Transcript of a video: John Gottman Four Horsemen – How to communicate effectively in a relationship?
Communication seems to be a really big area, and I realized that thanks to all the couples in my room. It seems to be something they all wish to do better, and they all want to learn better skills because ultimately what they’re really after is a connection. What happens is they get into these standoff positions, and what they are really wanting to be able to achieve is to have closeness and connection. They want to be able to work through the issues that come up for them rather than getting into these places where they disconnect.
One of the things I wanted to share with you was John Gottman. He is a researcher, and through his research, he has come up with Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which if they exist in a relationship, do a lot of destructive things. What we want to try and do is help with skills to learn to eliminate those, and use antidotes to be able to keep connection rather than disconnect. No couple is perfect, and every couple is going to have conflict in a relationship. It is how we deal with that conflict, how we work with each other to actually try and maintain that connection.
The Four Horsemen which are really important that we want to try and eliminate is: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. They are the four that we want to really try and eliminate, and each one has an antidote. Together with my couples, we work collaboratively. The key is to learn these skills, to be able to try, and keep that connection.
Let’s have a look at the Four Horsemen individually:
Criticism is a big one. People go in very much with starting conversations with the word “You do this” and “You said that”, and immediately the other person feels attacked, blamed and judged, they get their back up.
What we want to try and do is start those conversations differently. We want to start with the word “I”, and when we talk from the “I” we actually own it ourselves, so it’s our own experience and no one can take that away from us. When we talk from the ”I”, it would be “You know, I feel really upset when you say you’re going to take the bins out, and I notice it is still there. What I’d really appreciate, is that you follow through with what you’ve said, and take the bins out. Do you think that’s something you could do?”.
It’s saying “I feel upset, I feel angry” putting out your statement of what you need them to do. “I feel upset when you leave the dishes out on the counter” and my need is not what I don’t want them to do, but what I want them to. So, we talk in what our desire is of our need like “I feel upset when you leave the dishes. What I need is to actually wash up before you go to bed.” And then the request – “Is that something you feel you could do?”. That is coming across being able to speak what our needs are, but in a way that we own it, and there is no judgment, criticism or blame.
The other person then can hear what it is but by putting it out as a request. We are also not demanding it, but we are asking for what our need is, and then have that conversation. Instead of bottling it up and then it coming out as an attack as you say “You’re always going to do this.” and “You never follow through.” Usually, that’s not going to get us very far. We might feel it inside, we are all human and feel like we want to say it, but it’s not really very constructive. What I’m trying to encourage you to do, is to be able to say it in a different way that meets your needs. Putting the “I” statement first states the fact about what it is that you are asking for, and then putting the request for change. The first one is the first horsemen of criticism.
Defensiveness is a big one because usually, we defend when we want to protect ourselves when we are feeling attacked. When we do that, we are literally putting a wall up between us and the other person, and the other person then doesn’t feel heard, validated or understood. It is not really a great way of getting your point across and getting your needs met, but also getting the other person’s needs met as well.
I think that the key to being defensive is to put our reactivity to the side, which isn’t easy but we need to learn to do. Then we can enter the other person’s world, and be able to try and understand what it is that they’re saying to us, and take, as much as possible, a small part of the responsibility for where we may have been a part of this discussion.
For instance, if I was late and my partner says to me “You know, I’m really upset that you’re late.” instead of going “Well, you’re always late too! You can’t say that to me because you were late last night!” immediately that just gets into a battleground, and that doesn’t work. What I want to think is yeah they might have been late last night, but I actually have to look at this interaction right here and now and that interaction was “Yes, I was late, I acknowledge I was late last night, and I’m sorry for that.”
When we do that, and we take that every time we act at that moment it’s like we’re doing a repair, and we’re owning it at that moment and that keeps the connection. As soon as we go into the blame game “Well, you were late too last night” so it’s defending. Immediately the other person isn’t going to hear that very well, and you get into a fight.
The idea of all these sorts of things is to try and negate those fights, keep connection but be authentic in being able to come to our partner, express what our needs are, and our partner to be able to not defend but actually own the responsibility for their part. Another example of that might be “I feel really upset when you talk to me that way, and what I need is you to change your tone”. Immediately I need to look at myself and be able to say, “Well, how did I actually deliver that? Was my tone aggressive? Was my tone in a way that pushed them away?” rather than actually going “Yep, you’re right.”.
I would own that, and I would say “Okay what I’m hearing you say is that you don’t like the way I spoke to you, my tone, and I can accept that the fact that I was feeling irritable, and my tone might have just come out the wrong way, so I’m sorry for that.” There are just two little examples of where we own the little part that we could potentially do differently to keep the connection in the conversation.
The third horseman, which is probably really damaging, is the contempt, and that is where we see the flaws in our partner. We are looking for the bad in our partner rather than the good. And it’s about putting our partner down and speaking with scorn and in a way that we actually would feel superior to them. I think we’ve all probably met somebody like that or even been in that position where you’re with someone and the way they speak to you. It’s much more superior and you just feel put down, and that is probably one of the worst forms of damaging a relationship. I think a lot of people then form a habit of behaving in that way so they can’t see or appreciate the good things that the other person is doing.
What I’ve really learned about contemptuous behavior is there’s usually underneath that a dream or a need that has not been met. What usually happens is they don’t know quite how to express that, or they potentially don’t even know what that need is at the time. They just know they don’t like what it is that they’re hearing from the other person, and so people eye-roll or they’re sarcastic, it’s their whole defense mechanism. But it’s one of the most destructive things. The antidote for contentment is to actually be able to go with it. Let’s look at what’s underneath that.
What is the unmet need that I need to communicate to my partner?
The antidote to that is, again, really speaking from the “I”. It’s putting out how I feel, what my needs are, and in a way that it’s in a request nature that my partner can hear and receive.
And as I say, the whole point of all this is always a connection. So, instead of eye-rolling an end or becoming sarcastic, it’s like “I’m feeling really frustrated now, and what I’m really needing you to do is to be able to just give me some time.” Or “Is this the right time right now to speak or do we need to set up a time? Because this issue is really important to me. I’m starting to feel like I’m wanting to put you down or do something destructive to the relationship”.
So instead, I’m actually going to take a different track, and I’m actually going to speak what my needs are. That way I’m actually owning what it is for me. If I’m listening to my partner and I’m not feeling heard, instead of doing the eye roll, it’s “ I’m talking now, I’m not feeling hurt.” And what I need you to be able to do is actually do ask “Is this a good time for you? Because I need to set up a time so that what I need to say, which is important to me, is going to be heard and validated by you.” So, I’m putting out a request for what I need, but I’m not going into the sarcasm and eye-rolling, which is potentially so damaging, and it just ends up in a fight.
Another example of that is something like “There you go again. You’re spending all the money. You’re just absolutely reckless. You’re absolutely out of control. I’ve saved money. I’ve done all the work. And what do you do? You just go out and spend it all. You’re just stupid. You’re absolutely useless. And you don’t think of anything else but yourself.” So, that’s quite contemptuous. I’d probably put an eye-roll in there as well. All I know is that that is going to be really damaging, and I’m not going to get my needs met because my partner or husband is going to feel extremely attacked. They’re either going to shut down or they’re going to defend back.
The best way of being able to say that is in quite a different way. That’s talking from the “I”: “You know, I feel really frustrated about our finances, and the amount that we’re spending at the moment versus what we had agreed on that we were going to budget. What I’d like to do is be able to sit down with you and talk about finances again. We can just reassess that budget to make sure it’s realistic for what you need to spend for yourself, and for the house so that we can be on the same page, and so could we set up a time to make that happen.”
That’s going to be much more a way of keeping the connection between the two of you and being able to get your needs met rather than going in with all guns blazing.
Stonewalling is when we withdraw from interaction and we might be physically present. We’re sorry we withdraw. So that can be the crossing of the arms. It’s the looking away and physically we’re there. But we’ve actually put up a wall emotionally and we’re not there at all for our partner.
What usually happens is that the pattern goes something like this – you feel criticized, and the more you turn away the more your partner then attacks again. Then, the more you shut down even further, the more they try to get your attention because your partner feels that you’re not really there. This is sort of the dance that actually goes on between you. The more that you withdraw and aren’t emotionally present, the more your partner is trying to reach in and get you. That usually comes out more in a hostile way where you’re feeling attacked, blamed or criticized, and to protect yourself, you shut yourself down. That’s how the pattern plays out.
As we can see, the actual shutting down doesn’t work for your partner to be able to get their point across. There’s learning how to get the point across, which is what we were talking about before. But it’s also what we can do when we’re starting to feel flooded, that is another word for it.
Our heart rate elevates and starts to quicken quite quickly, and the stress levels of cortisol and adrenaline are released as well. That’s the negative spiral that starts to happen. When this happens, it’s nearly impossible to think clearly. Basically, when our motion goes up, our cognitive switches off. It’s nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation and to solve the problem constructively.
The antidote for that is to be able to self-soothe ourselves. That means to be able to remove ourselves from the situation for really probably a minimum of 20 minutes to bring that heart rate right back down again. What we might need to do is to calm ourselves down.
There is a great technique like square breathing. I would breathe in for four and hold for four. Exhale for four and hold for four. So that’s why it’s the square. I’ll do that for a minute and then check-in and see how I’m feeling inside. I might need to do it for 10 minutes to just bring everything back down again because we need to bring our emotions back down again to a level that our heartbeat is less than a hundred beats per minute. Then, we can actually engage in the conversation with each other.
The antidote really for stonewalling where we’re starting to get flooded is to be able to bring that heart rate down to the stress levels, down through the breath and do some self-soothing exercises. That might also mean going for a swim. It might have been going for a walk, might be cooking. The main thing is that you are not in your head staying re-engaged in the conversation. You’re actually focused on yourself to try, and calm everything down at just at that moment.
It’s really important at that moment when you feel that you are getting flooded, that you just don’t walk off from your partner, that you actually communicate to your partner, that I’m feeling overwhelmed at the moment. I’m feeling like I want to withdraw, but what I actually want is to let you know that I just need to take some time out from the conversation at the moment, and to be able to just calm down enough. We can actually have this conversation constructively, so both of us are feeling heard and validated to get both our needs met. The idea then would be to re-engage in the conversation and do it in one of the ways talking from the eye, which is owning the experience and delivering that to our partner in a way that they’re going to be able to hear it and put it as a request for change.
When we reduce all those John Gottman Four Horsemen in communication, they’re speaking more positively and showing appreciation and gratitude and respect to our partner.
If we approach communication and our relationship in that way, we’re going to be building more chances of positive connections. When we do that, we’re building a more positive connection towards each other and less negative interactions – frustration, blame, criticism, and judgment. These are the sorts of things that when couples come to see me we work on to build because, at the end of the day, no couple is perfect. That is really important to know that no couple is perfect. There is a chance to learn these skills to have a rich, intimate connection with your partner.
It just takes time and it takes work, but the results are amazing for what you can actually accomplish. I hope you’ve learned a lot about the John Gottman Four Horsemen today. And I look forward to speaking with you on the next topic. Have a great day.