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Toxic Communication & How to Do It Differently

Ever been in an argument and wish you could have taken back what you said? I certainly have. Toxic communication is just that – it is noxious and damaging to any relationship, whether it be personal or business. It also tends to bog down productivity and morale.

Yikes! What to do about it?

Psychologist John Gottman in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, identified four ways in which we communicate at this noxious level. He called them the “Four Horsemen,” after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

They apply to any relationship, not just marriage, and are as follows: (1) blaming; (2) defensiveness; (3) contempt; and (4) stonewalling. We tend to have one primary toxic communications default, and we know it. Mine is blaming. When I get triggered, I feel it welling up in me and next thing I know, things are coming out of my mouth, finding tremendous fault in another’s behavior. Though there is a certain release to letting things fly, later on, the person tells me that they felt attacked. And who suffers in the end? I do. And what else does? The relationship with this person. Double whammy.

The real work is to catch ourselves before we get to this point. I struggle with it, too, but have discovered some basic antidotes, credited to CRR Global, which are below.

(1) Blaming/Criticism: If catch yourself going into blaming mode, try using “I feel” language, instead of “You did this, you did that.” Make sure you complain about the behavior, not the person. Make a request. (“I would like…”)

(2) Defensiveness: Usually this happens when someone is not feeling heard. If you feel defensive, ask them what they heard you say. (“I want to be sure we are on the same page. What are you are hearing me say?”)

(3) Contempt: (sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, hostile humor). This is the most poisonous of the Horsemen because it conveys disgust and condescension. It attacks the person. If you are feeling contemptuous, use “I feel… I want…” language. Name your emotion. Seek to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Acknowledge it (you don’t have to agree with it).

(4) Stonewalling: (tuning out, cutting off communication). If you feel flooded or fear speaking, breathe. Get centered. Ask to create safety conditions so you can speak directly. (“I need to say something, and I feel like I can’t. What I need is…”)

The idea is to get enough time between the event and our response to deflect a triggered, toxic state. This way, we can avoid the hurtful things we say or do. We take responsibility for our communication as best we can.

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