Are the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” present in your family business? Learn to recognize the warning signs and how to counter the problem.
While being in business with your family may not be exactly like a marital relationship, there are many similarities. One of those similarities is the need for clear and open communication. When family doesn’t communicate well, the business inevitably suffers.
Dr. John Gottman is a psychotherapist, marriage counselor, and researcher. Through his work, Gottman observed four communication behaviors that were reliable predictors of divorce. He calls these warning signs the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Those four behaviors are just as applicable to families who work together in business.
Below is a summary of each. Be honest with yourself about how many you engage in within the context of your business.
The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”
A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person.
The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using “I statements” and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?
- Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You’re so selfish.”
- Antidote: “I’m feeling left out after our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”
Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack.
Many people become defensive when being criticized. The problem is that being defensive never helps solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming the other person. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me…it’s you.” As a result, the problem isn’t resolved and the conflict escalates.
The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
- Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late. It’s your fault.”
- Antidote: “Well, part of this is my fault. I need to be more aware of time.”
Statements that come from a relative position of superiority are loaded with contempt. Displays of contempt include using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.
In the context of marriage, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce. Likewise, contempt is terribly corrosive to family relationships and to the health of your business.
The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.
- Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”
- Antidote: (Find a situation, no matter how small, that was handled appropriately and show appreciation.) “I’m impressed with the way you dealt with that issue.”
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing.
The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at the other person, or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which get you anywhere.
The only reasonable strategy is to let the other person know you need to take a break. That break should last at least 20 minutes because it will take that long for your body to physiologically calm down.
It’s crucial during this time to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”).
Spend your time doing something to change your state, calm, and distract you, like listening to music, or going for a walk.
- Stonewalling: Silence and withdrawal.
- Antidote: Take a break and reset.
What to Do Next
Did you recognize yourself, or a family member, in the examples? Whether it’s criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling, any of the “four horsemen” can be a sign of trouble and destruction for your relationships and your family business.
The first step is recognizing the warning signs and acknowledging that none of these responses leads to problem solving, healthy relationships, or a thriving business. The next step is to be willing to change and to take action. Focus on the antidote, and you’ll see your communication, and your business, improve.
Need help having the difficult conversations?