In my HR and L&D days, folk would often complain that so-and-so doesn’t communicate and can we please send them on a Communication Skills course. Hmm… These were the days… of L&D budget being regularly misspent…

This is what I have learnt since…


Communication is a relational skill, it does not exist in isolation.

People talking to themselves turn heads and not in a good way.

To communicate is to express who we are, how we see the world, what we value, what we think we deserve, what we need, what we believe we can contribute, what we are prepared to give, what we dare to ask for.

When we communicate, we share ourselves with others and therefore to communicate well has more to do with our sense of self and the level of self-awareness than the timbre of our voice.


Communication is not a soft skill, it’s a core skill.

What makes it so?

About 35 years ago, John Gottman (PhD) of the Gottman Institute, initiated a piece of research that changed the perception of what we thought of the impact of communication in relationships. Gottman’s initial research was done with couples and has since been applied to other relationships. What Gottman discovered, after years of meticulous research and observations, is that he could predict with over 90% accuracy, which couple would stay married and which would divorce in the next 10 years.    

In relationships that broke down, the pattern of communication would invariably include 4 toxic styles or elements, which Gottman later called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

Toxic Communication Style


Impact on Another

Blame & Criticism

  • Harsh start-up, accusatory rather than inquiring
  • Attack on the person rather than behaviour – ‘character assassination’
  • Hurt, fear, feeling attacked or bullied, losing one’s voice, rabbit in headlights, no space to think
  • Embarrassment at attempts to explain or justify, feeling like an idiot, resentment

Frequently leads to Defensiveness


  • It’s not my fault’, refusal to take responsibility for even a small part
  • Victim mindset, disempowerment
  • Anger, powerlessness and frustration at not being able to get through to someone
  • Feeling enraged by ‘talking to a brick wall’, resorting to blame and pushing responsibility even harder

Frequently leads to Blame


  • Blame on steroids – added element being an air of superiority and looking down on someone
  • Sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, hostile humour, name calling, eye-rolling
  • Humiliation, fear, shock, numbing, unable to act, paralysis
  • Losing one’s voice, feeling small and worthless, hurt pride, resentment, hate

Frequently leads to Defensiveness or Stonewalling


  • Cutting off communication, silent treatment, blank face (while trying to regain composure)
  • Refusal to engage, withdrawal, lack of connection
  • Powerlessness, fear and despair at failure to establish a line of communication and connection
  • Frustration, anger, rage

Frequently leads Attack or Contempt

The element that often gets embedded in relationships that keeps them stuck, is the pattern of one toxin evoking another and so when blamed, we often resort to defensiveness, contempt leads to stonewalling and vice versa.


To communicate well is to allow ourselves to be seen and being seen is inherently vulnerable. 

What gets in the way and what can we do?

What gets in the way of us being seen, is the very fear of us being seen. We fear that what could be revealed is usually a tender underbelly of our human nature, our need to belong, to be loved, to be taken care of, respected, admired, appreciated and to feel like we are important and we matter. 

Seen through the lens of compassion, a useful perspective to hold on the function of a toxic communication pattern is its intention, however unskilfully expressed, to protect us. 

Toxic Style

How is it Trying to Help or Protect? 


Blame & Criticism

  • Needing to get something done and done well, focus on outcome, making something happen
  • A way to discharge pain and discomfort. If I blame you, I can’t blame myself. I can avoid feeling like I failed or I am deficient.
  • Soft start-up using curiosity: Talk me through it, what happened?
  • Sharing assumptions: The story I am making up is that you don’t care about this project. 
  • Feed Forward – making a request for the future: Next time when this happens, will you let me know sooner? 
  • Assume positive intent and shift critical focus from the person to behaviour: I know you meant well, but when you don’t ask for help, I assume everything is running smoothly. v Stop being so proud and cagey.


  • Space for processing, recovery and reflection.
  • Admitting I am an imperfect human being and that I might have failed is just too painful to process in the moment. 
  • Shift from I am a mistake to I made a mistake. Shifting from character to behaviour with curiosity softens perspective and enables us to learn and improve.   
  • If there was only 2% truth in what the other person is saying, what might you own?
  • Apologise for the wrongdoing. 


  • Attempt to protect a sense of identity – I am better than you because of xyz.  
  • Cutting humour and language may serve as a way to deflect pain and set boundary if more skilful strategies are not available.
  • Engage in personal development, contempt is the most harmful and trust eroding communication style for both the giver and receiver. It’s the most accurate predictor of divorce in Gottman’s research. 
  • Practise respectful communication.
  • Find and voice something that you appreciate about the other person.


  • Taking time and space to self-soothe and recover. Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt which is highly toxic and taking time out is appropriate. 
  • Waiting it out with the intention to pacify the situation later and prevent it escalating.
  • Space for processing, recovery and reflection.
  • Articulate that the need to take time out to process is important and non-negotiable and if possible re-engage at a later date. Transparency about one’s process prevents potential emotional escalation.
  • Respect your voice as being a fundamental voice in the relationship. 
  • If unable to resolve breakdown in communication, seek mediation.


In organisations, the compounding nature of toxic communication leads to toxic cultures and these, in order to shift, require a mighty collective endeavour. The way we communicate changes depending on who we talk to, the power dynamic between us and perceived level of psychological safety. The truth is, work places are rarely an example of a safe haven of psychological well-being.

It’s often also the case, that when working with a team, the 4 Horsemen become more frequent visitors. The truth is we made the invisible visible, and therefore through awareness both choice and change become accessible and relationships may shift and flourish. 

If you would like to watch the hilarious John Gottman in action, click here. He is a delight to listen to. 

If you would like to explore this topic further, please get in touch. Bringing these skills to life in a team dramatically enhances collaboration, connection and collective capability of the team.