4 Undeniable Tools of Toxic Communication
I’m on a roll with this communication topic so let’s dive into toxic communication and what that means. I think it’s probably safe to assume that if you survived the last few years and you’re reading this, you’ve had some experience with toxic communication, even if you’ve never heard the term before. As you may have guessed, toxic communication is not the best way to relate to other people.
If you read my last blog post, Is Communication A Skill That Can Be Learned Easily?, you know that assertive communication is the most effective communication style. That is, if you want to accomplish something besides screwing yourself over, alienating yourself and others, or seriously pissing somebody off. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you engage in toxic, i.e., passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication.
Now I wouldn’t lie to you and say I’m always the model communicator. But I do have some experiences under my belt that provided handy learning opportunities for me to cut my teeth on. I’m old enough to know that poor communication can make a great relationship go south real freaking quick.
Now that I’m married with a toddler and operating a real estate business with my wife, effective communication couldn’t be more important.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Stick with me here. I know this sounds like a sharp left turn.
Dr’s. John and Julie Gottman of gottman.com, an expert couple/team of relationship counselors, have developed four behaviors that can almost certainly predict the end of a relationship, especially if they become the standard mode of communication when dealing with conflict. They call them the four horsemen of the apocalypse about the four horsemen described in the bible that foretell the coming of the end of time.
Even if they don’t end up causing your relationship to bite the dust, using these four modes of communication will NOT help you build harmonious, mature relationships with your family, friends, or business associates.
While you get familiar with these four mac-daddy communication fuck-ups, think about how you would be inclined to react if they were used “against you,” so to speak. (Maybe you have real-life experience to reflect on).
That exercise alone should give you a good idea of why they can potentially put a relationship down for a permanent dirt nap.
You may remember that one of the toxic ways of communicating from the article I linked above is called aggressive communication.
These first two behaviors are tactics of the aggressive communicator because they are great tools for deflecting personal responsibility.
The first horseman is criticism.
If you consider how it makes you feel to be criticized, it’s no big mystery why it’s not an ideal way to encourage open communication.
Open (and effective) communication happens when we don’t feel like we have to defend ourselves. And because criticism feels like an accusation, it usually causes a defensive response.
Notice the difference in these two statements:
“I can’t believe you forgot to pick up the diapers! It’s so rude, and you don’t even care how inconvenient it is for me.”
“It’s inconvenient for us not to have diapers right now. I thought we agreed that you would pick them up on your way home.”
While the second statement still expresses disappointment, it doesn’t have an accusatory tone. It doesn’t seem like an attack.
Notice how this statement is even better:
“You really do a lot for our family, and I know you’ve had a lot on your mind today, but it is super-inconvenient that you forgot the diapers.”
Another way to soften the statement is to ask a question like, “Did you forget the diapers because you had a lot on your mind today?”
When your goal is effective communication, the less critical, the better.
The second horseman is contempt.
A step deeper on the toxicity spectrum than criticism, showing contempt is condescending, dismissing, and expressing deep disdain or even disgust toward the other person. Contempt shows up as sarcasm, eye-rolling, scoffing, name-calling, and belittling. Anything that makes the other person feel insignificant and worthless is a form of contempt.
This demoralizing tactic is a sure-fire way to derail any possibility of open, positive, constructive communication.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this is a dead-end sign on Relationship Road. Who wants to be with someone who thinks they are worthless and insignificant? And when it comes to business-related interactions, who will feel inclined to meet you in the middle when you’re making them feel like shit?
Effective communication does not happen when people feel judged and condemned.
The following two horsemen are tactics that may be used by both the aggressive and the passive-aggressive communicator.
Interestingly, the third horseman is defensiveness.
I say interesting because defensive is exactly how people feel when they are criticized and condemned. So, you can see how this has the potential to become a vicious cycle once these tactics are put into play.
Defensiveness is a standard reaction when we feel attacked, i.e., criticized and condemned. The problem with a defensive response is that it is a way of deflecting responsibility.
Let’s revisit the diaper situation from above. Notice the difference in the following two statements as to potential responses to the charge of forgetting to pick up diapers.
“I would have gotten them if I hadn’t had so much to deal with. I’m doing a lot for this family, and I wish you would recognize that. It would have been nice if you had reminded me, or better yet, just get the diapers yourself.”
“Oh, man. I did forget about the diapers, and I know we agreed that I would get them. I can go out and grab some right now. Maybe next time you can help me remember if you have a free moment to send a reminder before I leave the office.”
The first statement is not only avoiding responsibility, but it’s putting the blame back on the other person. This is not a resolution to a problem, but it is a way to perpetuate an argument going nowhere fast.
When you do not react defensively and take responsibility, the other person feels heard and understood. They also feel reassured that you acknowledged your misstep, and that helps to prevent a feeling that the same thing could happen again.
Defensiveness does not bring a conflict to resolution. It simply leaves the conflict hanging and unresolved.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling, also known as the silent treatment.
This is when one person completely disengages from the interaction. In some instances, it may involve them physically removing themself.
Stonewalling can happen in response to any of the other three horsemen and/or if there are overwhelming emotions.
Not that emotions ever get overwhelming in relationships, though, right? (LOL)
It’s pretty clear that if one person removes themself from a discussion by shutting down or by physically leaving, the efforts to come to a resolution are over.
Stonewalling is another way of leaving the conflict hanging.
The thing to keep in mind with this fourth horseman is that if someone has reached a point where they don’t even want to participate in the discussion, they are probably not in a receptive emotional state anyway. But there is a constructive way to remove yourself that doesn’t seem like punishment or avoidance to the other person.
Communicating that you need some time to gather yourself and come to a more calm headspace in a sense “detoxifies” the action. That means you intend to come back to the discussion when you feel more level-headed. Much different than shouting obscenities and slamming the door on your way out or just refusing to engage.
Now that you’re familiar with these four horsemen of relationship apocalypse, you can start to observe when you are tempted to use one of them and choose a more resolution-oriented behavior. Even when the other person is using toxic communication tactics, by choosing not to you can create a space (and an example) for more healthy, effective communication.
While I don’t claim to be a model of perfect communication, I have had life experiences that have helped me understand the pitfalls of toxic communication. Operating a real-estate business with my wife and the mother of our toddler makes effective communication that much more important in my life.
I hope understanding these four apocalyptic horsemen of relationships will help you avoid communication nightmares that go off the rails. It’s amazing how much we can bring to all our relationships, business and personal when we make a conscious decision to communicate with the goal of conflict resolution and harmony!
Have you ever engaged in toxic communication?
Have you been involved in relationships where these toxic communication tools are used?
Is it helpful to know these four behaviors?
Grab my new book here if you’d like to learn how to dig into yourself and do the work it takes to evolve!