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Effective Communication (Even in Conflict)

communication in conflict

I’m sure you’ve been there. A small miscommunication spirals into a huge argument because of word choice or tone of voice. I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed this scenario in my therapy room with couples and families. By far, the number one goal most people come to therapy for is to communicate better (followed closely by decreasing conflict).

One of my favorite things to teach my clients is Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Scary sounding? Perhaps. But super important to know and recognize if any conflict and harmful communication patterns are going to change.

So what are these horsemen? Basically, they are the destroyers of effective communication. They are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Let’s review them one by one (and what to do instead):


Critical language sounds like blaming, finger-pointing, and can even be rude or mean. As an example to illustrate criticism, I like to use a relatable incident (but not usually a huge deal) about a miscommunication regarding taking out the trash. One person may criticize the other and say something like, “Ugh! I thought you were going to take out the trash this morning. Don’t you remember when we talked last night? Now the garbage truck came and didn’t pick anything up. You never remember anything I tell you.” Imagine the speaker talking in an exasperated and frustrated tone. Maybe fingers are literally being pointed or hands are on hips. This person’s non-verbals speak clearly in a critical way. It’s unlikely the listener (aka the one who is being criticized) is going to have a positive response to this initiation in the conversation.

What to Do Instead

An “antidote” to criticism is using a gentle start-up. This means everything from word choice, to tone and volume of voice, to body language, and facial expressions. In this example regarding the trash, a gentle start-up to this conflict would be something like, “Honey, I noticed the garbage truck came by and the trash wasn’t out. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought when we talked last night, we decided that you’d put it out in the morning.” This is a much gentler way to address the same concern without biting the other person’s head off. It also sets the conversation up in a more positive way so the listener has less chance to become defensive.


And speaking of defensiveness, it is typically the natural response to criticism. In this same example used above, a defensive response sounds like, “Jeez, back off! It’s just the trash. It’s not like I forgot to pick up the kids from school. Why do you have to nag me about everything?” Yikes. This is getting ugly. As you read this [fictional] interaction, you can imagine the tension growing and anger elevating between these two people. I’m sure you can see the path this type of defensive response is headed down.

What to Do Instead

A better and more effective response would be something that involves taking responsibility. For example: “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry. I do remember talking about that last night and it totally slipped my mind this morning.” That type of response sends the conversation down a completely different path. You can begin to see that even in conflict, these two people can manage a miscommunication well by choosing how they interact with each other.


Contempt is the uglier version of criticism. It usually comes up after a longer period of being annoyed, offended, or after having established a pattern of not feeling heard, made important, or valued. It sounds like, “You have to be either the laziest or the dumbest person on Earth. Every time I ask you to do something simple like take out the trash, you never do it. I don’t know why I even bother.” Typically, contempt is downright mean and criticizes the character of the other person. The person showing contempt talks down to the person they are upset with or hurt by and it quickly chips away at any safety or trust in the relationship.

What to Do Instead

Building a culture of appreciation is the “antidote” for contempt. Saying something like, “I really appreciate when you help around the house, especially with the trash” can be a small gesture of kindness that builds more safety and trust in the relationship rather than tearing it down. Words of appreciation, no matter how small, can speak volumes.


The last horseman is stonewalling. It’s when the brain is too flooded with heavy emotions and the person shuts down or intentionally avoids further conflict and does not pursue any resolution. It may sound like, “I’m done. This is going nowhere and it’s a waste of time even trying to talk to you.” Dead stop. Nothing more will happen to help solve the problem in this state.

What to Do Instead

Instead of stonewalling, a person who wants to try doing the opposite must be mindful about their emotions and physiology during conflict. By acknowledging feelings of annoyance or anger before they get too far or noticing rapid heartbeats, a clenched jaw, shallow breathing, or tightening muscles, this person can pause the conversation to self-soothe and come back at an agreed upon time to continue the discussion when they feel more able to be rational and productive. It could sound like, “The direction we’re headed with this conversation doesn’t seem helpful right now and I don’t want to say something I don’t really mean. Can we continue this a little later?” Studies by the Gottman Institute have shown that on average, people need about 45 minutes to calm down after having become emotionally flooded. Please note, this doesn’t mean the flooded person takes that 45 minutes to come up with a good defense or a game plan to “win” the conversation. It’s simply just time to distract the mind and body in order to release the emotions in a healthy way and come back to a normal and healthy level of functioning.

Everyone will come across at least one of these horsemen from time to time. The key is to recognize them before they get out of hand and try out the antidotes instead. If you feel you need some guidance in navigating conflict in your relationship, we would be happy to consult with you. Please contact us at 720-381-2755 or by email at tradewindstherapy at gmail dot com to schedule your first session today.

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