Leaders Build Relationships by Avoiding Criticism

Building and maintaining positive relationships take work and intentionality. Needless to say, relationships are easier in the absence of strong emotion and conflict. But when conflict leads to strong emotions, we have a prime opportunity to build trust and strengthen those relationships. On the flip side, when conflict results in emotional flooding, the human tendency is to react with relationship-destroying responses.

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington is the leading researcher and expert on relationships. Though he specializes in marital and intimate relationships, his work has relevance in workplace relationships as well, especially concerning conflict. This post is the first in a series of five discussing Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are behaviors which destroy relationships. We will wrap up the series by discussing blind spots.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

The First Horsemen: Criticism

We all have complaints about our co-workers. Ricardo doesn’t clean out the microwave after he uses it. Ellen is late to meetings. Hugo turns in his reports fifteen minutes after the deadline. Francine interrupts during conversations. How these situations are handled fall into one of two categories: complaints or criticism.

A complaint is verbal annoyance about a person’s behavior. Ricardo’s behavior is that he doesn’t clean up after himself; Ellen’s behavior is her lack of punctuality; Hugo’s behavior is not following through on deadlines; and Francine’s behavior is interrupting. 

In contrast, criticism is an attack on someone’s character. For example, Ricardo’s a slob; Ellen is always late; Hugo is selfish; and Francine is rude. These labels go to the core of someone’s being.

Criticism is the most common Horsemen in relationships. If you have a solid relationship with someone, they can likely handle some criticism. When criticism is pervasive, however, it leads to the other three Horsemen, which are far more destructive.

Antidotes for Criticism

Firstly, remember the other person is a person, just like you. No one likes to be criticized.

Secondly, avoid words like always and never. These are highly triggering words and usually not true. We use them for emotional effect to either punish the other person or inflict pain.

Third, begin a conversation with what Gottman calls a “gentle start up.” When we’re upset, frustrated, or angery, we often come across harshly. Instead of beginning with a you statement (“You didn’t clean out the microwave again.”), begin with an I statement. To create your gentle start up, ask yourself two questions, then begin with those:

  1. How do I feel?
  2. What do I need?


  • “I don’t feel respected when I’m interrupted. I need my thoughts to be heard.”
  • “Hey, Ricardo. Would you please clean out the microwave after you use it?” (A BSaAFWYW would work great here!)
  • “Ellen, can I talk to you for a second? I feel frustrated when you show up late. I need to begin meetings on time, because I have another meeting after this one.” (Behavior-Outcome model.)
  • “Hugo, I feel anxious when the reports aren’t submitted on time. Would please get them to me no later than 3:00PM on Fridays?” (I statement + BSaAFWYW.)

Curbing criticism before it becomes a problem can stop the arrival of the other three Horsemen and build trusting relationships.

Thanks for reading,

DeAnne Negley

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