How can we keep contempt out of our disagreements? And why should we?

According to Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, we don’t have an anger problem in America. We have a contempt problem. Contempt is defined as the “conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” It’s the opposite of respect.

Arthur spoke to John Gottman, one of the world’s leading experts on contempt, on a recent episode of The Arthur Brooks Show. In the interview, John shared his insights on the corrosive nature of contempt, and how we can get out of the habit of expressing it, both in our personal relationships, and more broadly, as a nation.

Our research shows that contempt kills relationships. It’s the worst of the Four Horsemen. If we want to have happier relationships, and be happier people, we have to get out of the habit of expressing contempt for each other.

Anger is not the same as contempt. Contempt is belittling and disrespectful. It makes us less empathetic toward our fellow humans. Anger engages us. If you do it in a respectful way, anger can be constructive because it leads to mutual understanding.

While we don’t do work on political discourse, maybe we can apply the Gottman Method to solve the contempt problem in our country.

We can start political reconciliation by talking about our shared why instead of our divided what. We call this the “dreams within conflict” approach. It gets at the meaning of each person’s position.

When people are arguing with each other about politics and policy, they’re usually talking about the what of politics. They need to dig into the why of the values behind the political positions they hold. In doing so, they’ll find they agree on more than they thought.

From political debates on television to comment threads on social media, we see people treating each other with contempt all the time. The dialogue has become “us” vs “them.” And that deludes us into thinking we’re better than other people. It’s dangerous.

The First Amendment guarantees that people have the right to be heard, even if their points of view are offensive to us. If we want to bring the country together, we need dialogue. Dialogue is what enriches us. It’s what has always made America great.

We tend to listen to the views that support our own beliefs, but we don’t grow that way. We have to make the leap to assume that Fox News and MSNBC, which are really opposite points of view, have something to say. We’re going to learn the most from people who disagree with us.

We should read widely and talk to people who are different from us, and make the assumption that they mean well. They’re just as American as we are.

If strong relationships are the basis of a stable society, then here are Gottman’s Four Rules for a Better America. These are the things you can do to stitch America back together while still maintaining your points of view.

Rule 1: Focus on other people’s distress and focus on it empathetically
Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, an essential quality for successful relationships. You don’t have to agree with someone to empathize with them.

Rule 2: Keep your positive vs negative comments and interactions at a ratio of 5:1
You have power to do this. The positive things you say versus the criticisms that you level should be at a 5:1 ratio at least. That means five affirming, praising, and loving tweets and Facebook comments for every critical one.

Rule 3: Avoid contempt with everybody, all the time
No exceptions. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for the country if you treat anybody with contempt.

Rule 4: Learn to cooperate and have dialogue with those of whom you disagree
Seek out and be around people who are different than you are. Before you speak, see if you understand what the speaker before you has said. Listen to understand, and then frame your rebuttal.

If we all follow these rules, together, we can make this a better country.


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Gottman’s Four Rules for a Better America

Michael Fulwiler is the Chief Marketing Officer of The Gottman Institute. He has a B.A. with Honors in English from the University of Washington. Outside of work, Michael is a baseball coach and cautiously optimistic Seattle Mariners fan.