6 Signs of Bad Conversational Habits that Kill Relationships

Eye rolling

I can predict whether a couple will divorce after watching and listening to them for just 5 minutes.” John Gottman, Ph.D., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

What does Dr. Gottman, well-known for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, see in those five minutes that is so telling? And, as you look at the six signs, how might they apply to work conversations, too?

#1: Harsh Start-up. If your conversation has a harsh beginning, it will inevitably end on a negative note (96 percent of the time, the outcome of a 15-minute conversation can be determined by the first three minutes).

#2: The Four Horsemen (4 kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, that are lethal to a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling)

Horseman 1: Criticism. A criticism and a complaint are 2 completely different animals! A complaint only addresses a specific action. A criticism attacks someone’s personality or character. (e.g. “I’m really angry that you didn’t do X “(complaint) vs. “Why are you so lazy and forgetful? I hate having to do X when it’s your responsibility” (criticism)). A complaint can easily turn into a criticism when you add something like “What’s wrong with you?”

Horseman 2: Contempt. This is the worst of the horsemen. It includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt conveys disgust. Contempt develops over time, fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts. When someone thinks you are disgusted with them, it is virtually impossible to resolve a problem.  More on how Contempt destroys relationships (Psychology Today)

Horseman 3: Defensiveness. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling. When discussions begin with a harsh start-up, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, many people “tune out.” This tuning out is “stonewalling,” a behavior that is far more common among men.

#3: Flooding. Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that the negativity (criticism, contempt, defensiveness) is so overwhelming and so sudden, that it leaves the recipient shell-shocked. A flooded person feels defenseless and learns disengage emotionally (looking away, non-responsive, short answers).

#4—The Fourth sign: Body Language. The physical sensations of feeling flooded—the increased heart rate, sweating, etc.—make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion. Creative problem solving goes out the window as the body goes into survival mode: fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall).

#5: Failed repair attempts. Repair attempts, are efforts to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion—to put on the brakes so flooding is prevented (“Let’s take a break,” “Wait, I need to calm down,” or, even being a little silly). Repair attempts decrease emotional tension, lower stress levels and prevent your heart from racing and making you feel flooded.

In marriage relationships, failed repair attempts plus the presence of the four horsemen predicts divorce with the accuracy rate reaching into the 90s.

#6: Bad Memories. People who are deeply entrenched in a negative view of a relationship often rewrite their past, and recall events with a negative slant.

To read my free 6-page, e-book “Cliff Notes” summary of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which includes some very practical advice, click here.


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

One Response to 6 Signs of Bad Conversational Habits that Kill Relationships

  1. Pingback: 7 Principles for Making Relationships Work at Work | Small Talk, Big Results

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