Communication breakdowns are inevitable when you are trying to build a culture of candor on your team or in your organization. The first step in minimizing these painful events is by learning to recognize your own contribution to them.

University of Washington psychologist John Gottman identified four communication behaviors that derail relationships so consistently he calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” In fact, his research shows that the presence of these behaviors predicts the end of a marital relationship with 90% accuracy!

Thankfully, a simple acronym- ABCDs- can help you remember these derailers. ABCDs stands for Avoid Blame, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Here is a quick description of each behavior.

Blame: Attacking the character of the other person instead of focusing on a specific behavior.

Contempt: Expressing disrespect and superiority through sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humor, eye-rolling.

Defensiveness: Protecting oneself through righteous indignation, denial, or playing the victim.

Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the conversation without resolving anything.

According to Gottman, each of these communication behaviors is damaging but each has a remedy – an alternative behavior that can be learned.

* If you notice yourself defaulting to blame, pause for a moment and restate blame as an “I” statement in which you describe what’s not working for you and a request.
* When you notice yourself expressing contempt for another person, recommit to treating the other with unconditional respect and appreciation (what all humans deserve), even in the face of frustration or conflict.
* If you notice yourself becoming defensive, take responsibility by asking yourself, “What am I contributing to this situation?”
* If your tendency is to stonewall or go “radio silent,” ask for a short break from the conversation with a clear promise to return within 20 minutes.

The ABCDs acronym is an easy tool for diagnosing a deteriorating interaction and making a quick adjustment at the moment. When you sense a communication breakdown ask yourself: How might I be contributing to this breakdown (ABCDs)? What’s the very next thing I can do?

Let me know how this works for you.

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