Disagreeing Well


In the last few weeks Irish lamp-posts have been filling up with posters hoping to sway the undecided one way or the other in the upcoming referendum which has me thinking about the way we communicate our opinions, viewpoints and beliefs.

American researchers John Gottman & Julie Gottman have spent decades studying patterns between people, highlighting 4 styles of communication seen in unhealthy relationships monikered “The Four Horsemen”; these are:

Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness & Stonewalling

When these are present, the suggestion is that transparent, healthy communication is unlikely, as a “we’re in this together” approach to relationship is relegated in favour of a head to head mindset, seeking domination through one-upmanship in words, action or opinion. 

One-to-one relationships rely on good communication, as does the ideas of building a society, dependent on these large groups of often disparate individuals relating to one another in productive ways. The difficulty of this is highlighted in times like the ones we face now, where divisive issues on which passionately held views are held are being decided. 

How often when communicating differing opinions, and speaking of those who hold an alternative view in our society do we see one or more of these ‘Four Horsemen’ appear?

Do we see contempt toward or about “the other”, harsh words spoken about their beliefs, character and selves?

Do we see criticism of those who hold the opposing belief? Questioning their approach and the methods in which they arrive at their views?

Do we see entrenchment and a defensiveness that refuses to acknowledge or accept blame or flaws in our opinion? 

Or do we see such depth of certainty in opinion that we see refusal to even engage in conversation, choosing to stonewall the other rather than be seen giving credence to another view?

Perhaps we see these patterns because of the subject matter, in which people passionately want those on the other side to change their mind or their opinions, but we need to ask ourselves, how does a change of position really come about?

Does it arrive in the style of campaign posters; short, sharp, controversial sound bites filled with criticism and contempt tossed at each other like little grenades aimed to hurt, dehumanise and discredit? When this is the case it seems that the opposite of change results; feeling under attack our response is often to build stronger defences, pushing us deeper into the belief that our own viewpoint is the correct one, making further vilification of the other an easy task.  

What’s the alternative? Could it be dialogue? Rather than shouting across the void, choosing instead to lower the sturdily built defences to offer one another the opportunity to share their side, the stories that have brought them to so strongly hold this position? 

This way is a risk for those desperate to call others to their side, because perhaps no one will change their mind. Perhaps we return to our respective sides undeterred from the beliefs we held. Change in the vein we hoped for may elude us, but as we return, we may feel less of a need to once more build those walls that divide and define us so forcefully in the midst of our disagreements. 

We may still hold different viewpoints, we may still vote a different way, but we will recognise in that shared space that healthy society is one where we communicate not with contempt or criticism, but respect and mutual acknowledgement, even (and especially) when we disagree. When the signs on the lamppost come down and the last vote is cast, we must remember that those on the other side of the trench from ours are those with whom we are woven with into this big idea of a society; neighbours, friends, co-workers, family, those who we have to look in the eye and live alongside in the days and weeks to come. 

“Beyond right thinking and wrong thinking there is a field, I will meet you there.” Rumi



For more information about The Four Horsemen, see the excellent research coming out of The Gottman Institute, and if you'd like to talk further about communication habits or patterns you see in your own relationships get in touch on our contact page.

Tom Tate