Manage Conflict

The Four Horsemen are detrimental to an office environment and work culture.

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The fifth level of the Sound Relationship Workplace is Manage Conflict. There is so much to be said about the process of conflict management amongst colleagues. In this article, I would like to focus on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Identified by Dr. Gottman in his research with couples to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy, the Four Horsemen can be present in workplace relationships as well — very much undermining productivity if not actively managed. In essence, the Four Horsemen are detrimental to an office environment and work culture.

Think about a recent conflict that you had with a colleague. Did you address it directly? If so, what was the process by which it was discussed? Did you both feel heard and understood by the other? If not, did the conflict get ignored?  Did it fester? How did you speak about your differences? Was there any criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling involved?

Dr. Gottman has utilized his research findings to differentiate the Masters of relationships from the Disasters. In particular, he found that the Disasters were different from the Masters in how they talked to one another during conflict. During a conflict discussion, the Masters had a ratio of 5:1 positive interactions to negative interactions, while the Disasters had a ratio of 0.8:1.

Quite simply, for a relationship to work, it has to be sustained in a rich climate where people are kind to each other. The Masters are compassionate and take personal accountability when in conflict. They minimize defensiveness and are careful in how they express their frustration.

Carl the Criticizer

Carl was an executive who aired his frustrations in torpedo-like explosions directed at the character of the recipient rather than at their behavior. His criticism of his colleagues was hostile and angry. For example, he could easily yell “You careless idiot!” at someone rather than airing his grievances directed at what they actually did that appeared “careless.” In speaking with Carl, it was clear to me that he had every justification for feeling frustrated. However, in the process by which he expressed himself, his messages got lost, and most importantly, he lost credibility. No one was able to listen to him when they felt personally attacked.

The antidote to criticism is to complain without blame. Carl needed to be able to express his frustration in a manner that others could actually hear. He learned to use a softened start-up as a vehicle to bring up his frustration. Using a softened start-up involves bringing up an issue in a direct, respectful, and courteous manner. Specifically:

  1. Describe the situation non-judgmentally
  2. Express how you feel about it
  3. Ask for what you need in positive terms

I encouraged Carl to monitor his heart rate and wait until he was in a more relaxed state before giving feedback.

Contemptuous Cara

Cara was a high performer who was not well liked by her colleagues. Her managers could not figure out why as she was very professional and highly competent. While she was very good at managing “up,” she often undermined her relationships with peers because she had an unconscious and subtle manner of communicating, “I’m better than you.” Her peers picked up on her contempt and responded by avoiding her.

After landing in my office, Cara was surprised to learn that her colleagues perceived her as being contemptuous towards them. She was not aware of sending condescending messages, both verbal and non-verbal. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect. With her new self-awareness, Cara made changes to her communication style, including actively appreciating her peers’ work. She thanked people for a job well done and expressed admiration for their accomplishments. Indeed, Masters of relationships have a habit of mind where they scan their social environment for things that they can appreciate and then communicate it clearly in the moment. The Disasters, on the other hand, scan their environment for other people’s mistakes and try to correct them.

Defensive Deborah

Deborah had a tendency to justify anything that she did in a defensive manner. Her colleagues dreaded giving her feedback because she was not receptive to hearing about anything that she could do differently. Her defensiveness prevented her from climbing the corporate ladder.

The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility, even if for only part of the problem. Deborah was perceived much more favorably once she owned her mistakes and focused on articulating strategies to find a solution. Instead of justifying her actions, she expressed how to prevent that error from happening again. This built trust with her colleagues and opened the door to greater collaboration.

Stan the Stonewaller

On the flip side, Stan had a tendency to emotionally withdraw and close himself off. Dr. Gottman calls this behavior stonewalling. When Stan’s colleagues did not perform up to par, he rarely gave them the opportunity to correct their mistakes, which restricted their development and ability to learn. When stonewalling, he didn’t share his frustrations and refused to address issues that he had with others.

The antidote to stonewalling is to self-soothe. We stonewall when our heart rate exceeds 100 BPM and we become physiologically flooded. Stan needed to learn to calm down when interacting with individuals who disappointed him, instead of getting upset and writing them off. Understanding that colleagues might not be performing up to speed for a host of reasons besides “incompetence” helped Stan to manage his tendency to stonewall. Their underperformance could have been a result of misunderstanding, faulty delegation, or competing demands. After becoming aware of his own physiological arousal, he found ways of calming himself down.

Whether you have a Carl, Stan, Deborah, or Cara in your workplace, or you have a tendency to behave like them yourself, remember the Four Horsemen and their antidotes. Use them!

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Karen Bridbord, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in New York and New Jersey. She is a Certified Gottman Therapist who specializes in working with couples and organizations.

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