4 Signs Your Workplace Relationships Could be in Trouble

man and woman working on computers not looking at each other

John and Julia Gottman are best known for their groundbreaking work as couples therapists. Their keen dynamic listening skills predict a pair’s likelihood at longevity or divorce with 94 percent accuracy. This is thanks in part to their identification of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the (relationship) apocalypse—four factors that can disrupt and destroy romantic partnerships. 

The presence of these indicators—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—are key markers for troubled times. The arrival of just one can typically cause an individual to retreat, rather than connect. 

It turns out these classic characteristics of conflict have a tendency to arise not just in romantic relationships, but in workplace relationships as well. Luckily, the Gottmans have identified antidotes to these potential relationship destroyers that are as applicable to conflicts with lovers as they are to those with colleagues or managers. Utilizing the following strategies when the Four Horsemen ride through the workplace will ensure disagreements with colleagues and managers end in constructive—rather than destructive—ways.

1. Criticism vs. gentle start-up

We’ve all been on the receiving end of professional criticism. A presentation falls flat. A deadline is missed. We accidentally hit the dreaded “reply all.” It’s true, feedback and critique are essential for positive growth. But the Gottmans say there’s a difference between effective critique and destructive commentary.

Criticism suggests the defect is situated within a person. That the negative action or event is actually a character flaw of deficit, rather than an error or mistake. Consider the supervisor who tells a colleague, “You are always late to meetings. You aren’t professional and have no business on this team.” This lands as an attack, rather than constructive feedback. 

The Gottmans suggest using neutral, factual, and objective language to create what is known as a gentle start up, to invite dialogue rather than elicit a shut down. Instead of leveraging criticism, consider instead, “We are so grateful to have you on our team and value the contributions you make in our meetings. It would be helpful if you arrive on time so that we can make the most of everyone’s tight schedules and accomplish our objectives. If you are running late, I hope you will please let us know.”

The statement conveys a similar need or desire without attacking the worker. The end result, according to the Gottmans, is collaboration and connection—essential qualities of any effective team.

2. Defensiveness vs. responsibility

In the fast-paced and high-stakes nonprofit world it can sometimes be easy to employ righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in the name of self preservation. This kind of defensiveness shifts blame and relinquishes responsibility, making it nearly impossible to make strides forward. 

The anecdote to defensiveness in the workplace? Accepting responsibility—even for the smallest piece of the bigger issue. Whether it’s an email that could have been sent a few days earlier, a meeting with an agenda that could have been tighter, or another project that took up considerable time, taking ownership for something can disarm workplace conflict and begin to map the roadway to solutions. 

3. Contempt vs. needs and feelings

Contempt may be the most destructive of the Four Horsemen. Contemptuous statements are rooted in a position of entitlement or superiority, and often land as harmful, combative and challenging jabs. These include utterances like “Only an idiot would think that” or “I can’t believe you’ve been doing this for a decade and still think that’s the best way to get things done.”

According to the Gottmans, statements like these are the greatest predictor of divorce—and as a result, likely the greatest predictor of discontent and dissatisfaction in the workplace as well.

The antidote is the cultivation of culture rooted in respect and appreciation. And the first step is identifying needs and feelings. Instead of leveraging an attack, changemakers should consider an approach that combines compassion and curiosity. “I’m trying to understand where this approach is coming from. Can you explain to me your thinking on using this tool instead of the other?” 

A simple shift in language can invite dialogue rather than foster an impasse for communication. 

4. Stonewalling vs. self-soothing

There are times when conflict or engagement can feel overwhelming. A standoff with a co-worker, a disagreement with a supervisor, or unrealistic expectations from a client. When the going gets tough, stonewalling sometimes rears its ugly face.

The act of withdrawal or retreat shuts down conversation. It makes effective communication impossible, creating a disruption to workplace flow. Stonewalling may appear as complete removal from conversations. But non-verbal cues such as crossed arms, lack of eye contact, or physically turning away can signal stonewalling as well.

When this horseman rides into the workplace, self-awareness and self-regulation become key. That’s because in order for progress to be made, the stonewaller has to employ self-soothing techniques to re-regulate the self and return to baseline so a conversation can continue.

This may mean taking deep breaths, practicing grounding techniques like tapping or sensory identification. It may also mean pressing pause, stating needs and returning to the discussion after time away. Rather than shutting down entirely, a person feeling triggered might say, “I hear what you’re saying and I think it’s important. I would like to talk about this more, but need some time to collect my thoughts so I can better respond.”

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Jill Nawrocki is a Licensed Social Worker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer living in Brooklyn. She is an ultra runner, freelance writer, and social justice warrior with a background in program management, direct practice, mindfulness, and advocacy.
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