this through, but I need to just get some quiet time for a bit to calm down and regroup.” Shape this language to your needs, of course, but the idea here is that instead of completely shutting down and shutting out the other person, you are inviting the conversation to continue, recognizing its importance, and also honoring your needs. An important piece to the formula above is the specific time to recommence your conversation.
If you have a partner, co-worker, or friend who tends to stonewall, invite the break. For example, you could say to someone who appears to be stonewalling, “I know this is an intense conversation, but we need to see this through and talk about these issues. Maybe we could take a break for an hour and then talk again? Would that work for you?” Then you need to follow-up and hold that person accountable to the timeline that has been set.
Breaking through the Four Horsemen
Use “I” statements. Whereas criticism and contempt are “you” statements (“You don’t care about me!” “You never pay the bills on time!” You are so lazy!”) an “I” statement is an opportunity to express your needs without blaming or criticizing the other person. The trick is to include an “I feel” along with a statement of your need. For example, “You don’t care about me!” can be expressed as “I feel like we aren’t spending as much time together now. i love and value you, and I really need more time with you.”
Be clear about your needs. Notice that none of the four horsemen express a clear need. Criticism blames the other person, contempt produces a sense of superiority, defensiveness hurls criticism back at the other person, and stonewallers don’t say anything at all! In order to resolve a conflict, you have to tell the other person your needs. Make this an open-ended invitation to collaboratively problem-solve, rather than a definitive requirement. For example, “You don’t care about me!” can be expressed as “I feel like we aren’t spending as much time together now. I love you and value you. Could we talk about how we might spend more time together?”
Be accountable. Defensiveness places blame on someone else and is used to protect oneself from a perceived or actual attack. The way to guard against this specific one of the four horsemen is to take responsibility. For example, if a romantic partner is criticized for their overtime by a partner who says “You don’t care about me!” they could respond defensively: “I’m doing all this overtime for us! Can’t you understand that? Or do you not care about our stability? Do you want to lose our house? You want to starve?” You can see how the back and forth between criticism and defensiveness is going to escalate quickly. A better way to respond to criticism is with accountability. Something like “Look, I don’t like working overtime and I know it’s negatively affecting our relationship. I’m sorry about that. Maybe we can sit down and look through our finances to come up with some solutions.”
Demonstrate appreciation. The Gottman Institute has a saying “small things often.” The small and intentional gestures, moments, and time are much more impactful on a relationship than extravagant gestures that happen rarely. As you do these small intentional gestures and as you receive them from others, you are building a positive relationship with that person, whether it’s a friend, family member, romantic partner, or a co-worker. Showing appreciation, respect, and gratitude for the other person and their contributions is a great way to guard against the four horsemen when a conflict does arise. These demonstrations can be through words or through actions. Consider how you could build positive relationships with people before a conflict arises to help prevent the four horsemen from creeping into your communication during a conflict.
For example, “You don’t care about me!” can be expressed as “I know that you are working hard for our family and I appreciate the sacrifice you’ve been making to support us financially. But I feel like we aren’t spending as much time together now. I love you and value our time. Could we talk about how we might spend more time together?”
Remember: You can't control how someone responds to your words, actions, and behaviors, but you do have control over yourself. Strive to reduce and eliminate the four horsemen from your communication habits in conflict. You just might notice some pretty significant changes in your relationships as a result.
Gottman, J.M. (1993) “A theory of marital dissolution and stability,” Journal of Family Psychology 7: 57-75.
Higgins, L. (2017) “Marriage is not a big thing, it’s a million little things,” The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/marriage-not-big-thing-million-little-things/.
Lisitsa, E. (2013) “The four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling,” The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.
Lisitsa, E. (2013) “The four horsemen and their antidotes,” The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/.