Rules of Effective Communication: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Today’s post is all about talking to each other! As a marriage and family therapist, I’m highly trained to teach you lovely folks the rules of effective communication. As it turns out, in our lifelong quests to avoid confrontation, we’ve gotten really good at passive aggression and hoping our partners figure out what they’ve done wrong. But we’ve really lost our ability to talk about hard things. Working it back in our lives starts with four basic rules of effective communication that I’m going to teach today.
I’ve adapted these rules from the Four Horsemen of the (relationship) Apocalypse established by John Gottman. The original four horsemen are the four things that would bring the end of the world according to the New Testament. Gottman’s four horsemen are the four communication errors that will eventually bring the end of a relationship. In fact, he says he can tell with over 90% accuracy if a relationship is going to end based on whether the couple engages in these unhealthy habits. Be really honest with yourself, and think about whether or not you do them!
Rules of Effective Communication: Don’t Talk Like This!
1. Don’t criticize your partner.
When we’re angry with someone, we tend to attack them as a whole person instead of tailoring our anger to the specific behavior that bothered us. This is a form of something called black-and-white thinking. You can usually spot it when the person says always or never. For example: you’re always so careless. You never think about what other people need.
This will only lead to the other person defending themselves. No one in the world is careless 100% of the time, and no one wants to be seen that way. Your discussion will quickly become a fight over whether or not the person is careless, rather than the real issue.
If we don’t follow these rules of effective communication, they build on each other until you have a real problem. So, we need antidotes! The antidote for criticism is to use something called I-statements. Think about what it means to you that your partner consistently forgets to take out the trash. Then, tell them that instead. For example: I feel like what I want isn’t important to you when I ask you to take the trash out and you forget.
With this phrasing, you’re not accusing the person of doing something wrong or being bad. In fact, it’s the beginning of a conversation on how to keep you from feeling this way. Now, you can problem-solve together rather than starting a fight.
2. Avoid defensiveness.
The second of the rules of effective communication is to steer clear of being defensive. Obviously, we naturally get defensive when someone criticizes us. Sometimes we even do it if we’re used to being criticized. We just enter that mode to protect ourselves. And yet, trying to prove we’re not the person our partner is making us out to be actually hurts you more in the long run. They don’t really believe you’re 100% careless; they’re just upset right now. So getting heated over this is just avoiding the real issue and creating distance between you and your partner. Below is what you can do instead.
Again, feeling defensive is logical when you feel you’ve just been attacked. And at the same time, if your goal is to find a solution to a difficult problem, defensiveness won’t serve you. While it protects your feelings, it also tells the other person that you don’t take their concerns seriously. And that you have no intention of taking responsibility for the thing that bothered your partner. So, that’s the key to the second of these rules of effective communication. Accept the other person’s perspective and apologize for hurting them, even if you don’t think you did.
Unfortunately, in this life, if someone says we hurt them, we’re in no position to tell them we didn’t. And we can only hope that if we respond this way, with love, then our angry partner will calm down and apologize for their criticism as well. This antidote might not bode well for pride, but letting go of pride is like, the first sacrifice you have to make when you love someone. Who needs pride when you have love?
3. NEVER treat your partner with contempt.
The third of the rules of effective communication basically means avoiding disrespectful behavior. Contempt covers eye-rolling, name-calling, sarcasm, belittling, mocking, etc. And Gottman says that if he sees contempt, he doesn’t even have to look for the other horsemen. It’s the strongest indicator of a relationship apocalypse, because these behaviors indicate a lack of respect for their partner.
Again, these horsemen follow a logical sequence of events. When a person has been criticized and therefore felt defensive for a long time, it makes sense that they’d eventually lose respect for that person. They might want to treat them in a way that makes them feel better than them. This makes sense. And at the same time, it’s ruining your relationship in an attempt to protect yourself from pain. Which, in the long run, hurts you too, since humans need relationships to survive.
So, how can you use your rules of effective communication to thwart contempt? Essentially, you avoid getting here in the first place. To do this, The Gottman Institute prescribes the 5:1 ratio. For every one negative interaction, a couple should engage in five positive interactions. For example, if you find yourself rolling your eyes after your partner bails on plans again, you can balance it out. Say something like:
“I know you’re super busy. And at the same time I think it could be really helpful for us if you could give me more notice when you need to cancel plans. I would really appreciate it.”
After you’ve contemptuously rolled your eyes, you’ve snuck two positive interactions right into your next two sentences. You validated that they’re very busy, and told them you’d appreciate the change rather than harping on the fact that you hate the current behavior. There’s also a bonus positive interaction in that phrase “and at the same time,” rather than the word “but.” But implies a negation of the validation you just offered, while at the same time allows you guys to hold those seemingly conflicting things at once. It’s a small change that makes a big difference.
4. Remain engaged rather than stonewalling.
The last of the rules of effective communication is to notice when you’re getting overwhelmed by a fight, and stop fighting while you’re in that state. Because, like how defensiveness is a reaction to criticism, stonewalling a reaction to contempt. Except it’s even harder to come back from.
Stonewalling is when a person becomes so overwhelmed by the fight that they disengage completely. Maybe they’ll just keep talking over their partner, clearly not listening. They may physically turn away, or act busy. Regardless, they’re tuned out. And when that happens, no productive conversation can happen. Like with the other horsemen, it’s an understandable reaction to feeling flooded by hurtful words, but it’s not aligned with your long-term goals. And yet again, you can use our rules of effective communication to keep this negative interaction at bay.
Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother are awesome at avoiding stonewalling. When they feel overwhelmed, they say “pause!” and go about their business until they’re ready to engage again. That’s all the antidote to stonewalling really is! But how do you know when you’re flooded?
The Gottmans have come up with a really ingenious plan for this. They suggest that you buy a pulse oximeter, and clip it to yourself during difficult conversations. A pulse oximeter measures the amount of oxygen in your blood, so it measures your pulse and breathing. You can watch for or even be alerted when your heart rate gets to a certain point, or if your breathing becomes irregular. When this happens, pause your fight like Marshall and Lily. Give it at least a half hour, but no more than 24 hours. That’s enough time for this fight-or-flight reaction to subside, but not so much time that you avoid the issue.
That’s all there is to it!
I know, I know, it actually seems like a ton. Sometimes it might take everything you’ve got to be the bigger person in your fights and use these rules of effective communication. But it’s SO important to try, you guys.
I’m the first to admit that, even as a therapist, it’s hard to use these rules all the time. Being vulnerable enough to communicate healthily takes a lot of practice and a lot of swallowed pride. And at the same time, I know you can do it if you love your partner. It’ll take some practice, and you won’t be perfect at it right away. Still, just the attempt to follow rules of effective communication will foster more safety in your relationship. From there, it’ll only get easier to follow them more often! Soon, you’ll feel closer than ever.