The Four Team Toxins and Their Antidotes

22 APRIL 2018  /  BY NORUN LAAHNE THOMASSEN

Relationship expert and best-selling author Dr. John Gottman has identified four specific behaviors that often get in the way of communication and strong, collaborative relationships: Blaming, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.

When used frequently, these toxic communication patterns are so lethal to human relationships that Dr. Gottman calls them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1).

In the context of teams, they are usually referred to as “The Four Team Toxins.”

The Four Team Toxins

As team toxins tend to trigger one another, they typically come as a sequence of destructive interactions that start with blaming and then spill over into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

  • Blaming

    Blaming consists of verbally criticizing someone’s character rather than attacking their argument or complaining about a failed behavior. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt.

  • Defensiveness

    Defensiveness is protecting yourself from criticism, exposure of your shortcomings, or other real or perceived threats to the ego. The problem with defensiveness is that its perceived effect is blame. It’s like saying: “The problem is not me, it’s you.”

  • Contempt

    Contempt is truly treating others meanly with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless. Contempt is the most poisonous of all team toxins – it destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health (2).

  • Stonewalling

    Stonewalling is shutting yourself off from the other person and withdrawing from the interaction rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate). This is achieved by cutting off communication, engaging in silent treatments, and making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. This is also the land of passive-aggressive behavior.

The Antidotes

Nobody is perfect, and we all tend to fall prey to these toxic behaviors, be it at home or in the office. It is therefore perfectly normal that team toxins occur even in the most successful relationships. The difference is that in strong and healthy relationships they occur less frequently, and when they do, the parties are more effective at neutralizing them.

Awareness of the team toxins and being able to identify them when they appear, both in our own behavior and that of others, is a necessary first step to eliminating them. However, knowledge alone is not enough. We must also learn to replace these toxins with more constructive and healthy behaviors – the so-called “antidotes.”

Below, you will find a powerful mixture of antidotes consisting of assertiveness, constructive communication, positivity & appreciation, as well as a healthy dose of playfulness.

Assertiveness & Curiosity

Assertiveness is the ability to set healthy boundaries by confidently standing up for your own rights, while also respecting the rights of other people.

Remember that if someone behaves in a toxic way, it usually says more about them than about you. If you take it personally, it is like agreeing with what is being communicated, and as soon as you agree, the poison goes right through you.

You can train yourself to remain calm and confront others assertively, even if you need to tell them that you are very upset by their behavior. Make a decision that you will not respond aggressively and will also not be submissive and let them get away with the toxic behavior. Some useful communication techniques are described in the subsequent section.

Moreover, realize that the aggressor might not be a bad person. Hold the attitude that they behave this way because they care about what you do, not because they want to make you feel bad. It is simply their unskillful attempt to give useful feedback, or maybe they are just having a bad day.

Acknowledge that you might play some role in the problem. Get curious and search for the 2% truth in what you are hearing. Express an interest in the other person, and ask questions to find out what they are observing, feeling, and needing. When you do this, you might find that you can have a real dialogue with them and work through the problem together.

Sometimes criticism might also help you to identify behavioral blind spots, i.e., things that you don’t notice yourself, but which other people notice, such as the unintended impact of facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc. Take responsibility for your behavior and apologize when appropriate.

Constructive Communication

Poor communication is often the cause of conflict, especially within a multi-cultural environment. Therefore, one of the best ways to prevent conflict is to improve your communication skills and learn how to give and receive constructive feedback. Below are some common techniques that you might find useful in this regard.

Manage the Intent/Impact Gap

When interacting with others, we tend to judge ourselves by our intent, while others judge us by our impact. Between our intent and the impact of our intent, there can be many misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions, and the extent of this gap tends to be massively underestimated.

When you are aware of it, however, you can take concrete steps to bridge the intent/impact gap before any important discussion (e.g., by using the COIN feedback method described below). When you find yourself on the receiving end of a message, you can also ask questions to help clarify the other person’s intention, instead of making your own assumptions.

Stop – Breathe – Notice – Reflect – Respond

The “Stop – Breathe – Notice – Reflect – Respond” technique is a powerful mindfulness tool developed by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute to avoid being blindsided by emotion when dealing with a tense situation. It helps you to ground yourself and gain enough time to prepare a constructive response (e.g., by using the COIN feedback method described below).

When feeling triggered, pause and take a couple of conscious breaths to gain time. Scan your body, and notice any physical sensations. This gives your logical mind time to regain control, so that you can reflect on the underlying feeling, whether there is a history behind your reaction, and what might be the most helpful response for everyone involved. It takes practice to get good at this technique, but you can do it on your own by mentally replaying a stressful situation and thinking about how you could have handled it differently.

Remember that you always have the right to ask for a time-out whenever you feel emotionally overwhelmed. Claim your space, and focus on calming your body either through meditation or a relaxation technique, or by doing something soothing and distracting like listening to music or taking a walk around the block.

COIN Conversations

The COIN acronym provides an easy-to-remember, four-step process that you can use for difficult feedback conversations. Since steps two and three in the process are slightly aggressive, all four steps must be done in order for the process to be effective.

The method is not guaranteed to work in every situation; however, the chances of success are good if both parties have a vested interest in maintaining a good working relationship.

  • Connection

    Connect to the other person’s goals and interests by acknowledging something that is important to them, or provide context for the issue or topic you would like to discuss. Example: “I know that one of your personal goals is to get promoted…”

  • Observation

    Share specific, accurate, and quick factual observations about their behavior in a neutral way and without passing any judgment. Example: “Recently, I have noticed that you always come late to our weekly meetings…”

  • Impact

    Clarify the impact that their actions had on you, the team, or the business in order to inspire empathy. Use “I” statements, and focus on feelings, not facts and logic. Example: “When you don’t show up on time, I get the feeling you don’t think it is important, or that you don’t respect my time…”

  • Next

    Tell them what you need from them, and suggest or ask for their ideas on what could/should be done differently in the future. It is important to remain encouraging and to focus on finding an agreement about how to be more effective. Example: “So, I would like you to commit to being on time for our next meetings. Is that OK? How do you think we can make sure that happens?

Remember that feedback is something best delivered in a timely fashion, and the main intention should be to help the other person grow.

People are less defensive and more receptive when they understand that you are aware of their challenges, interested in their development, and appreciative of their efforts. As a result, difficult conversations are much easier to navigate if you have invested time in building trust beforehand.

Positivity and Appreciation

According to Dr. Gottman’s research, healthy relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity during conflict discussions. Positive interactions between people include displays of interest, humor, empathy, and affirming body language, like eye contact and head nodding. Consequently, building a “reservoir” of positivity helps us to deal with the team toxins whenever they show up.

The best way to build up positivity in a relationship is to cultivate an attitude of appreciation that is composed of respect, gratitude, fondness, friendship, and admiration towards the other person(s) and by acknowledging what they are doing right. This is a mental habit that everyone can master by becoming more aware of their thoughts and emotional reactions to others.

Remember that respect must be given, not earned. If you don’t respect someone, it means that you are unable to see the greatness, creativity, and resourcefulness that live in every person.

When you take the time to notice and express to other people what they do that makes your life easier and makes you smile, they feel validated, and validation is a powerful thing. We all want to feel honored and respected, and we want our actions to be accepted and appreciated.

Playfulness

A playful way to help reduce toxic behavior in work teams is to keep a “Toxins Bowl” in the office. Create a rule that whenever someone uses a toxin, they must put a coin in the bowl. Afterwards, you can decide to spend the money collected on a positivity-building activity, like a team lunch or a get-together after work.

Alternatively, you can use a set of gaming tokens in four different colors – one color representing each team toxin. Bring the Toxins Bowl to meetings, and assign a team member to be responsible for placing a token in the bowl whenever a toxin appears in the discussions. Remember, the point should not be to blame specific team members. For this reason, the bowl should be placed in the middle of the meeting table.

Conclusion

In order to deal with team toxins on a daily basis, make a habit of noticing which toxins tend to show up in your own relationships, and reflect on which antidotes can best help you to neutralize these behaviors, whether you are the giver or the receiver.

As a recipient, your responsibility is to learn to respond in a constructive way instead of just reacting with more counterproductive toxic behavior. Generally, team toxins have their root in powerlessness; they normally happen when people are otherwise feeling powerless vis-à-vis the situation in which they find themselves. Therefore, when someone is using toxins, you need to bring them more into their power, rather than just make them feel even more powerless.

I encourage you to find your own antidotes and come up with creative techniques to help eliminate team toxins. At the same time, know that any technique you apply is only as good as the genuine intentions behind your actions. If you cultivate the right attitude, you may not need a specific technique.

Focus on who you want to be, regardless of what other people say or do. When you refrain from using these toxic behaviors, you will see that the people around you will stop using them as well, because toxins cannot live alone.

Notes

(1) The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (conquest, war, hunger, and death) are metaphors that depict the end of time in the New Testament.

(2) In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (e.g., colds, flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken. According to Dr. Gottman, contempt is the worst of the four horsemen and the single greatest predictor of divorce.

References

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