We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another – a simple misplaced word, an ill-thought out comment, expressing an exasperated sigh or simply giving someone the cold shoulder. Although we might not assign too much significance to it at the time, it’s likely that the recipient of this behaviour doesn’t see it the same way.

Sadly nothing affects our emotional brain and our sense of wellbeing more than feeling emotionally cut off from those to whom we are most attached; be they our partner, our children or even our parents. A harsh word or a tiny expression of contempt or disgust is enough to speed up the heartbeat in the person to whom the comment is targeted.  Once the emotional brain is aroused in this way, it can rapidly turn off our ability to reason rationally. We no longer look for responses that will restore calm to the situation, instead, we become overwhelmed by our emotions and can only think in terms of defense and attack Dr. John Gottman has conducted more than 40 years of research into the factors and skills that can make or break a relationship. Over time he has identified four key attitudes and behaviours that can quickly sour even the strongest relationship.

Criticising someone’s character, instead of simply stating a grievance about a specific behaviour, can often be the first sign of trouble. Sadly it’s often something we slip into without realising. Simple criticisms such as “You’re selfish!” can easily slip out in the heat of the moment.  In all likelihood the recipient of the criticism ends up feeling attacked and potentially misunderstood. Indeed the one criticism can quickly escalate into a war of words that unless addressed appropriately can eventually lead to the destruction of your emotional connection.

Contempt is often expressed through insults and sarcasm. Comments such as: “you’re an idiot” or “yeah, whatever,” can really make us feel unloved, unheard and unappreciated.  Facial expressions, such as rolling your eyes are often all it takes to communicate contempt. When we notice these signals from someone we live with, they go straight to the heart.

When we feel like we’re being attacked, the two responses the emotional brain offers us are fight and flight.  The problem of counterattack is that it leads to only two possible outcomes. Either it provokes an escalation of hostilities or the defeated party ends up feeling wounded. Either way this only widens the emotional gap and makes living together more difficult. The other option – stonewalling – often foreshadows the final phase of a disintegrating relationship. After weeks or months of criticism, attacks and counterattacks, one party disengages; at least emotionally, a behaviour which often leads to a very unhappy end.

Simple techniques that can make all the difference

Thanks to Dr. Gottman, we now understand, to an unprecedented extent, what is going on in the heads and hearts of people in conflict. Importantly though we also know some of the secrets of success. For example, replacing judgment with an objective and specific statement of facts means that the other person will likely treat our words as an attempt to communicate rather than as an attack on his or her being.  Additionally explain how the behaviour makes you feel. If you talk about what you feel, nobody can argue with you, after all it’s your experience. By talking about yourself, you’re no longer criticizing or attacking the other person. Now you’re simply expressing your feelings, and therefore being authentic and open.

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