Toxins of communication

Toxins of communication

How can you improve your relationships?


  • Know the four main toxic behaviours in relationships
  • Know how to respond to each of them
  • Improve your communication


This sheet is based primarily on the work of John Gottman on couples, and its application in the workplace by Fernando Lopez, a member of the CRR Global faculty (ORSC), based on this work. There are 4 main toxic behaviours in relationships: **In this sheet, we will describe each behaviour and offer tips that help neutralise their toxicity, whether you are the sender or the receiver.

Being able to identify them in your discussions is a necessary first step in eliminating them and replacing them with healthy and productive communication patterns. In his book, John Gottman analogises these four toxins to the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", a metaphor describing conquest, war, hunger and death in the New Testament. The author uses this metaphor to describe the communication styles that, according to his research, can predict the end of a relationship.

If you are faced with toxic behaviour, your responsibility is to respond with one of the antidotes, rather than reacting in a counterproductive way by "riding" one of these "Horsemen" in turn.

When you stop using these toxic behaviours, you will find that your partner will also stop, because these Horsemen cannot live alone. These Horsemen often occur when people feel powerless over the situation they are in.

It may seem paradoxical, but when someone is using the Horsemen, you need to bring that person back to their power rather than making them feel even more powerless.

NB: the word partner is used for the person you are in a relationship with, regardless of the nature of the relationship, personal or professional.


Criticism is blaming or attacking your partner.

There are always good reasons to complain about your partner. But there is a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is usually about a specific action that has gone wrong. A criticism often adds some negative words about the character or personality of the partner.

For example, adding "What's wrong with you?" at the end of a complaint will turn it into a criticism.

Reflection question: When are you critical of your partner?


As mentioned above, complain about a specific behaviour instead of criticising the person. For example:

If you find yourself being critical: instead of saying, "You didn't tell me about this event," say, "I don't want to miss another one of these events; how about putting all these events in the company calendar? Can you do it today?

If you catch your partner being critical: listen to the reasonable request in the complaint. If you hear, "You didn't tell me about the event," just say, "I'm sorry. Would you like me to add these kinds of events to the company calendar so that they are not a problem in the future?

This is in stark contrast to defending yourself (e.g. "You didn't tell me you wanted to go" - which literally means "it's your fault because you didn't tell me you wanted to go.") This would only make the conflict worse and not catalyse any positive change. Remember that requests are not demands.

To make a genuine request, you must consider a counter-proposal or even a negative response as valid and respectable responses. (You can also make requests, but don't disguise them as requests.)

  • Don't take the situation personally.

Focus on the question: "What does our relationship need now?" rather than "Who is doing what to whom? By being clear that blame will get you nowhere, you can focus on the changes you both need to make to deal with the problem.

When you receive criticism, understand that the person criticising you is often doing so because they care about what you do, not because they want to harass you or make you feel bad. It is often a clumsy attempt on their part to give you useful feedback. With this in mind, have a conversation with them about how to present their complaints and criticisms in a way that is more helpful and acceptable to you.

  • Look at what you are contributing to the problem.

Even if your partner has a greater contribution, you will feel less powerless if you are aware of what you can change about it, regardless of what your partner does.

Take responsibility and apologise if necessary. Even if you don't think you were making a criticism, what matters is what the other person has experienced. Remain curious about the impact of what you say and clarify any misunderstandings.


Although it is understandable that you defend yourself when you are criticised, research shows that this approach rarely works.

A partner who attacks will not back down or apologise. And Defensiveness is often another way of placing blame. In effect, it is saying, "It's not me, it's you," and this can only amplify the conflict. It is common for the defensive partner to feel that they are above the conflict, when in fact they are contributing just as much to it.

Reflection Question: When do you react defensively or avoid taking responsibility for your contribution to problems?


  • Rephrase to clarify the need.

Active listening: People usually become defensive when they don't feel heard. Make sure you convey to the other person that you understand what they are saying.

If you feel defensive:

Repeat what you heard and ask for clarification. For example: "I hear you saying that I am not trustworthy. Can you please clarify this?"  Look for the "2%" of truth in what you hear. For example: "It is true that I often don't plan enough time for unpredictable delays and I understand how this makes me untrustworthy."

If your partner is defensive:

Ask him/her what he/she has heard from you. It is quite possible that they misunderstood you or felt criticised without you realising it. Take responsibility for your impact and rephrase your message.

Show your partner that you respect him/her, that you trust him/her and that his/her image is not at stake (to the extent that this is true). This will lower his defences and you will have a more productive conversation.


Contempt includes sarcasm, belittlement, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humour, and aggression. Contempt is the most toxic of all the Riders, as it expresses disgust and condescension. It has even been shown to be harmful to one's physical health.

Contempt is fuelled by repressed negative thoughts about a partner. You are more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not regularly resolved when they arise.

Reflection Question: What situations cause you to act with contempt towards others?


  • Express your feelings

If your partner acts with contempt:

Express your feelings, identify the unwanted behaviour, and express your desire to resolve the situation. And if necessary, take into account the cultural context in which you are speaking. Example:

"Hey, Marc, let's be calm. I feel like I'm getting angry. I don't like it when someone calls me names. Can we resolve this as friends/colleagues on good terms?" As in the example above, use "I" and avoid using "you " and assuming you know the solution.

Try asking this question: " What is your intention in saying this?" The person may not be aware that they sound dismissive of you. Clarifying their intention will help to go a little deeper than what is being said.

Or ask: Are you aware of your effect right now?

Explain your experience : "Is this the effect you wish to have? " People sometimes use "Jumpers" unconsciously and don't know how to do otherwise.

If you feel contemptuous:

Use this phrase: "I feel... I want..." (Example: "I feel contemptuous of you, I want to be able to respect and understand you.") Note that in this sentence, what you want is related to you, not to what you want the other person to do.

  • Establish respect among yourselves.

Know that respect is given, not earned.

If you don't respect someone, take it as coming from your inability to see the greatness, creativity and ingenuity that lives in that person, not as indicating that person's inferior value as a human being.

Your actions (even if they are powerful corrective actions) will be much more effective when you do them with respect rather than contempt. Constructive conflict is only possible on the basis of respect.

Stop sarcasm, cynicism, insults, aggression, etc. Saying things like: "I am sarcastic/cynical and that's the way I am" is no excuse!  It damages your relationships more than you know.

Be fun and interesting in other ways. Create an atmosphere of affection and admiration in your relationships. Learn about your partners.

Seek to understand and recognise them first.


Evasion includes interruption of communication, implicit silence, refusal to engage, withdrawal and, in mild cases, simply reluctance to directly express what you think.

Often, after one or more of the above Horsemen have been used, a partner will want to turn away from the whole thing and will become resistant. The problem with this is that it will only fuel more contempt in the other partner.

Reflection Question: What are the areas you avoid talking about?


  • First, seek relief.

If you are overwhelmed by certain emotions, find a way to soothe yourself. Do you have a meditation or relaxation practice?

  • Next, identify the fear.

If you are trying to cut off communication, look at your fear of speaking; what information does this give you? What part of your identity is at stake? Focus on who you really are before you speak.

Know the difference between fear and real danger when you say something. If there is real danger, you don't want to expose yourself, but it may be helpful to explain the reason for withholding the information.

If your partner is avoiding you, look at what you are doing that makes them feel insecure about expressing themselves. Do you feel contemptuous? Have you not appreciated their ideas in the past? Have you been judgmental?

  • Finally, find safety.

What safe conditions can you envisage with your partner so that you are both more able to speak directly? Perhaps you can set up a special time to talk, remember to treat each other with respect, maintain some confidentiality about what is expressed, and meet in a neutral place.


1. As you read the description of each of the above behaviours, note which ones are present in your relationships.

2. Focus on how you want to be, regardless of what your partner is doing. This in itself will make a big difference as Cavaliers have difficulty living alone.

3. Behaviourally, practice using the antidotes you feel you need, so that when you really need them, you know what to do. Also be aware that the specific "techniques" you use are only as good as your attitude is authentic when you express them. So if you have cultivated the right attitude, you may not need a specific technique.APPLICATION

4. Stay curious and find your own antidotes.

Name the Riders when you detect them (but not to blame or criticise them) and stay curious about them. Examples: "We're defensive" or "We're critical", "What's going on", "What's going to help us through this"?

5. Find ways to add positivity to your relationship. A "reservoir" of positivity will help negotiate with the Horsemen when they appear. Expressing appreciation for things that are working well in your team or relationship is a powerful way to create positivity and move away from toxic behaviour. Expressing what you value in your partner can be the most powerful antidote you can use against the Horsemen.