Cold War - Toxic communication patterns that kill cooperation

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Cold War - Toxic communication patterns that kill cooperation

You leave the meeting with a boss or colleague. You feel frustrated and angry and treated unfairly. Then you might have encountered toxic communications patterns. Learn to recognize them and enable healthy communication even in times of crisis.    You have a beer, a laugh and work together. That is what flat hierarchies look like and it is perfect, right? However, there lies also danger in this close relationships. Some of the conflicts we have tend to more and more start to resemble our private conflicts. That may influence how we deal with conflict. It is not only about work anymore but things become personal. Gottman identified a few essential communication tendencies that are the coffin nail to a functioning and happy personal relationship. To my mind, these apply for business relationships likewise. Therefore, look out for signs of these communication patterns not only in your home but in the workplace as well.   



In general, getting feedback or a critique can help you to improve your work. I already wrote about how to identify good feedback and how to work with it. However, there is a certain kind of criticism that is very unspecific and not goal-directed and leaves you just hurt. Normally, these sentences start with „you always….“, „You never….“ or a similar frame. When you notice your boss or colleague show such a pattern, watch out for more negative communication patterns as this is the first warning. This form of criticism occurs in particular in situations when your boss him- or herself feels hurt. They might feel hurt because you did not live up to their expectations and disappointed them.  

How to cope with criticism?

Don’t take this form of vague criticism seriously. People tend to have biased perceptions. For example, when we search for evidence, our brains work like the filter on an online store. Once you search for blue jeans, it will only show you blue jeans. Not trousers in any other color or a cute, pink dress. This is called the availability heuristic. Once your discussion partner has made an implicit assumption about you (e.g. you turn your work in late), their brain will search for incidents that support their hypothesis. This "evidence" makes them think their hypothesis is right. Once your discussion partner starts with such a vague criticism ask them to specify the incidents and what upset them. Also, frame your complaints specific once it is your turn to communicate dissatisfaction. Instead of saying: „You turn your work always in late! It sucks.“ Rather say „It caused a lot of stress for me that you turned your work at project X in so late. I had to work overnight."



In business relationships, contempt might be not so obvious. However, people can also be mean in a subtle manner. They might not roll their eyes in front of you but behind your back. Be careful once you see a colleague or your boss treating somebody else with disrespect, mock him or her with sarcasm or similar behaviors. Especially, in flat hierarchies, this might be hidden behind the shield of „friendship“. However, once you do not have the right to mock your boss back (which you mostly will not have) and once you feel uncomfortable, this behavior is inadequate. Your boss is putting himself in a position of moral superiority with such behavior.  

How to cope with contempt?

Especially, in flat hierarchies, this is used by people who feel an urge to re-establish their superiority over others. What might be okay for your best friend to do is definitely inadequate once this behavior is shown from a superior. Make clear that you feel uncomfortable. Do not laugh along or play it down. Not when it happens to you and not when you see it happening to others. When you have encountered the first two behaviors you are most likely to show the last two behaviors: Defensiveness and stonewalling. 



As a way of protecting yourself, you might start to get defensive. We shift the burden of responsibility to others and are not likely to accept any fault. However, no excuse will invalidate the „You are always/never…“-claim made. As the claim is only related to a biased perception or a vague feeling and not so much to factual evidence. As the criticism made us feel hurt and personally attacked, we start to fight back.  

Why not get defensive?

Your discussion has left the content level and has become personal once you criticize or get criticized in the way described above or once someone starts to claim a moral superiority over the other. You are not your tasks and failures! Treating you like your tasks shows lack of respect and understanding for you as a person. Once you realized that somebody has criticized you unfairly or mocked you, do not try to defend yourself or shift responsibility. This will only escalate the situation and will show that you have accepted the other person’s claims made. Rather, try to bring the discussion back to a content level.



A very common second reaction is „stonewalling“, where you completely withdraw from the situation. Once the behaviors above are shown in a hierarchical setting this reaction is quite common. In the past, I caught myself showing this behavior, too. You simply do not know what to say. You feel treated unfairly, however, you can not say anything. One reason might be that you fail to analyze and de-construct the framing and clearly say what you are upset about. You just have the feeling that something is wrong here. A second reason might be that you do not dare to say something critical against your boss. Therefore, you end up just sitting there in silence. Once you have a person in front of you who appears absent minded you know that something has gone incredibly wrong.   


Why not "stonewall"?

Once one party starts to stonewall solving the conflict constructively is nearly impossible. You should rather stop the discussion and get back together on a different day. Maybe include new parties to the discussion. This might help you to find your way back to the content level. 


How to avoid these toxic communication patterns?

There are two magic traits which will guide you through any difficult discussion. They will make you find a solution instead of heading to a dead end: Empathy and openness. Showing these two will instantly bring you into a cooperative mindset. You will show understanding and listen before you assume. You will not make quick and mostly wrong  judgements, but rather ask. They leave you with assuming the best from your partner instead of the worst.  

Published on Saturday 16th October 2021

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