Tag Archives: John Gottman

Mind the Horses

When I first learned about Dr. John Gottman’s work around the ‘Four Horsemen’ I was so impressed.  By doing extensive research he had discovered four behaviors that are crucial for us all to both understand and to learn from. He based it on the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and his message was clear — We need to mind these horses!

Dr. Gottman, after spending countless hours with couples, applies his work surrounding the story of the “Four Horsemen” to the marriage relationship.  My take on the matter is that these principles can be applied to ALL of our relationships, including the one with money —  Yes, you do actually have a relationship with money!  And the horses can give you insight on how that relationship is going.

As long as there have been horses, people have been tasked to mind their horse, meaning to pay attention to what it’s doing.  I think understanding and minding these particular horses is essential to all our relationships and interactions.  Dr. Gottman has given us four of them to be attentive to:

  • Blaming or Criticism: We know this one, right?  It’s all about judgment and more snarky than a complaint.  We may complain about something, but when we add a bit of character assassination, it turns into blaming.
  • Defending:  This one really got my attention when I read what Dr. Gottman said about it.  You see, defending is really veiled blaming.  “The dog ate my homework” shifts the responsibility away from you and to the dog.  It just tends to add more blaming, instead of calming things down.
  • Contempt:  This one is more about tone and intent than the actual words.  It includes things like sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, and name-calling.  The best example is Dan Aykroyd’s classic opening Point/Counter-Point line on Saturday Night Live with Jane Curtin:  “Jane, you ignorant slut…” Literally anything can be said in a contemptuous manner.
  • Stonewalling: This one is all about distancing and disengaging.  It’s the ultimate cold-shoulder.  It increases the frustration of the person who is talking to you if you don’t respond or even look at the person.  The word really says it.   Originally it was a noun, meaning “an act of obstruction.”

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that these ‘horses’ tend to travel in pairs.  Blaming and Defending trot along together, as do Contempt and Stonewalling.  And they both stir up a bunch of dust.  I liken this to the Wild Horse Race at the Rodeo.  If there an issue worth paying attention to in the center of the arena — Like an important topic to be discussed — it will be invisible and ignored, shrouded in all the dust and fury of the horses galloping around.

Okay, so there they are — four horses.  And what do we do about them?  It’s really a three-step process:

  • First, when you find yourself facing a ‘horse’ you repeat this mantra as many times as needed: ‘It’s not about me, it’s not about me, it’s NOT about me….’
  • Second, you avoid getting on a ‘horse’.  Stop, don’t ride at all.  Dismount.
  • Third, in order to help the other person dismount their ‘horse’ try this:
    • Instead of joining them on a ‘horse’, try acknowledging the ‘feeling’ underneath the uneasiness by saying something like:  “Wow, I get when that happens it really bothers you.” Notice that you aren’t agreeing, or surrendering, or apologizing — you are acknowledging and affirming that they are in a tough spot.  It just might slow the ‘horse’.

I know, I know, easier said than done.  We all experience ‘riding horses’  in our lives.  They are in our heads and in our relationships.  Dr. Gottamn’s work can show us something deeper about your relationships.  Try this small experiment if you will.  Think of a horrible relationship from your past…we all have at least one of those to ponder.  Got one in mind?  Okay, now which specific ‘horses’ were present in your interactions with each other?  Which ‘horses’ did you ride and which ones did the other person gallop into the arena?  Now let’s ponder a different relationship. One where you and the other person got along really well. A ‘good’ one.  Any ‘horses’ there?  How does that positive interaction compare with the first one?  Finally, just for grins think about how you are with money — any ‘horses’ trotting around there?

Intriguing, isn’t it? You can see why the concept of the ‘horses’ is something I cover early on with my clients!

What’s really going on with these ‘horses’?  What’s underneath all this?  And why do I say it’s “not actually about you” when the other person is on a ‘horse’The answer is the most important thing for you to know about ‘horses’!

We get on a horse to quite literally, get a leg up.  We trot out a horse when we feel diminished — when our sense of self-worth is low or is challenged, especially when we feel powerless.  ‘Horses’ are a distracting way to pull ourselves up by laying the responsibility elsewhere.  We see it constantly.  A prime example today is road rage.  Even children can be seen getting on ‘horses’ to navigate their emotions— but they usually do it more cleanly.  It’s not hard to see when children are on a ‘horse’ because they have hurt feelings.  It’s harder as an adult to be vulnerable and admit that we feel diminished or put down — so instead we mount up and charge in!

Understanding and taming ‘horses’ matters now more than ever.  They are no longer just running around in our personal lives but are stampeding all over!  It’s time to learn to mind our own ‘horses’ with care and diligence.


Shell Tain, the Untangler

Want some help getting off a ‘horse’, or avoiding each other’s horses’?  Give me a call at 503-258-1630 or leave a comment.

Communication Lines Open

One of the greatest things about working with clients is the phrases they come up with to help them develop new habits and techniques.  A favorite of mine, an homage to Star Trek, was a mindset one client came up with to help him focus on several goals when facing difficult situations and conversations.  It went: Shields Up, Weapons Down, Communication Lines Open!’

Basically that would translate to something like:

  • Shields Up — be cautious, don’t let your guard down, and feel safe against a perceived attack with no need to be “defensive”
  • Weapons Down —  stay calm, no “horses” (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling, per John Gottman’s Four Horsemen), no need to feel like you have
    to “fight back”
  • Communication Lines Open — be ready to listen carefully, really paying attention to what the other person is saying, and respond thoughtfully

It’s much easier to say the phase than it would be to relay the underlying meanings. Your brain already knows what all this means—unless of course you have spent the last 60-plus years on the planet “No-television-us“!  In a way it’s even more spectacular than knowing “exactly” what it means.  When you set up a situation with this Star Trek reference in mind, the neuro-pathways in your brain, where all those characters and species live, light up. You tap into an amazing library of techniques and approaches to employ.  You have models in front of you for diplomacy and “calmness under fire“.

Which leads me to digress, ever so slightly, to that favorite question to ask your friends.  “Who’s your favorite Star Trek Captain?”  Again, one of those places where the one bit of information tells you more about the person than you might think.  There is a big difference in the way Kirk handled a crisis and the way Picard did—pretty telling stuff!  Kirk was a ‘cowboy’ rushing in with guns blaring.  It made for good drama, but is “drama” what we want in our exchanges with others? Picard was thoughtful and diplomatic, which meant less fist-fighting and phaser fire, but usually far calmer interactions with whoever was on the other side.

What do you really want from a challenging interaction?  Create a list of how you want a troublesome conversation to go.  No, really, make a list right now.  I’ll wait…

Okay, list made?  Now what items on your list are out of your control?  You know those ones like:

  • They admit they are wrong
  • They agree with me
  • It is 100{d17d1c7cbc79c3528c645ea839b9b4dcb45f699f05bb148e76e09641ba980643} my way
  • They believe what I believe

I’m sure you have more, and the main point is that trying to get others to actually think and feel the way you do is like that old saw:  “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and irritates the pig.” What you can strive for is improved communication and an understanding by both sides.

Which leads to another sticking point in difficult conversations.  Many of us feel like we have to tell everyone everything, all our feelings, all our reasons.  Frankly my sense is that most of this comes from being in families with sticky boundaries.  Not only do we not have to tell all that, it’s frequently better not to.  I like to think of this as the “need to know” principle.

  • Is it really relevant to the discussion? (I.e., will sharing it really help to resolve the problem?)
  • Is it more personal than you’d really like to share?
  • Would it create more problems than it would fix to share that bit of information?

The next time you have a complaining customer—or get into a political discussion with Uncle Fred—give these ideas a try, and see how it’s different when you are prepared and ready to “Make it so!”


Shell Tain, The Untangler

If you’d test out a couple of new techniques to help you boldly go in the direction of easier conversations, give me  a call at  503-258-1630 or check out my website at www.sensiblecoaching.com.