Contempt & Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


Conflict is inevitable in any relationship and it is not a sign of a problem, even though it often has that connotation in American culture. Conflict is an opportunity for understanding and, frankly, a reality that needs to be skillfully managed. Luckily, it’s possible to improve your conflict management skills.

Dr. John Gottman is a famous psychologist who predicted divorce with 91% accuracy.  For nearly 50 years, he’s studied the science of relationships. He was able to predict divorce with 91% accuracy by identifying 4 patterns in conflict:  Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.  These patterns predict the end of relationships whether it's a marriage, company cultures, management teams, or business partnerships. They are called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  

Contempt is the most corrosive and predictive of the Horsemen.  Gottman called Contempt: “Sulfuric Acid for Connection” 

Contempt typically sounds like criticism with a crucial difference. Contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over the other. The most common behavior associated with Contempt was the THE EYE ROLL, according to Dr. John Gottman’s research. And in the workplace it can often sound like “You’re overworked? Cry me a river. I’ve been dealing with all the most important strategic priorities. I don’t have time to deal with your issues.” Someone feeling Contempt feels BETTER than the other. Expressing negativity combined with superiority drives the relationship apart.

Contempt often feels like intense heat inside the chest and head area. And some people feel heat and tension in their hands as well. Emotions often show up as sensations in our bodies. Studies show emotional sensations have common signatures across cultures.

If you feel Contempt in an important relationship, it’s best not to express it in the moment and instead do the following things:

  • Exit the conversation
  • Let your body reset
  • Pick up the discussion later from a more calm place

Fortunately, there are practices that can prevent the corrosive behavior and facilitate productive, healthy conflict. In order to  insulate your partnerships and teams from Contempt create a “Culture of Appreciation”

  • Remind yourself of your partner’s or colleagues’ positive qualities.
  • Find and express gratitude regularly to them.

Sharing your appreciation for the great things about your partnerships and teams insulates against Contempt.. As Dr. Andrew Huberman points out, gratitude’s powerful impact is upon HEARING it from another:

In addition to your own relationship, the four horsemen behaviors, especially exhibited by leaders, will kill any semblance of psychological safety you might care about building within your teams too. Know these death traps so you can navigate around them and learn to embrace conflict as an opportunity instead of something to be avoided.

To summarize:

  1. Understand the powerful destructive force that is Contempt
  2. Learn where to feel it in yourself and how to spot it in others (eye roll)
  3. Practice gratitude - create a culture of appreciation in your partnerships to insulate against contempt

Read More