On the backdrop of this pandemic, 3 of my married friends are going through a divorce, and 2 of my clients are looking for a new job. When I heard their stories, the patterns were shockingly similar: if we are skillful at noticing these patterns, the undesired outcomes could be preempted. In this article, I will share strategies and tips you can immediately apply to build a new relationship with conflict.

In his book “the 7 principles of making marriage work”, Dr. John Gottman shares his findings about the 4 team toxins, or “the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse”. These toxins are the nucleus of disagreements, in our personal and work relationships. Bad news, good news: bad news first, 69% of the issues we encounter in our relationships are perpetual, meaning they will stay regardless of the partner or team member. The good news is that these perpetual issues can be managed through dialogue and effective communication. Our automatic solution of changing relationships, by changing a partner, or firing an employee, will change the ‘set of issues’, but won’t eliminate them!

How can we better manage our conflicts?

As we practice noticing the toxins and properly responding to their presence, we are one step closer to skillful conflict management. I will describe the 4 toxins, share 9 tips to counter them, then detail a 5-part process for more effective communication.

The 4 team toxins:

Consider a relationship in your life that is burdened by signs of chronic criticalness, bullying, attack, and domination. These are the signs of the first toxin: Blame. Using blame underlies an unsuccessful attempt at sharing the real need behind the complaint.

Tip #1: Complain about the behavior instead of the person. Instead of saying “You never send me the reports on time”, insinuating that the person is always late, irresponsible, and unprofessional, you can say “I don’t like to be late in preparing the end-of-year budget; it would be amazing if we can get those reports on time going forward. If there is anything I can do to support in that regard, please let me know.”

Tip #2: Do not start with “You never, “You always”, or “You are”. Use instead: “I need” and “I feel” – the cornerstones of non-violent communication. For example, “I feel we are running behind, any chance we can speed up the process and get those reports faster? Is there anything I can help you with?”

Tip #3: Find the embedded need in the blame. “I am hearing you say you need the reports sent on time, correct?” This opens the dialogue and the possibility of coming to a resolution, instead of spinning the discussion into a sterile debate over who is doing what to whom.

Defensiveness is the second team toxin. It typically shows up as an answer to a blameful comment. It is simply a disguised form of blame: “it is not me; it is you”. Usually, people get defensive when they do not feel heard. Think of a relationship where defensiveness is strongly present and see how the following antidotes could support you in nudging the situation forward.

Tip #4: One of my all-time favorites, in conflict and in coaching overall, is the 2% truth. What could be 2% true in what I am being accused of? Not 100%, just 2%. There will be a tremendous amount of new information if you allow this 2% truth to guide your next step. This is not easy, but the benefits are enormous.

One of my clients, during this pandemic, switched to working from home. He had quite a long commute to his original work location. When the first lockdown was removed, he felt he would rather work from home rather than commute 4 hours by train. His boss requested from him to travel once a week, and my client thought that it is not fair to be put in such a situation at this point. He counter offered to commute once every two weeks and supported his offer with evidence, including legal support, as to why he has the right to work from home. Technically he was right. Defensiveness got him a few (yet painful) months of working from home, but the problem festered over that same period, and both my client and his boss did not get over the situation. A few weeks ago, he was let go by his boss. The 2% truth is that, even if, rightfully so, the request might seem unfair, the boss needed something else. Going over the scenario, we found, a little too late, different underlying needs that could have been addressed. Meanwhile, lesson learned, being defensive obviously did not solve his problem.

Tip #5: Show your partner that you respect and trust them and that their image is not at stake; this might lower their defenses. This is also one of the mistakes that were made in the previous scenario. Showing the boss that they are plain wrong, without being open to influence, could push your boss (who can always revert to rank and power) to take undesirable steps.

Remember that behind every blame, there is a need. Always ask: “what do you need?”, and make sure the tone is curious and supportive.

The third toxin is contempt. It includes sarcasm, belittling, name-calling, cynicism and conveys disgust, disrespect and superiority. This has been shown to be the most harmful toxin to relationships and has negative health effects on both the giver and the receiver. It is the result of long, simmering, unresolved conflicts. In the recent US presidential elections, there was a wide display of contempt on several occasions.

Tip #6: When you catch yourself using any attributes of contempt, stop immediately.

Tip #7: Invest in friendship, in your personal and work relationship. For leaders who still wonder about the benefits of investing in team building initiatives and showing other team members care, this a compelling reason why.

Tip #8: If you are the victim of contemptuous treatment, express your feelings and experience “I am feeling hurt and disrespected” and ask the other party: “What is your intention in saying that? Is this the impact you wish to have?”

The last of the four toxins is Stonewalling. In all the workshops I have held around effective communication, this by far is the most commonly used. It is also referred to as “the silent treatment”. Stonewalling is characterized by avoidance, not being open to influence, uncooperativeness, passivity, and disengagement. It is not to be confused with flooding, where we must remove ourselves from the situation and calm down, for at least 20 mins, to allow our brains to revert back to normal functioning and continue having a conversation.

Tip #9: Question your fear of speaking: what fear is preventing you from speaking openly to your boss, partner, or team member? Ensure a safe space where all parties can freely voice their fears and concerns.

Practice being aware of the 4 horsemen in every interaction. There are plenty of opportunities where we can identify them: while watching a movie, a TV series, the news, your kids, or yourself in action. Educate your partners and team members about them as well and use the antidotes to circumvent them.

Most importantly, these toxins do not live alone. If someone is blaming you, for example, and you are able to identify the behavior, immediately countering with active listening and checking what the real need is will make the toxin disappear and you will have a constructive discussion that will undoubtedly lead to new actions and forward momentum.

A roadmap for managing conflict

Remember, if you choose to take this not-so-easy path, that of “having those difficult conversations”, it is because you care. You care about your team and you care about your stakeholders: in that case, it is not about entering a win-lose battle, it is about how we can achieve our common goal:

1-   Start with your Intention: what is the purpose of entering into this conversation?

2-   Lean onto your team’s Vision: why is it important for us to have this conversation?

3-   Plan the Outcome: what action or outcome do I want out of this conversation?

4-   Think about your Impact: What impact do I want to have on the other party, and how do I want them to feel, after the conversation?

5-   Preempt the 4 toxins: How will I react when I identify one of the four toxins?

Take the time needed to prepare for the conversation before stepping into that room, answering the above questions, and you have much higher chances of achieving your desired outcomes. As always, practice makes perfect.

Many people shy away from conflict, and by no means this article is meant to portray this process as an easy task. Yet, once you get acquainted with the 4 toxins and their antidotes, start noticing them around you, and follow the roadmap above – intention, vision, outcome, impact – your relationship to conflict will change: you will be more skillful at resolving conflict and you will reap the many benefits of including the different needs of all the stakeholders involved. It is a win-win situation!