Without proper attention, the ‘four horsemen of conflict’ can spell doom for a relationship. How can you spot and combat different types of conflict in the workplace?
You’ve probably heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – representing conquest, war, famine and death. Hopefully none of these things are infiltrating your workplace, but according to some psychology experts, there could be a different set of horsemen storming your organisation.
In 1994, psychological researcher Dr John Gottman developed the idea of the ‘Four Horsemen of conflict’ while studying marital relationships. These horsemen -– criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – were said to be the harbingers of a relationship’s demise.
Although Gottman’s research focused on marriage, the horsemen aren’t confined to romantic relationships. They pertain to any kind of conflict, including situations that arise in the workplace.
HRM asked relationship expert Debbie Rivers to talk us through the different types of conflict and how to make sure they don’t spell doom for your workplace culture.
Experts who follow Gottman’s school of thought believe it’s important to separate general complaints from criticisms.
A complaint relates to a specific incident or issue, for example, “I don’t like it when you don’t keep me updated on a project.” A criticism attacks the person themself, for example, “You’re a bad communicator because you don’t keep me updated on projects.”
In the workplace, criticism can occur when employees don’t know how to give each other constructive feedback, instead dishing out a jab that might inadvertently hurt the other person’s feelings.
Criticism can appear in a lot of different ways, perhaps it’s an off-handed comment in a meeting or a poorly worded email. Like many of the types of conflict in this list, it’s an emotional response to a situation that generally occurs without little thought. In many cases, the way to get around it is by being more thoughtful in your feedback.
Solution: Watch your language.
The easiest way to avoid criticism is to make sure the feedback you’re giving cannot be taken as a personal attack, says Rivers.
“Use a soft start up when dealing with issues instead of attacking the person’s character. Instead of criticising the person’s actions, use ‘I’ statements and feelings,” she says.
It’s much harder to retaliate when someone says ‘I feel this way’ – you can’t argue with someone’s feelings. Using ‘you’ statements, for example ‘you are this’ or ‘you do this’, can come across as accusatory and the other person might become more interested in defending themselves or proving you wrong. Generalisations like ‘you never’ and ‘you always’ are also unhelpful for the same reason.
To take the heat off the other person, try to make yourself or someone else the focus of the feedback. You might say something like, “Your team members feel frustrated if they’re not kept updated on a project. How can we address this problem?”
Rivers says to also keep an eye on how you respond to criticism yourself.
“It’s very easy to shoot back at someone when you feel like you’re being attacked, but that’s not going to make things better,” she says.
“It’s ok to shut the conversation down if you’re both getting riled up and say let’s come back to this when we’re feeling less emotional. Don’t get into a spiral of criticising each other.”
Get better at handling identifying different types of conflict and having difficult conversations with AHRI’s short course.
Contempt can be the most challenging of the four types of conflict – it’s the greatest predictor of divorce, according to Rivers – so if you spot this type of conflict in the workplace, it needs immediate attention.
“Contempt is poisonous to workplace relationships because it communicates disgust,” says Rivers.
“It’s virtually impossible to resolve issues when the other person continually receives the message that you’re disgusted with them.”
Contempt can often build on criticism, she adds, used as a way of attacking someone’s character while also asserting a kind of moral superiority over them.
If an employee is disrespecting, ridiculing or talking down to a coworker, they are showing signs of contempt. However, contempt can also be displayed in more subtle ways. Certain types of humour, like sarcasm, could constitute contempt, so can snarky gossip about a colleague.
It’s also possible for contempt to manifest in very subtle ways. For example, if an employee feels their manager speaks to them as if they’re immature, naive or unintelligent they might regard that as contempt – which in turn can breed contempt from the employee.
Solution: An attitude of gratitude
To combat contempt, employers should take a deliberate approach to acknowledging good work and thanking employees for their contributions, says Rivers.
“Contempt can come from a place of under appreciation. Effective recognition of employees can really change their attitude.”
These don’t need to be monetary rewards. Displaying a sense of gratitude through recognition of a job well done can work wonders.
Recognition doesn’t always need to come from the top either. Research shows that peer-to-peer recognition can reinforce managerial appreciation.
Rivers believes it’s also important to call out contempt when you see it, and have an honest conversation with the person perpetrating it.
“You actually have to be careful not to criticise here. If you’re going to call it out, make sure you focus on the behaviour not the person,” says Rivers.
Remind them that how they acted in that moment was unacceptable, but you know it’s not a reflection of them as a person.
Responding to an accusation or criticism in a defensive manner is a very human response to an unpleasant situation, says Rivers. It’s part of our brain’s fight or flight response.
The problem with defensiveness is it means the person getting defensive isn’t actually taking on the feedback they are receiving. As mentioned above, the person is too busy building their own case in defence of themselves to engage in a constructive conversation.
“Even I do this,” says Rivers. “Sometimes my kids will go, ‘Look, I have this issue’ and I’ll go, ‘Oh, well I did this because of this and this’ which is pointless because I haven’t actually heard the thing that’s hurting them.”
If an employee gets defensive all the time, others might begin to feel like that employee doesn’t care for how they feel, potentially creating serious friction between coworkers.
Solution: Listen and validate
Because defensiveness is often a response to criticism, avoiding criticism should help reduce someone’s likelihood of biting back.
You can also practice empathetic listening or mirroring, both of which are powerful tools to ensure someone feels heard and combat defensiveness.
“So if you tell me something I might go, ‘Ok, it sounds like you’re feeling blah blah blah, did I get that right?’ Then you want to validate that feeling with something like ‘I can understand how frustrating that must be.’”
Importantly, validating doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with the person, rather acknowledging their emotions – sometimes that’s all they need.
“Listen to what the other person has to say and accept responsibility for your part in each situation, even if you only played a small part. This will [help to] create healthy working relationships.”
Stonewalling is often a response to contempt.
If you think of defensiveness as the ‘fight’ side of fight or flight, stonewalling is the flight. An employee who is stonewalling someone will withdraw from the relationship. That might look like dropping out of conversations, not looping certain people into important conversations or ceasing to share ideas or solutions to problems.
“A lot of the time, stonewalling [occurs] because [a person’s] nervous system is so overflooded; they just shut down.”
Solution: A cooling off period
If an employee begins to stonewall, the best option is to end the conversation for the time being, says Rivers.
“Take a break for a minimum of 20 minutes. People may need time and space to get a different perspective.”
When someone stonewalls you there isn’t a lot you can do to immediately pull down their walls. Pushing the person is only going to make matters worse.
“Everyone has a particular way of dealing with conflict. It is important to not allow your emotions to rule you, to be able to self-soothe – doing something for yourself to calm down.”
Whatever method you choose, you should return to the conversation at a later date.
“Don’t sweep the problem under the carpet otherwise it is likely to become a bigger issue. Problems rarely go away in workplaces, they fester and become worse.
Since humans are emotional creatures the horsemen are always going to hover around our relationships. But with the right solutions to combat the different types of conflict we can stop them from creating apocalyptic problems.