Communication skills for new parents

In our last installment, we discussed the Gottmans' theory of “softened startup”. The idea being that how we initiated a possibly conflictual conversation had a tremendous effect on how that conversation may resolve. In particular, we outlined the “four horsemen,” the four most destructive ways in which couples disrupt communication. Again, they are:

  1. Criticism

  2. Defensiveness

  3. Contempt

  4. Stonewalling


In this blog, we will discuss the proposed remedies or ways to work effectively through when the horsemen show up.

Criticism usually shows up as complaining in such a way that attacks your partner in a global sense, labeling his or her personality as defective. Labels, like “slob” or “jerk”, tend to leave no room for nuance or reciprocity. They inevitably create defensiveness in one's partner and lead nowhere. The Gottmans suggest shifting how we approach our complaints. Instead of using “you” statements such as “you're always late” or “you're a slob”, use I statements describing your feelings and the situation that led to them. It's important to be as objective and neutral as possible when describing the upsetting behavior. For example “You're always late” can be shifted to “I feel angry when you arrive later than you said you would,” You're inconsiderate” can be shifted to “I feel sad when you go out with your friends without asking me if I want to come.”

Defensiveness is when we attempt to protect ourselves from perceived attacks, usually criticism. We fight back without acknowledging our own responsibility or contribution to a problem. The antidote here is simply to back up, take a deep breath, and take responsibility. We are human, admit it and you are halfway towards moving towards a solution.

Contempt is the Gottmans' strongest predictor of divorce. Rolling your eyes, making faces, condescending lectures. These all imply that we are superior to our partner. They are dismissive and potentially abusive. The antidote here is to express appreciation and respect. Daily. Throughout the day. “Thank you for cooking” or “You look nice today” can go a long way towards building goodwill, fondness, and admiration.

Stonewalling is when we give absolutely no feedback on what our partners say or do. In their research, the Gottmans found that 85% of stonewallers were men and that despite the “stoney” facade, their pulse was often elevated even when simply sitting still. This implied to them that stonewalling was really an attempt to limit incoming stimulus as the listener tries to regulate their internal state. Unfortunately, as someone shuts out their partner, the partner becomes frustrated and pursues them further, leading to a feedback cycle of pursuing and distancing. As an antidote, if this happens to you, it becomes necessary to take responsibility for your own internal state. You can do this by acknowledging your upset and communicating this to your partner. “I feel kind of charged up and upset right now. Can you give me a couple minutes to settle down?” You take a break, you soothe yourself and when ready, come back into contact with your partner.

Once you and your partner become familiar with the four horsemen and their antidotes, you can approach your conflicts with a more considerate and measured approach and greatly increase your chances of moving through conflict to solutions. And when your are able to resolve your conflicts amicably, the whole family is happier.