Victoria

Victoria Bonanno, RSW is a Registered Social Worker at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She specializes in relationship counselling and helping adults and youth struggling with anxiety, depression, and chronic/newly acquired illness. Learn more about Victoria Bonanno here.

Taming The Horsemen: Four Ways To Improve Your Communication

Too often, couples or families come to counselling in crisis. Therapists are trained to support all types of situations including crisis. However, I would encourage you to think of your emotional and relationship health in the same way as you would your physical health. The therapy room can be a checkup and “tune-up” or it can act as an emotional ER.

One of the myths about relationship counselling is that the role of the therapist is to act as a judge of the relationship. In the two methods of relationship therapy that I use in practice, Gottman and Emotionally Focused Therapy that is not the goal. The goal in these forms of therapy is to bridge connection and communication between the couple or family.

There are few tips that we can draw from the approach developed by Doctors Julie and John Gottman.  Being aware of how things can go in the wrong direction in terms of communication is very helpful. The Gottman’s refer to this as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With a title like that, it seems so scary. It isn’t scary but is the negative patterns that we all can fall into. Below is a summary of the four ways communication can fall apart and their antidotes:

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse & Their Antidotes:

  • Criticism Gentle Start-Up
  • Defensiveness Take Responsibility
  • Stonewalling / Shutdown → Emotional Calming
  • Contempt Build a Culture of Appreciation
 

Examples of the Horseman and Antidotes in Action

Criticism → Gentle Startup

Criticism can be the result of missed bids for connection, attention, or assistance. Criticism is hard to hear because it often makes a statement about the person and not the unmet need. An example of this would be “Ugh!  You never clean after dinner!” The antidote to that would be a gentle start up. What does that mean? You lead with your emotion (I feel…), explain what is happening and what do you need? This would look like “Hey, I feel really overwhelmed with the way the kitchen is messy after dinner. Could you help me with the cleaning after dinner?” The way you deliver the message can impact the response you get.

Defensiveness → Taking Responsibility

Defensiveness is often the response we give when we hear criticism. It is hard to hear a statement that says “you always” or “you never.” Defensiveness is tied to a protective response of not wanting to be viewed as the “bad” person. Unfortunately, it makes the person who you are talking to feel they are not being heard. The antidote to that would be to take responsibility. Taking responsibility does not mean that you say the situation is all your fault. Rather, it is taking responsibility for your part of the situation. It can also be achieved by even saying something like “I see your point.” It is not a full agreement but acknowledgement that there is a different perspective than your own.

Stonewalling / Shutdown → Emotional Calming

Stonewalling or shutting down means the conversation has become too overwhelming. This is when the fight has become so heated that you feel like you cannot take it anymore. It was amazing to find out from Gottman’s research that when our heart rate goes over 100 beats per minute, our ability to hear the other person shuts down. The antidote to this is to do things to bring a sense of calm. This can be done by taking a break, progressive muscle relaxation, or taking a walk. It is an intentional break to calm with a commitment to returning to the conversation later. The importance is to return to the conversation when both can hear it.

Contempt → Build a Culture of Appreciation

The last is contempt. Contempt is when you do not feel the person should be considered or valued. According to the Gottmans, this is the most destructive of the four. That is shown in even the body language. For example, contempt can be shown with the rolling of one’s eyes. The antidote to this is to create an environment of acceptance and love. That is done by paying attention to bids and creating a loving culture in the relationship.

Get Help Today To Improve Your Communication

At MyLife Counselling, we have several therapists who are well versed in Gottman therapy. If you’re noticing any of these communication traps in your own relationships and want to work on them with support we’re here to help. Book with our therapists instantly online or speak to our Client Care Specialist to discuss which relationship therapist is right for you by calling 1-800-828-9484 or emailing mylife@counselling-guelph.ca.

Victoria

Victoria Bonanno, RSW is a Registered Social Worker at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She specializes in relationship counselling and helping adults and youth struggling with anxiety, depression, and chronic/newly acquired illness. Learn more about Victoria Bonanno here.

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