Four Horseman of Conflict Resolution

Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher that is recognized primarily for his work with marital relationships. In his works he often uses the metaphor of “the four horsemen” as the harbingers of demise for a relationship. The four horsemen in this metaphor are negative communication styles. The preservation of a relationship depends on how a couple manages these four horseman. This metaphor has broad application, and in this blog entry I will be discussing the four horsemen and how they relate to workplace relationships. The effective management of the four horseman is crucial to maintaining relationships while managing conflict. The four horsemen by name are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (Gottman, 1994).

Criticism: This occurs when the focus is on blame. It’s when one person attacks another person’s personality rather than looking to manage or resolve the conflict. The best way to stave off the first horseman is to focus on solutions and speak respectfully utilizing supportive vs accusative language.

Contempt: Contempt is far beyond criticism. This happens when a person has allowed negative feelings toward a person to build up and these feelings are now manifesting in open hostility. It can look like sarcasm, ridicule, or just plain nastiness toward the targeted person. The second horseman is best managed by developing a culture of respect and appreciation. It is very easy to lose perspective during conflict, and it is often helpful to remind ourselves of the positive qualities of the people that we work with. The cultivation of gratitude within the workplace environment can be powerful in the prevention of contempt.

Defensiveness: This occurs when a person takes on a victim mentality, rather than taking responsibility for their actions. It’s a covert way to blame another person for one’s own shortcomings. The best way to manage defensiveness during conflict is to use supportive vs accusative language. If a person begins to feel defensive, the best course of action for that person is to use active listening and try to hear the other perspective out without taking it personally. We do not always have to agree, but we can at least hear each other out.

Stonewalling: Stonewalling is often a reaction to contempt. It happens when one person in the conflict shuts down all communication regarding the conflict. It is a blatant refusal to recognize the other person or that person’s concerns. It is important to note that this is not the same thing as a decision to set the conflict aside to allow tempers to cool, which is the best way to manage stonewalling. To manage stonewalling, one must also manage contempt. It is important to know when the conflict has become overwhelming, and then tactically disengage the conflict until all parties are ready to resume. During this hiatus it is important that the individuals in conflict interact with each other in ways that strengthen their relationship. Strong relationships can weather the most difficult of conflicts.

John Windsor – Mandt System Faculty

Gottman, J. (1994) Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster.

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